There is mixed news. It must be a long time since the nightingales sang in Berkeley Square. The traffic drowned them out long ago. There are still relics of grace and piquancy, most notably in Maggs Bros bookshop. But the old Mayfair, where the nouveaux riches learned to wear the fauns’ garlands of refinement, had been driven deeper into Georgian houses in quieter streets — until now. There has been a counter-attack. -Earlier this week, even though there were still no nightingales, I heard the music of the spheres.
There was talk of a new wine merchants called Hedonism with an interesting Russian owner; I had meant to obtain further and better particulars. Strolling down Davies Street, I gave an idle sideways glance — and there it was. I had heard tell that Hedonism was where oligarchy encountered oenophilia: that a rich Russian was determined to assemble one of the world’s greatest cellars. Although that is all true, it is not an adequate description. I do not move much in oligarch circles, but I suspect that Yevgeny Chichvarkin is untypical. Hedonism and wine: one might have expected a Bacchic character. Not so: dark and bearded, he has an intense, eager, 19th-century countenance. He is reminiscent of the portraits of liberal intellectuals in the Tretiakov Gallery: the sort of chaps Turgenev would have known. The narrator of the Sportsman’s Notebook might have looked like Yevgeny.
We in the West find it easy to slip on a mask of scepticism and cynicism. Often, the mask becomes the reality. But Russian history does not permit a casual acceptance of the flow of life. Claud Cockburn once wrote that when it came to political awareness, the average Irishman was three double whiskies ahead of the average Englishman. When it comes to Russians and intensity, the lead is at least as great, in vodka. We have all met Russians with that formidable creative combination: an eagerness for new experiences, plus the scars of their old ones. It is all there in Turgenev: the shy, green, sylvan beauty of the woodland landscape in spring; the grimness of the human-scape, in all seasons.
As befits a Turgenev character, Yevgeny Chichvarkin had one of his most profound, quasi-religious experiences in Paris. It was ten years ago: a bottle of Château Margaux. He had never drunk anything like it and was instantly overwhelmed. (He is now vexed that he cannot remember the year. As someone who has lamentably failed to keep a drinking diary, I could only sympathise.) In an instant, the course of his life was determined. He was already making serious money in mobile phones, but who could have an epiphany with a mobile phone? He decided to learn all that he could about wine and to build a collection of great bottles. He has. This is a Hamleys for wine lovers. I spent an awestruck half-hour before introducing myself. I contemplated rack after rack of Latour, Lafite, Margaux, Pétrus, Yquem; everything from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: all the New World greats, ditto champagnes and ports plus a range of whiskies, including ones that I had never heard of. I exaggerate; I did not actually hear the music of the spheres. But we know that freedom and whisky gang thegither. At Hedonism, wine and mysticism join them.
I only had five minutes with Yevgeny himself. He was shooting between meetings: I was growing later and guiltily later for a rendezvous. But his staff are all first-rate, so I learned a little about the philosophy. First, Hedonism is neither a museum nor a rich man’s cellar. Everything is for sale. The rare and great wines are priced accordingly and some of the prices would make an oligarch blench. On the one hand, you can console yourself: ‘That is a hundred times dearer than it was when I drank it in 1990.’ On the other hand, you did not lay any of it down, and you will never be able to afford it again.
But if you have always wanted to taste a Pétrus or a Cheval-Blanc 1947 and your banker’s bonus is fresh into the account and you have just become engaged to the most beautiful girl in the world — Yevgeny’s palace of wines is the place for you. This does not mean that it is only of interest to plutocrats on the razzle. If you want, say, a super second or a serious white Burgundy for a special occasion, Hedonism has a range of choice plus an endless supply of patient, enthusiastic, learned advice. Yevgeny has not economised on staff and they do not economise on their efforts. You could arrive feeling nervous and ignorant. You would be put at your ease and told to take your time, and theirs. I have a friend who sells cheese. Although Christmas is his busiest season, he also dreads it, because it brings out the amateur cheese-eater. Usually female, she wants a tiny quantity of something mild. Very mild. It is as if she wishes to be reassured that it will be virtually tasteless. His regular customers — a Vacherin here, a Stilton there — champ and chafe while she witters and agonises. No amateur cheese-buyer has yet left the shop with a quarter of mousetrap protruding from an unconventional part of the anatomy, but the day will come.
At Hedonism, as befits the name, patience is inexhaustible and the stock goes far wider than Old World grandeur. They have around 600 bottles for £30 and under, many of them from new countries and new vignerons. Yevgeny and his team are constantly on the search for undiscovered talent.
So: you are planning a special dinner party for someone’s important birthday, or merely a diner intime which will lead to the seduction of the most beautiful girl in the world — and you are not a banker. Hedonism is the place for you. No one will sneer at your budget. They will throw themselves into your planned enjoyment and make it happen. It is a remarkable place: introibo ad altare dei.