Russian expat's London wine shop caters to rich

Russian expatriate taps into an elite market in London, home to wealthy Chinese and more multimillionaires than anywhere else on earth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:21am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:21am

Yevgeny Chichvarkin does not agree that spending £120,000 (HK$1.53 million) on a bottle of wine is an absurd extravagance.

"Why?" asked the Russian owner of luxury wine store Hedonism, in central London's Mayfair, genuinely puzzled.

He can think of plenty of people who would think nothing of spending so much on the Penfolds Ampoule of 2004 Australian cabernet sauvignon.

"It's a present for somebody who has seen everything in this world. For some people who have been rich for a long, long time, it is quite hard to make an impression."

He shrugs off the suggestion that this is decadent. "I know families who spend more than £100 million for a yacht," he said.

From their perspective, the price is not noteworthy; besides, thrown into the price of the bottle is a promise that the wine maker will fly over from Australia to help the buyer open it with a special knife.

In any case the shop stocks more expensive products - a bottle of 55-year-old Glenfiddich whisky, for example, at around £123,000.

Hedonism, which opened last year, is a landmark of how much London has changed in 20 years, with the arrival of a new class of international super-rich.

The beautifully designed shop bustles with staff (more than customers) who speak between them Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Japanese, to cater for the international clientele.

London now has more multimillionaire residents than any other city in the world, according to analysis from WealthInsight; there are now more than 4,000 individuals in England's capital with more than £20 million each.

London is a sought-after place for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese property buyers, some of whom have an interest in high-end wine and vineyards. Chinese investors own about 50 French vineyards in Bordeaux, according to Jane Anson, a Bordeaux-based wine correspondent.

Chichvarkin, who co-founded Evroset, a chain of 5,000 mobile-phone stores, lost much of his fortune when he was obliged to flee Moscow in 2008, claiming he was forced out by demands from corrupt officials to pay bribes. He subsequently sold his business, and The Sunday Times rich list estimates his current wealth at £150 million.

His new business caters for the whims of a global elite, protected by their wealth from the pinch of the downturn and Britain's austerity era, their existences almost wholly disconnected from the lives of London's other residents.

Chichvarkin chose to set up a wine business because he was frustrated by the slow service he encountered from wine merchants: when he wanted a particular vintage delivered, he was told he would have to wait a week or two. In any case, he was looking for something to do.

For the first two years after he arrived, he did nothing, he says, but lament the fact that he had lost his business and been forced into exile. Gradually he realised if he continued to do nothing he would "become crazy", and decided with casual chutzpah to set up what he believes will become the world's best wine shop.

Chichvarkin is proud to stock a few good bottles of wine for £15, but mainly sells to wealthy bankers, lawyers and Mayfair residents who can be relaxed about spending £16,777.80 on a bottle of 1882 Chateau d'Yquem.

Chichvarkin hopes his wine business will become profitable, but will disclose neither weekly revenues nor the value of the stock (he declines to confirm the figure of £10 million published elsewhere; "I never disclose my investment. You can take a figure from your head. I keep it secret").

Although he founded it as a sanity-saving enterprise, it is not a hobby, he says. "I'm playing polo, that's a hobby."

Although he is developing a palate, he outsources the bigger decisions to the former wine-buyer from luxury central London department store Harrods; his own taste buds were scorched by vodka consumption as a teenager, and his wine tastes tend towards the unsubtle, he says.

The customers at Hedonism do not look at the price, and that's what he likes about it - that people will walk in and contemplate whether to spend £98,000 on a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem.

"Sometimes people can spend their last money on a house, or education, or on a funeral. Some spend their last money on private school, and they don't eat properly, just put all the money for the school fees. Here it's not their last money.

"They have made honest money. They have paid taxes, when they made big, big deals

"They are perfectionists in their life. They can spend their money, and do nice things for themselves."