Adam Brett-Smith is managing director at one of the world’s most prestigious wine merchants, Corney & Barrow. The firm has unique and exclusive relationships with the world’s greatest wine producers including Chateau Petrus, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, and Salon champagne. As part of our Luxury Leaders series, he speaks to LUX about the evolving market, wine investors, and the world’s thriving wine culture.
LUX: You represent the most prestigious domaines in the world, including DRC, Petrus and Salon . What is your secret?
Adam Brett-Smith: Belief. Belief in the producer and your ability to communicate that belief to the customer; truly, that is the heart of the matter.
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LUX: How do you choose who else to represent – where does the balance of power lie, with the merchant or the distributor?
ABS: We try to take a Chateau or Domaine out of the big basket of other Chateaux or Domaines and put it on a pedestal so that customers can focus with an intensity and purity that general distribution cannot offer. Therefore, it is vital that you try and work with the finest examples of whatever country/region/area you are focussing on. We would prefer to be an inch wide and five miles deep than five miles wide and an inch deep.
As to where the balance of power lies, our best relationships – like the best deals – are equally good for all parties concerned, the customer, the Estate and Corney & Barrow. If that balance changes too radically, the relationship itself will be threatened.
LUX: Is London still a global wine hub?
ABS: Unquestionably. The culture of trading, of restlessness, of expertise, of understanding is perhaps stronger now than ever before. Napoleon called us “une nation de boutiquiers,” (a nation of shopkeepers) I suspect he felt this was an insult, we took and still take it as a compliment.
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LUX: How has the fine wine trade changed over the past five years?
ABS: A combination of small and or difficult vintages and a market that has been depressed through (largely) Bordeaux led pricing initiatives has meant that we are in a buyer’s market. I cannot see this lasting for much longer. It is about as good a time to buy as any I can remember.
LUX: How have consumers’ habits changed at the top end?
ABS: I was asked by a highly respected guide to top private investors what my best investment advice would be to potential customers. My answer was brief. Start drinking.
There is a creeping malaise developing where customers are buying wine only if it increases in value. Drinking it is sometimes a secondary consideration or not even a consideration at all. Wine funds have sprouted like weeds as a result. I don’t think this is healthy and for this reason Corney & Barrow is one of the few companies to not have an investment vehicle. This, despite being lucky enough to list, a large number of them exclusively, some of the finest and most highly prized wines in the country. We do advise customers to buy a little more than they need to subsidise cellars. We call this justifying a pleasure on the grounds of practicality.
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LUX: How has your company had to adapt?
Adam Brett-Smith: By increasing the already large number of tutored tastings/masterclasses/dinners in which good and great wines are consumed for pleasure by keeping even closer to customers. It works.
LUX: Your business comprised selling £30,000 cases of wine to collectors and running City wine bars packed with young guys drinking cheap drinks. How did you do both?
ABS: We have just sold our bars business in a deal (see above) which was great for both parties. 25% of our business is to hotels and restaurants and the heart of our business – the private customer – spends a lot of money with us on everyday wines.
“Everybody needs a house Claret” and it’s true. Even the super-rich are unlikely to share their Petrus’ and Montrachet’s with their teenage children on a regular basis at any rate so we sell a lot of our Corney & Barrow labels to customers who are sometimes a little defensive about their prized cellars. These are seriously good wines and great value.
LUX: What is your greatest fear, for your business?
ABS: Apart from War, Pestilence and Famine?
In 1789, nine years after Corney & Barrow was founded the French Revolution began thus depriving this fledgling company of its biggest source of supply for a generation…
History has therefore taught us a lot about survival. So apart from war, pestilence and famine my greatest fear is that the world of good and great wine will be smeared by well-meaning anti-alcohol lobbies who will turn us into an outlawed peddler of drugs… I am only half joking.
LUX: How do you relax?
ABS: I get bored easily so I have probably far too many interests. In no particular order, family, reading, motorcycles, opera, ballet, cars…most of which are followed by wine!
LUX: What’s your Sunday evening casual tipple at home?
ABS: A Dry Martini.