How this Pretoria-born girl ended up at London’s most talked-about private wine club is beyond me - but I’m certainly not complaining.
When I found out that my charmingly Champenois varsity friend Martin Heidsieck had just taken up a sommelier position at 67 Pall Mall, I knew it would be a rare chance to get a glimpse into not only the exclusive world of London’s members-only clubs, but a particular establishment which is fast becoming the pulse of London’s wine scene.
Pall Mall itself is a street in London’s historic centre. It connects St James's Street to Trafalgar Square and is named after the bygone game of ‘pall-mall’, a precursor to croquet played in this posh part of London in the 17th century. By the 19th century the pall-mall court was long gone and the area became famous for gentlemen’s clubs - private social clubs originally established by and for British upper-class men in the 18th century.
A more inclusive democracy in the 19th century brought with it an explosion in the popularity of clubs - no longer restricted to the gentry, with many clubs including women and centered around particular trades and professions. Today, the club culture in London is alive and thriving, with the West End remaining its heartland - earning the St James’s area the nickname ‘clubland.’
Formerly housing a branch of Hambros Bank, Sir Edwin Lutyens' Grade II-listed building at No. 67 seeps Mary Poppins-style character from every nook and cranny. It’s the kind of place that both sounds and looks like it’s been around forever, but really, the wine club housed within is just a baby - having only opened its fancy wooden doors to the public three years ago.
Admittedly, I found myself somewhat intimidated as I entered the ornate interior, not really knowing what to expect, especially as the only 'wine clubs' I'd experienced before were either subscription services or self-organised meetups with wino friends. Well, let me tell you - the decor at 67 Pall Mall leaves no room for confusion: this is not your casual Thursday evening wine club. With resplendent parquet floors, wood-paneled walls and plush, jewel-toned upholstery, the ground floor Members’ Lounge is as luxurious as they come.
I couldn’t linger downstairs for long, however, as I was told Martin was waiting for me on the second floor - in the even newer Clubroom, opened only a year ago, with the idea to provide a more casual space for members to meet and socialise. Upon entering the (also elegantly furnished) upstairs bar, I breathed a sigh of relief - with live music (at that moment: an edgy young woman with a guitar, crooning out a Beyoncé classic) and the buzz of at least a dozen members chatting animatedly over glasses of wine, it felt more like my kind of vibe.
My somm friend greeted me with gusto from behind the dimly lit bar, and while decanting a bottle of 2000 Chateau de Beaucastel, quickly got me up to speed on what 67 Pall Mall is about. Essentially, it all started when London banker Grant Ashton (who by the by, happened to be sitting at a table a few metres away) found himself frustrated by the excessive markup on wine in restaurants. At the same time, he found that he didn’t have enough space in his own cellar and couldn’t possibly drink everything. Naturally, many of his banking colleagues and friends shared his frustrations. Enter the idea to create a space in the city to store wine and enjoy it too: “founded by wine lovers, for wine lovers.”
Members pay an annual fee of £1500 - which is a lot when you convert it back into Rands, but really, when you add up how much one would pay annually to drink fancy wine in London - it begins to make sense. Furthermore, wine professionals and younger members receive a substantial discount (paying around half) - so it’s natural that in addition to bankers like Ashton, the club attracts a kaleidoscope of wine enthusiasts.
So what do you get for the annual fee? First and foremost, access to a staggering list of almost 4000 wines (approximately 700 by the glass), meticulously selected by Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn and his team, and searchable by elements like country, region and variety on iPads placed around the club. With wines starting at £7 a glass, £40 a bottle and the most expensive being a certain vintage of Romanée-Conti going for over £25,000, the idea is to provide value, regardless of how expensive a wine is, by keeping markups low. Another membership perk is that members can store 12 bottles in the vault-like cellar to summon up and enjoy any time they visit, with a small corkage fee.
As the evening started to pick up, Martin introduced me to the American couple sitting at the bar to my left, who were drinking an iconic magnum of Luce Della Vite that they had picked up at Hedonism and brought with them. I quickly learned that Sara and Kyle were young professionals working in the city who had been drawn to the club as they lived nearby, loved wine and were eager to learn more. “We like that there’s a mix of business people, MWs… and curious people like us,” commented Sara as she generously sloshed some of the Super Tuscan into my glass.
“There’s also a real intersection between the service and how personable the people are,” Kyle added, gesturing towards a beaming Martin.
As the evening progressed, all worries that I would be spending my Saturday night in a stuffy, uptight venue had completely dissipated - in fact, I was shocked at how rapidly time flew with my new friends (Grant Ashton even came over for a chat at one point - just as we were enjoying some coravin-poured Sadie Treinspoor). Before I knew it, it was time for Martin to clock off and give me a grand tour of the parts of the club I hadn’t seen, including the ‘Naughty Corner’ with its tasteful drawings of nudes and collection of spirits for the wine-weary (should that even be a thing) and of course, the cellar itself.
Having been a bank, the underground vault cellar is serious stuff - and evidently still safeguarding some precious goods. “No pictures, please” Martin requested as he led me along the narrow labyrinth of wooden wine crates holding members’ cellared wines. “It’s very important to protect our members’ privacy.” While I respectfully returned my camera to my bag, I couldn’t resist taking a peek into a box bearing the name of one of South Africa’s most loved wine critics - and am happy to report that both Sadie and Alheit featured.
I left 67 Pall Mall well after midnight, reminded of the intrigue that initially attracted me to wine - the tension between its aspirational qualities and its ability to facilitate human connection. I suppose that at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to belong - and while by no means accessible to everyone, 67 Pall Mall provides a sensational space for wine lovers to do just that.