By Elin McCoy
(Bloomberg) — The first time I visited 67 Pall Mall in London, it was more noisy construction site than upscale wine club. Standing in the middle of rubble, founder Grant Ashton sketched out his vision of an unstuffy place for oenophiles to sip and socialise: a cellar with thousands of wines, dark-panelled eating and meeting spaces, reasonable prices, and member wine storage in a former “invincible” bank vault. I wondered it if would ever open.
When it did, in October 2015, I still doubted the club would succeed in a city brimming with great restaurants and wine bars. I was wrong.
By 2018, Ashton had expanded upstairs to a second floor, adding a horseshoe bar and more cozy nooks with easy chairs and red velvet couches. Today the club thrives, with 4,000 members and about 5,000 wines from 42 countries to buy and savour from its massive list—1,000 of them available by the glass.
Ashton claims that only about 15% of those members are in the wine trade, which means there are an awful lot of serious wine lovers who were craving access to a huge selection of wines, where they can also store a couple of cases from their own collections to share with friends.
Which is why the ambitious Ashton started taking his club concept global during the pandemic, despite travel and logistics issues. His motto: “Grow or die.”
At the two outposts that opened within the past year, spectacular views are an additional part of the deal. At the club in the Swiss ski village of Verbier, opened in December, you could sip rare Alpine vintages while contemplating snow-capped peaks at sunset. In July, events include bike tours and hikes with luxurious picnics and, of course, tastings of Swiss wines.
Singapore followed in March, in a refurbished 15,000-square-foot penthouse with 1920s art deco flair, a panoramic city view, several thousand wines, and 20,000 Zalto glasses. Local demand for whisky is high, so a “Whisky Wall” displays the club’s 430-bottle collection behind glass. The Instagram page claims the camphor burl wood paneling in the whisky bar provides a calming scent said to lower heart rates.
Each club has many of the same basic amenities—member rooms, a bar, dining, a cellar, an extensive by-the-glass list—as well as regular tasting events. The London club, which has the most members, for instance, is offering a grower Champagne walkaround tasting of 30 bubblies on July 8. The Singapore club is hosting a five-course dinner with rarities from Penfolds on July 6.
One reason to join is that membership in one club gives you access to all clubs; the basic fee is £2,000 (US$2,432) per year. For wine lovers who regularly travel to France, two new clubs in the works will offer even more incentive.
A Burgundy club—only 200 meters (656 feet) from the historic monument Hospices de Beaune—is scheduled to open in spring 2024, followed by one in Bordeaux the same year. Both count top wine producers among their shareholders. “I can’t reveal the exact venue for the Bordeaux club yet,” Ashton says over Zoom, “but it’s in the center of the city.”
He dreams of opening six to eight locations over the next five years in big cities such as Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo, and in other wine regions where members want to go. And he’s gone digital, building interest in 67 Pall Mall through 67Pallmall.tv, a live and view-on-demand wine TV channel, which he introduced a year ago.
The growing empire of 67 Pall Mall started with a typical problem for wine lovers: too much wine. During Ashton’s three decades as a London city trader (including stints as head of European credit trading for Barclays Capital and partner in hedge fund Omni Partners), he amassed a sizable and eclectic collection. To slim it down, he thought of creating a “nice wine bar,” but the club idea surfaced in conversations with friends.
What sealed the deal was a vacant Edwin Lutyens-designed building on Pall Mall around the corner from the venerable St. James’s wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd, and Ashton’s gut feeling that it would be the perfect venue. He rounded up investors and set about turning the former Hambros Bank into his vision, which also included master classes, dinners, and jazzy events that match wine and music such as one on Burgundy and David Bowie.
One key to 67 Pall Mall’s success is its massive by-the-glass program. “We built our business on Coravin,” he says.
Ashton is referring to the revolutionary preservation system that inventor Greg Lambrecht officially introduced in 2013; it allows the club to offer tastes of everything—including a scarce new orange wine and a pricy old vintage of grand cru Burgundy—without popping the cork. (The Coravin device works by piercing the wine bottle’s cork with a hollow, medical-grade needle that pushes in argon, an inert gas, whose pressure forces wine up so you can pour a few ounces; then the cork reseals itself when you pull out the needle.)
In 2020, Covid-19 arrived. The day after lockdown in March, with only two people in the club, Ashton wondered, “What are we going to do now?”
To keep stuck-at-home members engaged, the club’s team quickly pivoted to Zoom classes and tastings led by critics and producers. (Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate was one of them.) The club’s experience with wine preservation technology aided the development of at-home tasting kits of mini bottle samples that were shipped to virtual members for £10 a month. Ashton found himself throwing boxes of bottles in the air to test whether they would break when they hit the floor, and redoing packaging when they did.
Some days the club offered five or six virtual events, with as many as 600 to 800 people watching, he says, even tuning in at 3 a.m. from Asia.
Even before the pandemic, Ashton and his investors planned expansion to Asia. What pushed the choice to Singapore was its rank according to the World Bank data for ease of doing business plus other metrics, such as the amount of tax on alcohol, that Ashton plugged into his spreadsheets.
Covid, he says, gave him advantages. There was less competition for the unique “distressed assets” he wanted as club sites. Six hours before France closed the border, he was putting a bid on a vacant 250-year-old merchant’s house. As he says, paraphrasing Warren Buffett, “Be bold when others are fearful.”
Enthusiasm for 67 Pall Mall’s virtual tastings gave Ashton the confidence to establish the 24-hour digital TV channel. “The weak link in our webinars was the lack of high-quality video,” he says. He upped the production values, dubbing it “Netflix for wine,” and funded the channel with advertising. He leased space opposite the main club in London for a TV studio and added other locations.
So far, the most entertaining programs are the series Live From the Vines, in which you visit châteaus and vineyards; the two great series on Bordeaux (with Jane Anson) and Burgundy (with Jasper Morris); and The Expert Series, with episodes such as “Chinese History Through a Wine Journey,” for which you can order tasting kits.
But now that we’re no longer trapped at home, will these documentary-style programs continue to appeal? Are there enough people in Singapore and Switzerland and beyond who want to hang out with wine buddies and share great bottles purchased from a club’s treasure trove?
Ashton, who’s on a winning streak, is convinced the answer is yes. He sees digital TV as a way to expand the 67 Pall Mall brand. The tasting kits generate revenue. And there are hundreds of wine companies that might like to advertise in the future.
“The idea is to reach more people,” Ashton says. “I’m constantly bowled over by how many wine lovers there are. Excellent content is the key to digital, and we’ll expand into the ways wine fits with food, travel, and luxury.”
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