EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Adam Brett-Smith of Corney and Barrow
VIM: You have a huge passion for motorcycles and your first job after graduating from Oxford was as a bike messenger; was this passion a result of the job, or vice versa?
No, I began riding bikes at 16. Being a bike messenger paid me (a bit of) money and got me a free bike to ride which was useful as I couldn’t afford one of my own. Not a long term career though. I admire messengers enormously, they are the elite and, necessarily, live dangerously.
VIM: After this you worked in a small wine shop in town, how much did you know about wine prior to taking the job?
Remarkably little. I could tell good from bad. Still can.
VIM: When you joined Corney & Barrow you came on board as a salesperson and worked your way up to the top of the company? Tell us how you got the job to begin with, and what that journey has been like?
C&B didn’t want me, it took 9 months and 3 interviews to get in. It was a tough time. It taught me never to give up. I could sell however and that swung it eventually.
The journey has been extraordinary. The great thing about a Private Company is that there is a very direct link between effort and result which benefits the individual and yet also makes the team in the best sense ambitious. It also has to be meritocratic which is good. C&B is full of people who started at the bottom and rose to the top. Luckily I was in the right place at the right time and with some very clear (not always correct) ideas.
VIM: What advice would you give to any of your own sales staff aspiring to make a similar leap?
Believe in what you do and hold your values – and the company’s – very close.
VIM: You have exclusive rights on a number of brands namely, Petrus and DRC, what did it take to secure those and how long was that process?
It took belief that you could serve the interests of your customers, the grower and the company by pursuing at that time – and to a certain extent today – the revolutionary concept of exclusive distribution. The trade thought we were cuckoo, the customers loved it. That taught me a lot.
VIM: You must get to deal with Aubert de Villaine quite regularly, what’s he like to “hang out” with? And what’s he like to do business with?
Yes. I know of no man who reconciles better those opposite qualities of self-belief and humility. He is also marvellous company. The wine world is in awe of him but he doesn’t really see or understand that. I love him for that. I’m lucky to know him.
In business he listens – a rare quality. Tough though and very acute.
VIM: We are reading more and more stories in the wine press about fake wines being discovered either in auctions or bonded warehouses. You have an authentication service for your clients that is quite different from what others offer, tell our readers how?
The fake wine problem is huge. To combat it and with the complete support of the Moueix family (owners of Petrus etc) we began in 1996 an authentication service for Petrus. We have written and photographic records of all Petrus vintages back to 1964 taken from the Chateau’s own cellars. Pre 1964 no authentication is possible.
The service is free but customers have to sign a disclaimer before we examine allowing us to destroy the wine if we judge it to be fake. It is vital that fake wine does not go back in to circulation. As an alternative we will drink the wine with the customer over a bite.
VIM: Other than 12×75.com what are your other favourite wine publications?
The World of Fine Wine. It’s magnificent, ludicrously dense, quite mad.
VIM: In your opinion what changes will the wine world see after Robert Parker resigns and how much influence do you think his word has on prices nowadays?
Well, I think we’re the only Wine Merchant in the World not to use Parker scores. The relationship we have with customers must be based on the trust they have in us not a third party commentator however august and powerful. We are here to pick up the pieces if something goes wrong by crediting our customers. We also back up our opinion with our money. I am not aware of any wine writer who does either of these things!
Having said that I respect Parker enormously (in fact we helped launch his first book in the UK back in the 80’s), we read him with interest as do many of our customers. His influence is still significant in Bordeaux particularly, much less so in areas that he delegates to others.
I would hope that the biggest change we see after he resigns is the return of independence of thought and action from other Wine Merchants around the world and a renewed belief in the value of relationship. Curiously I think that Parker would rather like to see this as well.
VIM: Corney & Barrow does not have a department that specialises in ‘managed portfolios’ for investment purposes; what is your opinion on the wine investment market as a whole?
We don’t have a department or a policy on this other than suggesting to customers that it is indeed possible to ‘justify a pleasure on the grounds of practicality’ by buying and selling judiciously to subsidise or drink your cellar for free. You can make a lot of money but at the end of the day wine is there to be drunk and enjoyed. Ironically it is the drinkers who subsidise the investors if you think about it.
The wine investment market worries me for a lot of reasons to do with provenance, fake wines, storage, a terrifying lack of integrity and knowledge and a gullible public. Other than that I’m sure it’s fine. My advice has always been buy from a source you can trust absolutely, buy young, buy the best, don’t borrow to buy and don’t have any expectations other than the certainty of being able to drink something sensational in the future. Anything else is a bonus. Having said that we have made a lot of money for our customers and that makes me very happy.
VIM: Corney & Barrow have a number of wine bars in the city, given that the city has taken a downturn of late, has this reflected in their performance?
Yes, it’s tough in the City. They’re still heaving with people but the spend is down largely because that spend is more personal now than corporate. Having said that we have launched 3 new ventures which we are excited about and are doing rather well. You may remember we met at one of them!
VIM: What’s the future of Corney & Barrow and how do you see the company evolving over the next 100 years?
I think the UK’s Independent wine sector is a jewel in the world. C&B is proud to be a part of that. If we continue to concentrate on our customers, our suppliers and our team then I am confident about the future.
In 100 years? Well, wine does teach you humility – it is a crop after all – but I would like to think that what we try and do well in the UK – best in class wines exclusive to C&B and sold to the end consumer – is precisely what we will be doing in every wine friendly country in the world. We’re already in Hong Kong and now Singapore but there’s rather a long way to go isn’t there…..
VIM: On your website you have a photo of yourself wearing an ‘interesting’ choice of shirt. Are there any plans to reshoot this?
VIM: If you could pick any motorcycle, stretch of road and bottle of wine, what would they be?
Laverda Mirage 1200, the D675 from Blois in the Loire to Nontron in the Dordogne and…La Tache 1990 for an unimaginable number of romantic reasons.