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Drink

In a classé of its own

A Russian oligarch has set out to create the most exciting and comprehensive wines and spirits emporium in the world – in the heart of Mayfair. John Stimpfig reports. Photographs by Alex Sarginson

November 14 2012
John Stimpfig

One can’t help feeling just a tad sorry for Jeroboams’ delightful Davies Street wine shop in Mayfair. There it is, nicely minding its own business – and then what happens? A Russian oligarch rides into town and opens what might possibly be the world’s greatest fine-wine emporium directly opposite.

One sure thing is that Hedonism Wines is a genuine cru-classé act. Cross its threshold and you enter a vinous paradise so stunningly seductive that it verges on the pornographic. Supinely laid out on two substantial floors are more than 4,500 of the planet’s most desirable, finest and rarest wines. The spirits section is also none too shabby; not least because it boasts over 1,000 products, ranging from luxury cognacs to aged rums, gins and grappas. Pride of place there, though, goes to nearly 600 whiskies from the flower of Scotland’s most garlanded distilleries. Just for starters, think Springbank, Highland Park, Port Ellen, Bowmore, Glenfarclas and The Macallan.

But back to the wines. A litmus test of any serious, specialist merchant is often its burgundy offering. Hedonism passes with flying colours, thanks to a who’s who listing of the Côte d’Or’s greatest domaines and growers. They’re all on display: Ponsot, Leroy, de Vogue, Leflaive, Roulot, Rousseau, Lafon, Jayer, Méo-Camuzet… Indeed, deep‑pocketed devotees of the peerless Domaine de la Romanée-Conti need have no concerns here. Hedonism stocks more vintages of Romanée-Conti, Richebourg and La Tâche than you can shake a stick at. And for those in search of just that little bit extra, how about a complete set of the domaine’s 2005 Grand Crus en magnum? It’s yours for a mere £101,709. Or a six-litre bottle of the ’96 La Tâche, at just shy of £29,000? Perhaps some impossible-to-buy Montrachet? You can choose from no fewer than 15 vintages.

It’s pretty much the same story for every wine region you care to mention: the Rhône, Rioja, Napa, Tuscany, Tokaji or Mendoza. In fact, think of any genuine fine-wine contender and, almost certainly, Hedonism has it, often in spades.

Naturally, Bordeaux is no exception. The supermodel premiers crus and super seconds are all present and correct – in multiple vintages and formats. Latour goes back to the 1961, Lafite to ’49 and Petrus to ’45. And while the oldest of the Left Bank First Growths is an 1892 Margaux, the “vertical” collection of all Mouton’s artist labels from 1945 to 2004 is something to behold. Or buy – for a cool £131,540.

What’s more remarkable is that ranges of this calibre are almost commonplace here. Take for instance the 80-strong line-up of Yquem, which ends with the seemingly immortal 1811. Or those of Pingus, Masseto, Harlan Estate and the incredibly cult-ish Sine Qua Non, which just happens to be a particular favourite of Evgeny Chichvarkin, Hedonism’s youthful, flamboyant and hands-on proprietor.

Chichvarkin’s provenance as a vintner is as unlikely as it is unusual. Four years ago, he had no intention of selling super‑smart wine in London, mainly because he’d become as rich as Croesus owning and running Evroset, Russia’s biggest mobile‑phone retailer. Then, in December 2008, everything suddenly went belly up. Chichvarkin was dramatically forced to flee Moscow with his wife and family, after a tip-off that he was about to be arrested on charges of kidnapping and extortion. He arrived in London with no idea what to do next – apart from staying put and resisting extradition. “Of course, I wasn’t guilty of anything, and the case has now been completely dropped,” says Chichvarkin.

Yet it wasn’t long before the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He considered various ventures, including a Russian hammam, before finally settling on Hedonism. “It’s where my greatest passions converge – drinking great wine and luxury retail,” he adds. “I used to love going to the Vertu boutique I managed in Moscow. But spending time in Hedonism makes me even happier.”

The catalyst was an elusive rioja. In 2010, Chichvarkin wanted to buy a bottle of the 2001 Roda Cirsion, but found the desired vintage impossible to locate. “I needed it quickly and tried everywhere in London without success. I couldn’t believe that no-one was able to source it for me in less than a couple of weeks. It showed there was a huge gap not so much ‘in’ the market, but directly above it.”

