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Revolutionising wine tasting at home: behind the scenes with 67 Pall Mall

As we head into the 15th week of forced closures, industry across the length and breadth of the UK faces an unimaginable demand to adapt or risk the inability to continue trading in the long-term. Arguably amongst the worst hit is the hospitality sector, where close contact is a given and transmission hard to avoid. Facing, in some cases, a total loss of earning, restaurants, bars and clubs have proven to be inspirational sources of innovation, improvisation and resourcefulness. Throughout the supply chain, firms have transformed their business model in order to continue delivering products to consumers via delivery and curbside collection in their own homes as opposed to brick and mortar locations. 67 Pall Mall is a haven for wine lovers, the exclusive members club in London not only has one of the most expansive wine lists in the world but also a spectacular array of sommeliers and events. In the face of their club being closed for the foreseeable future, owner Grant Ashton, vowed to keep all 130 staff on full pay, transform the club’s service and revolutionise the way we experience wine tastings at home. I spoke to Ronan Sayburn MS about how the club has adapted, transformed its service to members and how these changes will change the club looking to the future.

After spending 30 years running trading floors in the City of London and Canary Wharf, Grant took a year off. Far from recuperation and relaxation, Ashton spent the year starting a green gas business, took his Chartered Financial Analyst exams, and set out to sell some of his vast wine collection. With this endeavour in mind, Grant found himself looking at Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Grade II-listed building, which had been empty for 15 years in central London and is now home to 67 Pall Mall. Boasting close to 3000 members, 18 sommeliers, 26,000 bottles of wine (the biggest wine list in the UK), 800 wines by the glass and 12,000 hand-blown Zalto glasses (rumour has it the factory could take no additional orders for several months whilst it worked on the club’s glasses) 67 Pall Mall has established its place in the hearts of wine-lovers the world over, so much so the club is soon planning to expand to Singapore.

The club has always placed value and experience at the centre of its philosophy.  Grant was inspired to open the club after acknowledging wine had become far too expensive, people were downgrading their choices in bars and restaurants due to inflated list prices. His desire was to bring great wine to those who desired it most at subsidised, affordable pricing in a passionate, committed setting. At the heart of all of this, is Ronan Sayburn MS.

Ronan has been in the wine trade for over 20 years. Amongst a number of other noteworthy positions, Ronan has worked for the Gordon Ramsay Group as Executive Head Sommelier, where he created the wine lists and trained service teams for Claridge’s, The Connaught, the Savoy, Boxwood Café, Maze, and more. He also spent time at the Greenhouse restaurant and was Director of Wines and Spirits for the Hotel du Vin group. Ronan also worked as the Head of Wine for the prestigious Dorchester Collection UK, which consists of the Dorchester, Coworth Park and 45 Park Lane. He is a Master Sommelier, a previous winner of the UK Sommelier of the Year competition, and has represented the UK in the European Sommelier Competition twice. As if this wasn’t enough, Ronan is also the COO for the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe.

Revolutionising wine tasting
This week I spoke to Ronan about how he and the team at 67 Pall Mall have transformed the club to cater for members, and wine lovers around the world, during this transformative time of global crisis. The club usually hosts around 4-5 guided tastings a week in the St. James Room, the team were immediately aware that it was imperative they figured out how to continue delivering these sessions to members in the comfort of their own homes in the depths of a global pandemic.

Ronan set about scouring through his extensive industry connections, mustering interest from those wanting to host webinars over the club’s Zoom account to members across the globe. The whole team have contributed to expanding this catalogue of virtual events which has ranged from industry experts hosting guided seminars to the club’s sommeliers hosting masterclasses and quizzes. To date, 67 Pall Mall has hosted almost 250 events which been have streamed across the globe. The growing popularity of the virtual events means that opposed to frantically trying to fill a calendar, winemakers are now approaching the club, each wanting to host their own event. This growing platform has given retailers, winemakers and merchants a much-needed opportunity to place their products and clients in front of eager audiences during a tumultuous downturn in revenue and business.

To make these newly-created virtual events available to as many people, across the globe, as possible the club introduced a new virtual membership. At a mere £10 a month, with no joining fee, the virtual membership affords prospective members access to the virtual events, recordings of these events, those within Europe (the clubs plans to expand internationally post-COVID) the opportunity to receive event-related wine samples by mail, and a once-per-year visit to the club whenever that person may be in the UK.

The majority of online events cropping up in recent weeks have been fundamentally inhibited by a single factor, the accessibility of the accompanying wines. When attending a tasting in person, bottles can be shared amongst attending guests; however, it is at the very least unrealistic to expect members to purchase a large number of bottles for a single guided tasting. Not only is this pricey but it leaves members with 6 open bottles and likely a fair amount of wastage. Even in the context of a much smaller tasting, 3 bottles of wine remains relatively expensive, particularly if the wines are premium. Shipping is also more cumbersome, risky and expensive.

