In 1698, St. James’ Palace became the principal London residence of the British monarch. In the same year, just across the road, Widow Bourne opened a grocer’s shop, at No.3 St. James’ Street. Three-hundred and twenty years later it has evolved into one of the world’s most celebrated wine merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd.
A visit to No.3 St. James’ Street should be on every wine lover’s bucket-list. The building is pretty much unaltered since the 17th century, and it’s lovely: The interior conjures a Dickensian world, inhabited by clerks, behind tall, stand-behind desks and leather-bound ledgers. When I first saw it, there wasn’t a single bottle of wine that potential customers could take a look at, anywhere. Wine buying meant going underground.
At one time, the wine cellars ran all the way to the foundations of St. James’ Palace, but they were curtailed in the mid-19th century when the area under the London street known as Pall Mall was compacted to ensure that the street would support the gun carriage bearing the Duke of Wellington from his house at Hyde Park Corner to his burial in the crypt of St. Paul’s. The cellars are still worth a visit: In the subterranean site, visitors will find the last remaining wall of Henry VIII’s tennis court; the scales, not unlike jockey’s scales, on which Berry’s customers were weighed; and the records that show the fluctuating weights of Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, William Pitt the Younger and the Aga Khan. There’s also a room in the cellars where the future Napoleon III held secret meetings before returning to France from exile.
Berry’s best-selling wine is known as Good Ordinary Claret. The name harks back to Victorian times when wine was shipped in bulk, then blended and bottled on arrival by wine merchants. Berry Brothers was one of the more important merchants; it sold wines with beguiling names like Claret of Exceptional Quality, Choicest Claret or, for those customers with the least amount of funds, Ordinary Good Claret. There was no reference to where the wine was produced, how it was made or what grape variety it might be made from. No one cared.
Wine Challenge No.14:
Open two bottles of Bordeaux red wine, with no higher classification than Appellation Bordeaux Supérieur. One should have an alcohol content no higher than 13 percent, the other should be at 14 percent. If they come from the same vintage, all the better. Neither should cost more than $15. Which do you like better, and what might that tell you about what today’s customer cares about?
Can’t get enough wine wisdom from William? Read his previous column here.