Calling Hedonism a wine shop is like saying Shakespeare could write a bit or Ella Fitzgerald could carry a tune.
Opened in 2012, It’s the brainchild of Evgeny Chichvarkin, founder of the Yevroset mobile phone company. In post-communist Russia, he was one of that happy set of oligarchs who were very much in the right place at the right time and became stupendously wealthy, practically overnight.
After a monumental falling out with the Russian government — he spoke out about police corruption; they accused him of kidnapping and blackmail — Chichvarkin joined the be-roubled exodus to “Londongrad.”
Three years later, he set up Hedonism, the world’s most luxurious wine shop, purveyors of wines and spirits to discerning oligarchs and billionaires everywhere.
The exclusive store open to everyone
It is, of course, in Mayfair, the West London stomping ground of the global super-rich. Home to hedge funds, art galleries, and one-star Michelin restaurants charging three-star Michelin prices, there’s probably nowhere on earth you’re more likely to get run over by a Tesla.
So it’s something of a surprise that the exterior of Hedonism is defiantly ordinary, a modern building with floor to ceiling windows. Apart from the eye-catching themed displays on the pavement outside, it could almost pass for a deli or a bookshop.
But inside, it’s a wine wonderland, stuffed with multiple vintages and formats of fine wines and rarities. This is the right place if you need a double magnum of Massougnes Cognac from 1805, or you have half a million dollars that’s burning a hole in your back pocket.
Yet it’s surprisingly welcoming. And quirky. It boasts an ornate iron staircase that appears to have been shipped in from Castle Dracula, a couple of hundred Riedel glasses hanging from the ceiling, and an automated ghost that groans, sings, and turns the lock in a cellar door every five minutes.
Yes, there are locked vaults with over half a million dollars’ worth of wine stored in a space not much bigger than a broom cupboard, but you’ll also find cult wines, like Sine Qua Non, hanging on the wall, held aloft by sculptures in the shape of hands, horns, and octopus tentacles.
There are worse ways of learning about wine than working your way through the 48 wines in their Enomatic preservation machine, one 25 ml serving at a time. The cheapest are always under $3 a shot, while the top end can stretch to $100 or more. It’s a lot for two tablespoons of wine, but still far cheaper than buying a bottle.
So it’s easy to see why Hedonism has become a stop-off for the world’s wine tourists, who come to gaze at names they’ve only ever read about, taste bottles they could never afford, surreptitiously touch the labels, sigh longingly, and take selfies posted with hashtags like: #OMG, #meandmyfirstgrowth, and #wineporn.
Since this part of London is also populated by the stratospherically wealthy, Hedonism also has its fair share of locals. One older lady, apparently, comes in regularly for a single bottle, asks the staff to open her purchase and then half-replace the cork, before striding off home.
This is a small service. A courtesy. But many of Hedonism’s customers want more. Delivering purchases to a private jet before it flies out that evening is a more or less monthly occurrence.
One regular spent $21,000 on Champagne and Burgundy on his way to the airport, and requested that it be delivered to his European holiday home as a matter of urgency. The 40 bottles arrived two days later.
Hedonism’s delivery service is clearly a major attraction. And handy, given that it has a lot of large format bottles that you would struggle to fit in a suitcase, let alone a carrier bag. They squat in double rows on top of the shop’s shelves, like explosives in the bay of a B-52.
“You get a good feeling for what people want just by speaking to them. The more information you can get, the more you can nudge them in the right direction.”
What’s on offer
One of the beauties of shopping at the super-rich level is the absence of big brands. Of course, there’s New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But it’s Dog Point and Greywacke, not Brancott Estate. Pick a category — any category — whether it’s Burgundy or gin, whisky or German Riesling, and the selections are careful, intelligent, and alluring.
This is dangerous, because they are also expensive.
Shoppers can buy most of the wines on sale in Hedonism elsewhere, for less money. But that’s not the point. The customers who make Hedonism tick, as opposed to the ones who just come to gape at the bottles, are unlikely to look too closely at the right-hand column. They use the store because it has an incredible 10,000 bottles, of which 7,000 are wine and 3,000 spirits, and all of it is high quality.
Think of a famous name and they’ll have it in multiple vintages and, probably, multiple formats. The selection of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is extraordinary, even before you include the assortment cases of a dozen DRCs from the same vintage.
They aren’t cheap. But if the millennial selection — three La Tâche, one Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and two each of Échezeaux, Grands Échezeaux, Saint-Vivant, and Richebourg, all from 2000 — at just a tick over $90,000 is too extravagant, the more thrifty plutocrat can always fall back on the vertical of Mouton Rothschild. Forty-four vintages from 1973 to 2016 at just under $70,000.
Selling wines like this doesn’t just require wealthy customers. It needs salespeople who know their stuff. Even newcomers, with years of experience, are still trained for a week before they are let loose on the floor.
There are plenty of them too; following, hovering, suggesting, or tapping furiously on keyboards and staring intently at screens. Their role is to find out what customers like and help them to buy it.
Then to get their details and ensure that they keep on buying.
They will help customers when they are there, and they will keep on helping when they are back in Paris, Shanghai, or New York. They will curate offerings and secure deals.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Send over offers that are of no interest, and the customer will lose interest and the salesperson look pushy; fail to send information about a wine a client might have enjoyed and the salesperson doesn’t just miss out on a sale, they look negligent.
“You get a good feeling for what people want just by speaking to them,” says one salesperson. “The more information you can get, the more you can nudge them in the right direction.”
He sees an unattended customer and rushes off to do some nudging. It’s like watching a Venus flytrap closing on an Amex Black card.
It clearly works. In the last few weeks store manager Nina says the store has sold a Domaine Romanée-Conti Montrachet 2011 for $12,500 and an 1882 Graham’s Vintage Port for $14,000.
That should cover the rent for a couple of days at least; COVID has slowed the tourist trade to a standstill for the last 18 months, and London is quiet. While the art gallery and artisanal jeweler opposite seem to be fine, the Porsche showroom next door to Hedonism is no more.
Then again, many wealthy cities have a Porsche dealership. Only London has Hedonism.