Tuesday 8 July 2014

Impeccably turned out: Corney & Barrow company profile

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

In 1992 Corney & Barrow did something that earned it the opprobrium of its peers. ‘Bastards, renegades and traitors was what our noble friends in London called us,’ Adam Brett-Smith, the wine merchant’s managing director recalls.What Corneys had done to provoke such fury was to break ranks and set up one of the first wine broking businesses in the UK. In those days broking – buying and selling on behalf of clients – was a cosy and lucrative business. As Brett-Smith puts it, ‘you bought from anywhere and sold to anywhere.’ No attention was paid to provenance, an issue of such all-consuming importance in today’s fraud-ridden fine wine world that it’s incredible to think it was once seen as a mere detail. In setting up Corney & Barrow Broking Services, the merchant turned that on its head.

‘We tried to redefine the way the broking business operated. We set up standards on broking with absolute emphasis on provenance. We would never buy from auction, never buy from America and never buy from Asia. They were very expensive rules, and it cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do.’

English renegade: Adam Brett-Smith
This of course put the comfortable practices of Corneys’ competitors into unwelcome focus – hence the string of pejoratives. In conversation with Brett-Smith, who joined the company in 1981 as a junior salesman and was made managing director before the decade was out, such epithets are the last thing which come to mind. A man for whom the word ‘urbane’ could have been invented, impeccably turned out, almost cartoonishly tall, he is the very picture of an Englishman. Does he – and the company – trade on that Englishness?

‘I don’t think any of us feel we need to drape ourselves in the Union Jack but there is a subconscious push. One of the legacies of history is that on the whole the Brits are quite well liked. No one’s quite sure why they like us but there are indefinable virtues that still exist.’

He defines those virtues as ‘trust, knowledge and the trading culture’, the British ‘trading instinct, the desire to go elsewhere and build businesses in other areas. It’s not odd to deal with a British wine merchant in Hong Kong, for example.’

Corney & Barrow is the third in the triumvirate of great and long-established British wine merchants. Established in 1780, it is about a hundred years younger than Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks. It has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Edinburgh, Yorkshire and East Anglia, and – under the Corney & Barrow Group umbrella, a thriving wine bar business. Turnover last year was £49.7m, with the eleven wine bars, all concentrated around the City of London financial district, adding £16.3m to the bottom line.

Like its peers (between them they have just short of 800 years’ experience selling wine) Corneys appears both old-fashioned and resolutely modern. The first to set up a provenance-based broking service, it was also the first to recognise the importance of sole agency, a concept that was ‘much derided at the time’, Brett-Smith says.

‘The pursuit of exclusive representation was something the traditional British wine merchant didn’t do.’

It started with Petrus in 1978 or 80, and taking on the Pomerol icon was something even they didn’t quite understand – ‘it was the exception that proved the rule’. A decade later Corneys wooed Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and set the mould for a strategy that is now the company’s unique selling proposition. Of the 600-plus wines on the list, there are 50 agencies, chosen using the simple criterion, ‘wherever good and great wine is grown’, and taking producers of 10,000 cases or less.

If the list is impressive – DRC and Petrus, Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, Champagne Salon and Delamotte, Conterno in Piedmont, Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza, Hyde de Villaine in Carneros, and dozens of other resonant names – there’s also something slightly claustrophobic about it.

There’s barely a claret, for example, that doesn’t come from the J-P Moueix stable (Christian Moueix and Brett-Smith have known each other for years), and you’re hard-pressed to find anything from California that isn’t either Hyde de Villaine (a partnership between Carneros mastermind Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of DRC) or bona-fide blue-chip like Colgin or Harlan, or indeed Moueix’s Dominus.

In the words of one well-placed London professional, ‘part of me thinks it’s brilliant, and the other half thinks it’s absurd. I love Champagne Delamotte, but do I want to drink that to the exclusion of all others? No.’ 

Brett-Smith makes no apologies. ‘We don’t want to be an enormous basket of every fine wine in the world. Our goal is simple: to supply to the end consumer wines that are exclusive to Corney & Barrow in all the markets in which we operate. We want to be an inch wide and five miles deep, rather than five miles wide and an inch deep.’

It’s the very definition of ‘specialist’, but what about nurturing new talent? ‘We love taking something that is derided, or no one knows anything about, and believing in it and communicating it,’ he says, remembering how Pingus was once unknown, ‘a domaine in Spain’. The bodega’s founder Peter Sisseck salutes Brett-Smith’s vision: ‘They had a lot of courage. I couldn’t have done it without them.’  

Sisseck is anything but an iconoclast now – his latest vintage is on the list at not much less than £300 a bottle – and some may raise an eyebrow at the thought of Corneys as a champion of the derided and misbelieved.

But it’s well to remember that the company’s business model has held good for some decades. One of the reasons for this is the care it takes with the clientele, which Brett-Smith puts in the 35-55 age group. As people get older, he says, they buy less fine wine that requires ageing, so the list of private customers (there are about 550 active on the DRC list) is self-regulating. At the same time, he has an active policy of employing younger people, on the basis that ‘the age of a client is closely linked to the age of the salesforce – usually about eight or twelve years older.’

Keeping your clientele young is vital for survival in any business, as is looking to the future. Brett-Smith predicts that in generations to come (‘When I’m long gone’) his successors will be faced with two developments. The first is logistics. It’s quite possible that, as is happening in Bordeaux with Latour and others opting out of the negociant system, ‘domaines will access the end consumer without any intermediaries,’ and merchants must build storage facilities against that eventuality, just as the big negociants in Bordeaux are doing. ‘We have a shed in Scotland,’ he says.

The second development is that merchants may become growers and producers themselves. Is this something he’s considered? ‘It remains an option. We’ve looked at a shareholding in production.’

Brett-Smith will say no more, but he seems to have been right on a number of counts already, and there’s no reason to suppose he’s lost his touch.

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