This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post
The wine world is divided into four totally different worlds, which never really meet. There is a massive bulk wine market under the radar, where wines cross oceans in large container sized bags. The wines are then sold at extraordinarily low prices in cut price supermarket chains.
Then there is the more visible and more conventional mass market which is price sensitive. Most wines sold are under 40 shekels a bottle and this is where most of the wine is sold and bought. In this arena, usually a supermarket, wine is more of a commodity. The prettiness of the label, promotions or brand recognition are what prompts a purchase.
There is then the added value wine market where the winery story, the place where it was made & the people who made it, become more relevant. Wine is suddenly considered more of an agricultural and artisanal product. More often than not, these wines are sold in restaurants and quality wine shops. Most of the sales lie in the retail price range of 50 to 100 shekels.
Finally there is the hidden world where wine is a luxury item for the super-rich. We are talking Château Lafite Rothschild, Domaine Romanée-Conti, and the like. Such a wine from a rare vintage in a large format bottle, may be for speculators and investors, or the object of desire for collectors. It is designed to amuse and titillate the purchaser or to impress. Once, the British ruled the world's fine wine market. Then America took over the mantle. Today the hub of fine wine has moved east and the Chinese are swallowing up much of the world's finest wines.
Now in most wine shops, the expensive wines are kept discreetly far from prying eyes and touchy fingers. This in a way adds to the perceived value because the wines are inaccessible and to the most part, invisible.
Well, there is a newish wine shop in Mayfair, London, called Hedonism, (www.hedonism.co.uk), which provides a gilded window into this luxury world of wine. It flaunts its wines in such a way that it is worth a visit just to gawk and take it all in. It is beautifully designed, visually striking and covers two floors. There are over 3,500 wines and a further 1,000 spirits, and not just any old wines & spirits. Here are some of the most expensive and sought after liquids in glass on the planet.
There is, for instance, a Château Mouton Rothschild room which displays every vintage from 1945 to 2004. The amounts to sixty bottles in all and is available as a job lot for a mere £131,000. Of course it is not just the wine, but the artistic labels that make this such a unique collection.
There is a wall display of Chateu d'Yquem, the word's most sublime dessert wine. The earliest vintage available, if you are interested, is 1811! However most impressive or outrageous, (depending on your world view), is the rare almost priceless ampoule of Penfold's 2004 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. The glass and surround are design stories in themselves. There are only 12 of these in the world. If you buy one it will cost £ 120,000, but the winemaker of Penfolds will fly over to open it for you, wherever you are! The design, rarity and unique experience are what will encourage someone to part with 720,000 shekels for what is basically 750 ml. of wine. It really is a different world.
Of course Hedonism is not just wine. If whisky is your bag, you can buy a 55 year old Glenfiddich for around £123,000.
I loved the quote from the Victoria Moore of the Daily Telegraph "If Tutankhamen had…died in the 21st century, this is what his tomb might have looked like."
The concept of this wine shop was the brainchild of Evgeny Chichvarkin, the mobile phone tycoon. When seeking a rare cult wine, he approached in turn the leading purveyors of fine wines in London. He contacted Berry Bros. first, and then Harrods, Harvey Nicholls, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, but his search for help & service was unsuccessful. So he decided to build his own wine shop where the emphasis was on service and where the answer 'no' was just not an option. He was quoted as saying: "we decided to take wine retailing to the next level. It is not just about product, but also the level of service, with nothing being too difficult."
This is a shop for the super-rich and London is the right venue. Today there are apparently more multi-millionaire residents there, than any other city in the world. The staff at Hedonism are highly trained wine professionals equipped to guide the prospective buyer through this wonderland of wines. If you speak Russian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, there is a likelihood someone will be able to talk to you in your own tongue.
Chichvarkin did not only have the vision and the drive and finance to implement it, he also brought in the right person to source the wines. Alistair Viner is the Head Buyer, responsible for filling this extravagant mecca with content. He was for many years the wine buyer for Harrods previously. He is a quiet, modest person, immensely knowledgeable, ultra professional and super discreet. He also has a fantastic palate.
At wine events he can be seen tasting quietly, efficiently without undue comment. He walks quickly between winery stands and tastes with absolute concentration. He does not waste time on unnecessary small talk or rely on hearsay or winemaker talk. He tastes, spits, scribbles, decides and even if some choices are unconventional, he backs his palate and with his record, it is the right way to go.
Why would this shop be of any interest to Jerusalem Post readers? The answer is there is also a comprehensive list of Israeli wines. When Viner decided to purchase wines from Israel, he did not rely on second hand information. He took the trouble to visit Israel, taste a wide range of wines and he bought according to his palate, choosing wines he preferred. All the usual suspects are there, Castel Grand Vin, Carmel Limited Edition, Clos de Gat Sycra, Yatir Forest and Flam, showing the best of Israel.
However, if this is too standard for you, there are also wines from Gat Shomron, Ben Haim, Alexander and 1848 wineries. So it is an Israeli list which will be of interest, even for those who are familiar with Israeli wines.
Most of the Israeli wines happen to be kosher. (Clos de Gat flies the non-kosher flag). If kosher is what you want, there is also a selection of the finest kosher wines in the world outside Israel. Argentina, France, New Zealand, Spain and the USA are the countries featured. For instance the kosher customer can buy from Capcanes Peraj Habib, Covenant, Herzog Clone Six, or a kosher cuvée of Château Léoville Poyferré and Château Pontet Canet from Bordeaux.
The super-rich hedonistic image is not strictly fair. The Israeli wines are priced from £17 upwards (100 shekels) and there are something like 500 other wines under £30 a bottle. The staff are passionate and knowledgeable and geared to satisfying the wine collector who has everything. Yet they are neither pretentious nor patronizing, in the slightest. They give full attention to the regular guy who is simply looking for a wine to drink tonight or a gift for the boss. To their great credit, they take no end of time to explain, whatever your budget and buying potential.
If ever there was a shop to browse in. to look around and even take a selfie alongside a priceless bottle, this is it. This is also the place to get the maximum help to find exactly what you are looking for. For a special purchase, it is definitely worth a visit. In other words, it is of interest to wine tourists and wine buyers alike. Next time you are in London (3-7 Davies Street, Mayfair, London), go and submerge yourself in the world of wine luxury. You may, (we hope), even come out with a bottle of Israeli wine!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.