He began by hiring his glamorous CEO Tatiana Fokina, a compatriot from St Petersburg who had also worked in luxury retail. Together the pair came up with a name and a business plan. They also quickly decided that Hedonism had to be based in Mayfair. However, it required three months of pounding pavements before they found the perfect site – and another nine to secure the lease.

Fortunately, they had more immediate success in poaching their head wine buyer, the talented and hugely experienced Alistair Viner. The former Harrods buyer’s brief was simple, if somewhat daunting: to create the most exciting and comprehensive wines and spirits list in the world. It took him the best part of 18 months’ determined sleuthing to put this breathtaking magnum opus together. During that time he’s been all over the globe, sourcing wines from producers, importers, auction houses and private collections.

“It would have been a bit more straightforward just to buy the blue-chip classics,” says Viner. “But we’ve consciously gone for rare, desirable and eclectic wines as well, to make it even more unique and exciting.” A typical example is Château d’Esclans’ barely-known vin rouge Déesse (from £29). Viner has monopolised the entire UK allocation of 12 magnums.

Given Chichvarkin’s own unfortunate buying experience, his obsession is with providing the best possible service. “We want to take it to a whole new level,” says Fokina, who promises that Hedonism will deliver wine anywhere in central London within an hour of ordering. The shop has its own small fleet of electric vans, each equipped with a refrigeration unit so that the wines can be supplied ready chilled. “If a sommelier in Mayfair needs a bottle of 2001 Yquem, it will be there in 10 minutes. Equally, we can send wine anywhere in the world, to customers’ yachts, planes or overseas properties.”

Key to the Hedonism team are 12 hand-picked, highly knowledgeable sales staff, who can talk the wine talk. But what is unusual is that they are able to do so in a total of 10 languages, including Japanese, Mandarin, Italian, French and, of course, Russian.

Indeed, no discernible detail appears to have been overlooked. Should you find the ambient cellar temperature a little on the chilly side, fleecy shawls are provided. And – remarkably for the middle of Mayfair – there’s even limited parking. Other apposite touches include an iPad-equipped children’s play area, adjoining the large tasting table where you can select any of 40 constantly changing wines and champagnes from the latest high-tech Enomatic sampling dispensers. In addition, there are some humorous design elements, while the cool, contemporary fit-out more than passes muster, with lots of exposed, backlit brickwork, solid wooden floors and a centrepiece bespoke, wrought-iron staircase.

It goes without saying that Hedonism is aimed foursquare at the capital’s cosmopolitan mix of high‑spending locals, corporate movers and shakers and international visitors. “But not exclusively so,” says Viner. “Our prices begin at £11.90 a bottle. So there really is something for everyone.”

Most surprising is how competitive some (if by no means all) of Hedonism’s prices look. For instance, it’s selling Roederer’s Anderson Valley Quartet sparkler at a mere £19 a pop, compared to £22 in nearby Majestic. Further up the food chain, its 2008 Sassicaia comes in at £128 a bottle, easily undercutting the £150 asked by Berry Bros & Rudd. And at £384 a bottle, Hedonism’s 1995 Cheval Blanc is only a fiver more than it is at Robersons in Kensington. So maybe it’s not just neighbouring Jeroboams that is going to be a bit put out?

So far, the response of the UK wine trade has been sceptically lukewarm. One senior member has already dismissed it as an “oligarch’s indulgence. It’s very impressive,” he admits. “But will it make any money? The danger is that it’ll attract too many anoraks, geeks and bottle fondlers who’ll happily spend all day there, but still leave empty-handed.”

Fokina is far from concerned. “That’s fine by us, because we want to make it fun and accessible to people who love wine. We don’t care if we get wine geeks coming in, so long as they leave happy, having seen or tasted some great bottles. It all helps to spread the message.”

According to Chichvarkin, press reports that he’s not expecting to see a profit for seven years are simply inaccurate. Instead, he plans to by 2015. However, having spent an “eight‑digit number” purely on Hedonism’s extraordinary liquid assets, that will require some hefty turnover, especially in today’s chilly economic climate. Worryingly, even Berry Bros & Rudd reported a small net loss earlier this year from significantly reduced fine-wine sales.

But Chichvarkin is quietly optimistic. “We’ve done our homework and research. We’re also very proud of what we’ve created. And you have to remember that, in the Mayfair village, we have a unique terroir and microclimate. That’s a very big advantage that we fully intend to exploit.”