Some professional relationships are formed in the boardroom or perhaps over a decent lunch. Not so for Ted Hirst and Tom Harrow. For them it was enjoying an airborne tour of Bordeaux as the morning mist rolled off the Gironde. After flying in privately from London, they had hopped into a helicopter for a bird’s-eye view of the vines, enjoying an in-transit afternoon of comparative champagne tastings.
For Vancouver- and London-based Hirst, head of global investment banking at Canaccord Genuity, and Harrow, wine director at Honest Grapes, based in Soho, it was one of the first of many oenocentric jaunts they have undertaken together. Since they met in 2009, they have embarked on trips from cycling Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus, refreshed by bottles of 1967 Volnay, to supping legendary Super Tuscan Sassicaia from the early 1970s with estate owner Marchese Nicoló Incisa della Rocchetta: a sort of Sideways on steroids.
“I always want to meet the individuals behind the wines and see the people who get their hands in the soil,” says Hirst. “Understanding the process of making wine is fantastic. I love it – winemaking is like art.” But the focus of these trips is not just to broaden his knowledge and have an adventure, it is also about building an excellent collection of wines: mainly bordeaux, burgundies, brunellos and rhônes.
Since meeting Harrow, Hirst has built a collection of around 1,000 bottles, which he keeps in the UK. It is mostly split between a bonded warehouse and a temperature-controlled unit at The Wine Cellars in Fulham, as well as the wine racks in his Bayswater apartment – with its sweeping vistas of Hyde Park, and walls bedecked with art by Isaac Julien and Sam Francis. Here you might find bottles of 1982 Château Latour (currently about £1,200), 2004 Masseto (about £80) from Tuscany and maturing Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze (about £115).
“Before I met Tom my collection was modest,” says Hirst. “I had some bordeaux 1982s, but was keen to collect more broadly. It has been a great education – understanding things like why 2009 bordeaux are more pleasurable to my palate than 2010s, which are more classic and consistent, but reach less exuberant heights. I used to like the big, bold Californian reds, but as I’ve got older I’ve gravitated towards a lighter and smoother bottle, such as a burgundy.”
The first wines he bought on Harrow’s recommendation were the 2009 bordeaux during the en primeur campaign at the peak of the “Bordeaux Boom”, with a special focus on Cheval Blanc, a favourite of both of theirs. They then gravitated backwards to 2005, 2000, 1990, 1989, 1985 and 1982 first-growth bordeaux such as Château Lafite, Mouton Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion.
Among the most significant bottles Hirst has acquired with Harrow are a 2003 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage (about £500), 2009 Château Lafite (about £800), 2010 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echézeaux Grand Cru (about £1,100) and a 1995 Petrus (about £2,000). These sit alongside more modestly priced bottles, such as Valdicava (about £90) and E Guigal Côte‑Rôtie La Turque (about £125).
Not all purchases are the result of shared experiences. Harrow recently organised a dinner at Annabel’s nightclub hosted by Marchese Anselmo Guerrieri Gonzaga of the critically lauded San Leonardo estate, known as the “Sassicaia of northern Italy” and immediately thought of Hirst. “This was an example of a wine I had vociferously campaigned for and that Ted hadn’t tried, but I encouraged him to buy nevertheless.” (That said, Hirst is not always easily swayed: “I don’t tend to agree with what people tell me is good – but when I find something I enjoy, I’ll buy a lot of it.”) Likewise, if Hirst is in a restaurant and comes across a special bottle, he will fire a message to Harrow, such as a recent discovery – at a dinner in New York – of Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, a Syrah from the northern Rhône, made in minute quantities.
The focus next is on acquiring more northern rhônes, together with more elusive burgundies, such as the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Leroy, which only makes 50-120 top cases a year.
“Ted still has a strong interest in the rhône, brunello and burgundy,” says Harrow. “There have been three difficult years – 2011, 2012 and 2013 – so the challenge is to pick and choose both the best-performing wines and single out rising stars like Mark Haisma and Pierre Duroché in Burgundy and Mastrojanni in Montalcino. We are also slowing down on the bordeaux as recent vintages have been underwhelming and the prices unrealistic. An interesting one we will be looking at now will be 2005. It’s an amazing vintage in bordeaux, burgundy and rhône. Also, people are now starting to drink these wines. The key thing with any asset is that the less of it there is, the more expensive it will become. If people start drinking the 2005s, the price goes up.”
Much of the wine is acquired direct from the estates, through Harrow’s carefully nurtured relationships. “I rarely frequent auction houses,” he says. “Where possible, I buy ex-château [newly released wines that have been stored since bottling at the winery that produced them]. When you know the estate owner, it’s always the best way.” Provenance is also key. “There are increasingly a lot of fakes out there,” says Harrow. “Often if you see a wine on the market and the price seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true.” Fortunately, some producers are now taking precautions such as DNA testing and microchipping to prevent fraud.
“One thing I would say about wine investment, though, is that it requires patience, as until the wine starts drinking, it can seem like a bit of paper being shuffled around between wine enthusiasts and dealers.”
The waiting game only builds anticipation for Hirst, however. “You can lay down some bottles for a very long time,” he says, “but I’m planning to drink all of mine. I only hope I can live long enough.”