Once they had established an appropriate framework for their online events, acknowledging the importance of tasting along during a webinar, the club had to figure out how to overcome the accessibility problem. In order to do this, self-confessed geek, Grant, with the help of the entire team, had to bring to fruition an entire supply chain, from scratch, in a matter of days.

The decision was made to decant bottles into pre-labelled sample-sized containers to more conveniently ship across Europe. The team sourced a supplier for their miniature 7cl sample-size bottles and immediately purchased the companies complete U.K. and Italian stock. Once these bottles arrive, they enter the club downstairs, are sanitised and labelled and then sent upstairs for filling. To date, 67 Pall Mall has sent well over 30,000 of these sample-size bottles to members across Europe with packs ranging from £60-600.

Bottling chamber at 67 Pall Mall
67 Pall Mall prides itself on service, under regular circumstances members are able to alert the club before visiting in order for wines from their own cellars to be brought to the appropriate temperature. Despite the sample wines being delivered by courier, not sommelier, they were determined to do everything possible to ensure quality was preserved throughout the new process, from decanting to delivery.

The primary risk associated with decanting wines to ship is of course oxidation. To control this, 67 Pall Mall constructed a perspex chamber with openings for gloved hands to enter, reminiscent of a laboratory. An oxygen meter is fitted to the tank and argon gas pumped in until the chamber is devoid of oxygen, thus the risk of oxidation eradicated. In the bottom of the chamber are 10 scales, used to ensure correct measurement, 10 sample-sized bottles sit on a shelf with the shelf above holding 10 funnels and micro-mesh filters, bottles are stored at the back of the chamber and sommeliers work through the lineup, consecutively filling each bottle. They have also attached a pipette to allow the team to test each bottle for faults prior to bottling.

Part of the excitement is the arrival of the pack, wrapped in signature 67 Pall Mall tape. Sliding the insert out of the outer cardboard shell reveals 6 sample-sized bottles beautifully labelled. Included is a tasting mat, each wine in the pack allocated a space, on the back of the tasting mat guidance on serving and storing the wines. This is how to get people engaged, before the tasting even begins I’m excited, this is an experience not just an hour of watching a laptop. 

Within each pack one bottle has a Warm Mark Temperature Tag which indicates whether the wine has experienced moderate or prolonged temperature during transit. Another bottle has a temperature indicator for serving, if your package contains red and white, one for each will be included. Impeccable service doesn’t end at the door, Ronan and his team are ensuring quality to the moment you drink these wines.
For those of you with astute business acumen, you’ll have been thinking about the value of this back-catalogue of content. Ronan tells me that despite midday tastings sometimes only having 20 people in attendance, they are often subsequently downloaded by hundreds of members from the club’s online database. There is a huge focus on wine education at the club, the team plan to upload both the back-catalogue and all future events for members to download in catalogues or their entirety. This presents an invaluable opportunity to wine lovers, an immeasurable resource with attractive topics and revered estates explored by winemakers, owners and leading experts.

The challenges
As anybody who has hosted a virtual event for the first time in the last few months knows, one of the biggest challenges is engaging your audience. I have certainly struggled with this myself, prior to the last few months I had never been behind a camera before, let alone held a live stream with hundreds of people tuning. It’s a daunting prospect and preparation is key.
Whilst you can control your own preparation and environment (lighting, sound quality etc.) you cannot control your guests, at least not entirely. 67 Pall Mall has a commitment to members, they also plan to upload all virtual content for future download and so maintaining a consistent standard is crucial for both the club, the members and the guests wanting to best represent their product or topic. Before each session, the team run through a 1-hour practice session, ensuring the guest has a presentation prepared with photos, maps and are understanding of the format.
As many retailers have noted, and as a logistician by trade I know, delivery can be problematic, couriers vary dramatically in their abilities to deliver within desired timeframes. The club trialled several courtiers before settling with the current provider, UPS. Members received an advance email allowing them to reschedule or have their parcel left with a neighbour or in a safe place.

Looking to the future
As it stands, the events at the club are limited by both capacity and geographic location, the St. James room, for example, fits around 50 guests, this virtual platform is limitless. The virtual events and membership have been so successful that the club plans to continue this service in the future, expanding its reach and giving more wine lovers access to the club’s stellar lineup. In future, all events will be live-streamed with the option to have wine delivered to your home, the club has recently purchased additional real estate and plans to use it to extend the cellar and accommodate the wine shipping line.

Something of a cottage industry has also emerged out of this crisis, 67 Pall Mall has offered their services to merchants such as Flint Wines and Astrum, allowing them to carry out their en primeur tastings within government guidelines and at a reduced cost. This outsourcing of bottling is seriously value-adding, making tastings more affordable for both guest and retailers. In future, we may likely see virtual en primeur and trade events taking place over a number of days with bottles arriving neatly presented from 67 Pall Mall.

Grant, Ronan and the rest of the team at 67 Pall Mall have overcome the most pressing of demands with a pace, intensity and vivacity which ought to inspire the entire industry. The club plans to reopen on the 4th July with limited capacity and adhering to evolving social distancing rules.

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