Lizzy Rudd on 300 years of fine wine

Phoebe Hunt

3 March 2022

Berry Bros & Rudd is among Britain’s original wine and spirit merchants, run by the same two families for centuries. Having survived world wars and more than one pandemic, a fleet of female leaders means the historic business has emerged stronger than ever. Chair Lizzy Rudd talks planting the seed for the next generation, ambitious sustainability plans and creating affordable wine investments for an ever-broader group of oenophiles

3 March 2022 | Phoebe Hunt

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here’s a certain mystique that shrouds any business that dates back 324 years. To put it into context, that’s 1698: older than the USA; nearly 200 years older than the electric lightbulb; and within living memory of the Great Fire of London. This mystique is intensified when you know that the woman who started the small grocers – which would slowly but surely grow into one of the country’s most respected wine merchants – is known only by the name ‘Widow Bourne’.

Today, with two Royal Warrants and three Masters of Wine, Berry Bros. & Rudd is still owned by the two historic families that bear its name – the Berrys and the Rudds – and it is with a scion of the latter, Lizzy Rudd, I sit down with one afternoon. “The business went through incredible hardship during World War II, after which time my grandfather, Hugh Rudd, was the sole remaining partner in a business laden with debt, following the sad death of his two Berry partners during the war,” she begins.

“My grandparents also lost their eldest son, who was killed in action shortly before the end of the war, and would have been due to take over the family firm. Hugh took on all the debt accrued during that time, and with grit and determination ensured the business survived and was rebuilt, no doubt largely driven by the desire to preserve the legacy of his lost Berry friends and family members. The two families remain close friends, we see ourselves similar to cousins, and we get on well together.”

Image: Elena Heatherwick

In comparison, the company has fared rather better in more recent world crises. “Of course, both the pandemic and Brexit have brought their challenges,” Lizzy admits. “But these past two years have seen many people investing more in their wine collections, as well as new customers getting involved. Our customer numbers at the end of 2021 were up 38 per cent on 2019, while our total sales increased 2 per cent on 2020 and 33 per cent on 2019.”

One large difference is that Berry Bros. & Rudd now has a predominantly female leadership team, something that Lizzy assures me came about completely organically. “We happened to fill a couple of key positions with women, and it’s just naturally kept evolving. Of course, given Berry Bros. & Rudd was started by a woman, it’s wonderful to be able to carry on her legacy. All the women I work with have a down-to-earth ‘can-do’ action-oriented approach, are highly organised with a leadership style that’s about empowering our colleagues and taking people with you rather than telling them what to do. Having said that, the men I work with are like that too!”

More generally, the last few years have seen a focus on establishing Berry Bros. & Rudd as a place not only to pick up a few bottles for a dinner party, but to invest in fine wines longer term and build a personal collection. “Everyone is welcome to the Widow Bourne's shop, whether they want one bottle or a cellarful,” reads the website, but Lizzy and her team are aware that long-term investments are serious business. “We help customers collect the very best fine wines for future drinking – wines which will be a pleasure to enjoy when they’re ready,” she says, pointing to the brand’s BBX wine exchange as a useful tool for those who decide to sell instead of crack open their bottles.

There is one golden rule she gives anyone thinking of investing in wine, however: you’ve got to enjoy it and love what you buy. As Lizzy explains, “I liken investing in wine to buying a house that you want to enjoy as your home, not just a property. We always recommend building your cellar around your favourites and what will bring you the most enjoyment from your future drinking, while expanding your horizons to build a balanced collection.”

Nevertheless, Lizzy acknowledges that purchasing wine the year it’s bottled and watching how it fluctuates in value can be a wonderful way to develop passion and knowledge. It brings excitement, flexibility and a sense of ownership to your future drinking, and might help you discover some unexpected new favourites or smaller producers.

Which brings us to another vital part of Berry Bros & Rudd business: the growers and makers themselves. “Our role as a wine merchant is to look after our wine producers as much as our customers,” Lizzy explains. “It’s an incredibly important part of the business and one that really sets us apart from other wine merchants, assuring the provenance and exclusivity of our wines through forming long-term relationships and friendships with our producers. We see ourselves as the closest link between those who make the wine and those who drink it.”

This strong relationship allows BBR’s buyers to support and nurture winemakers who align with the brand’s ethics. One crucial aspect of this over the past few years has been sustainability, both in winemaker partnerships and the company’s own operations. So, what is Berry Bros. & Rudd doing about its carbon footprint, I ask?

“We’re very ambitious when it comes to sustainability and are aiming to get to net-zero carbon emissions across our entire supply chain by 2030. Some of this inevitably will have to come from technological innovations, such as net-zero glass production, but we have plans in the meantime to bring our own controllable emissions to zero as quickly as possible.”

Among other large scale commitments is a new state-of-the-art wine warehouse due to open later this summer, which will generate its own energy supply, operate rainwater harvesting and run at net-zero carbon by 2025. “We’re also introducing a number of new electric vehicles to our fleets, all energy we use in our offices comes from renewable sources, and we actively promote sustainable wine producers, who thankfully very much align with the best quality wines from around the world,” Lizzy concludes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what are Lizzy’s tips on the best wines to be drinking and investing in for 2022. “For drinking this year, the 2000 and 2005 vintages of Bordeaux are maturing really nicely, and many are absolutely ready to open and share with good friends and good food. Champagne is always a winner too – the 2015 Champagne Leclerc Briant, Millesime, Extra Brut is tasting particularly delicious at the moment, and will be excellent for any celebration this year. I’m also currently really enjoying our 2016 Berry Bros. & Rudd Own Selection Barolo. 2016 was a stunning vintage in this region and the wine is absolutely divine.” You heard it here first.

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