Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Enigma variations

Published:  23 July, 2008

The usual perception of John Armit is as a provider of beautiful wines to beautiful people. Yet the reality is somewhat more complex, as Margaret Rand discovers.

Look, I am sorry about this. I really am. John Armit specifically asked me not to focus on Corney & Barrow when I wrote about him, and here I am kicking off with Corney & Barrow. I tried not to: my screen is littered with alternative beginnings that led nowhere. So here we are: Corney & Barrow. You see, I asked both Armit and Adam Brett-Smith of C&B what the differences are between the two companies. Armit, of course, was MD of C&B from 1969 to 1978, having organised a management buy-out after a five-minute meeting with "a banker I'd met", Evy Hambro. Armit remained a consultant to C&B until 1987. One of the big differences, according to Brett-Smith, is "between image and reality. That gap is wider with us than it is with John Armit Wines." (C&B, in other words, is not the old-fashioned company of the popular imagination, exclusively male and run by chinless wonders.) And yet the more I think about Armit, the more I wonder if Brett-Smith is wrong. There is a gap between image and reality at John Armit Wines; the trouble is, I am not certain which is the image and which is the reality. Armit described his company as "more modern in outlook than C&B"; he talked at other points of the great enthusiasm of the staff, and of how the company makes wine more accessible and less intimidating. "We care about service," he said. But the usual perception of John Armit Wines is of a company that sells to a limited clique of extremely wealthy private customers and top restaurants, and is not hugely interested in anyone else. The interviews with restaurateurs that are dotted throughout the printed list reinforce the suggestion of cliqueyness: here we are, they seem to say; we're influential and famous and witty, and we're all best mates with John Armit Wines, and John Armit Wines is best mates with us. (One, Tony Mackintosh, is even a director of John Armit Wines, which is taking cliqueyness a degree further.) And yet this is not quite the image that Armit wishes to put over. "It probably comes from an excess of enthusiasm - there's a lot of enthusiasm in the company. You think it's self-congratulatory? I must read it." Some of the company's latest moves are certainly directed at selling to the person in the street. A range of John Armit branded wines is being launched, with labels as beautiful as you would expect - the design stems from Armit's love of colour-field painting. A parallel range of wines, some of which are the same and some of which will be different cuves, is being launched with Tate Modern. And they will no doubt be of excellent quality. As one of the interviewed restaurateurs said: "The good thing about John Armit Wines is the wines. But I have a problem with the company: they don't look after me very well, and in spite of that they ask me to do things like that interview. It implies a great relationship, which is somewhat laughable. I feel they rather neglect me. But I'm on the sidelines: Kensington Place is probably better looked after, because it's close by [close to the company's office in London W11]. John's rather aloof: he's never made any attempt to talk to me."

Contradictory character

As the company, so the man. With Armit, one comes up constantly against this contradiction between somebody who has spent much of his career starting highly successful clubs (Dingwalls, Zanzibar, the Groucho), and yet is not by his own account clubbable. "I only ever started anything because it was the sort of place I wanted to go to. It was a question of seeing a gap, thinking I'd like to go to a place like this, but it doesn't exist. The places Tony [Mackintosh] and I invested in reflected our lives Tony Mackintosh ran them. My only involvement was in enthusing everyone." The clubs Armit belongs to are the Groucho, the Vanderbilt, where he plays tennis, and the Ausone Club. This last takes the cake for exclusivity: there are six members, two of whom (Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran) are art dealers from the Lefvre Gallery where the roughly tri-annual lunches are held, and another two (David Davies and William Guinness) are directors of John Armit Wines. The fifth member is Mark Birley. It started when Armit was having lunch at the gallery and somebody there said they'd never drunk Chteau Ausone. "So I said: This is the best lunch room in London, and I'll bring the wine if you do lunch.' I brought the 1929, the 1952 and the 1955. There were a few others there, and at the end we said: This is the best fun we've had in years. Let's form a club.'" Under club rules pre-1956 Ausone (the year of the frost) must be drunk every time. John Armit Wines is also a member of The Bunch but, according to one source: "John doesn't quite seem to fit. I remember one occasion when the others were all inside tasting, and John just sat outside smoking." There is, however, no disputing Armit's dedication to The Bunch cause of individuality in wine. His list contains nothing dull, nothing commonplace. "I sometimes wonder if we're going against the tide," Armit offered at one point. "Perhaps that's not what the world is looking for." It would be a foolhardy person who would take a bet against the Armit instinct, however - and it is intuition, he says, that guides his moves, not analysis. When he first started his own company, in 1982, it was called John Armit Wine Investment Ltd, and it was one of the few wine investment companies of that era to succeed. "I realised that I'd been making more money out of playing around with my personal cellar than out of the occasional investment that I'd made, and then one or two friends said would I buy wine for them on a larger scale so that they could keep some and sell some. So I decided to make it into a business, with a limited number of customers." The maximum number of clients was 100.

Intuitive investor

Intuition also guided his decision, after much deliberation, not to open a hotel on Sri Lanka. He had gone there after leaving C&B: "I wanted a complete change. The hotel would have had 12 rooms, with the lagoon on one side and the sea on the other. It would only have been open six months of the year. We would have picked up people at the airport, driven them through the hill country, down through the rainforest, then taken them in an outrigger canoe across the lagoon to the hotel. But I felt an underlying tension in Sri Lanka." His intuition must be remarkably reliable. He has never, he says, made a bad investment, although: "I've had worries, concerns, occasional moments of terror." When John Armit Wine Investment Ltd started in 1982, he bought 0.75 million worth of wine en primeur, reckoning to sell it before he had to pay anything. "I did it by the skin of my teeth I quite like a gamble, and this was an enormous gamble. I was risking my reputation, my money, everything." It worked, "but it wasn't as easy as I'd thought it would be". Putting Pomerol on the map seems to have been simple by comparison. Having been given various Pomerol agencies for C&B by Jean-Pierre Moueix (Armit's approach to wine buying centred on visiting the vineyards, an innovation in the early 1970s), Armit interested Michael Broadbent MW in doing a special sale. "I could buy back to 1961 in 100-case lots of these wines. I told a lot of people, and sort of placed the wine. I also made sure people had stocks of more recent vintages." Ten per cent of the UK allocation went, and still goes, to Armit personally, though these days his company takes it. There have, naturally, been ups and downs with growers. Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d'Estournel took on board comments that Armit made about the perception of Cos; Jean-Hubert Delon of Loville-Lascases, he says, was less receptive. And there has been a break with Olivier Leflaive which, according to Armit, started with a dispute over what was printed about him in the list, and escalated. In the 1999-2000 list, restaurateur Nick Hayward chooses Olivier Leflaive's Le Montrachet as his desert island wine, but never mind.