Mayfair’s most wanted: ES meets Yevgeny Chichvarkin
How does a Russian oligarch on the run with a taste for fruity New World plonk become London’s premier wine dealer? John Arlidge meets Yevgeny Chichvarkin
To succeed in business you need luck. Yevgeny Chichvarkin has had dollops of it, most of it bad. He has been persecuted by the Russian authorities and was forced to flee to London, hiding from the Moscow police in the back of a car. Once he arrived, he spent a fortune on lawyers resisting extradition and fighting what he insists are trumped-up kidnapping charges.
But that was then. Today, he stands at the door of Hedonism. It’s not a lap-dancing bar; it is, he says, “the finest wine shop in London”. The thing is, he’s right. The capital’s big vintners, Berry Bros & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks — both a cork’s throw away on St James’s — and El Vino on Fleet Street may have nifty cellars and be so old that they have the paperwork to prove Napoleon was a customer, but they are not really shops. They are merchants’ houses with bars and restaurants attached.
Hedonism on Davies Street, which opened four months ago, is the only store devoted to the best wines and spirits in the world, all sold in the kind of multimillion-pound designer space that is more Moschino than Majestic.
Walking across Berkeley Square past the Rolls-Royce and Bentley showrooms, the latest designer shops, new members-only clubs and spiffy restaurants, you soon begin to wonder why it has taken anyone so long to open a place like Hedonism. “Mayfair is the perfect terroir for this business,” Chichvarkin grins.
But he is an unlikely grape pedlar. The 38-year-old started drinking vodka in his late teens because “Russian wine is terrible”. He insists: “My taste in wine is awful. I like big bursting fruit explosions — Shiraz, Grenache. My favourite wine is American, not from Burgundy. I don’t drink champagne.” It’s not his fault. He’s a technophile, not an oenophile.
Fourteen years ago he founded Evroset, Russia’s biggest mobile phone company, and in the early days of wild east capitalism made hundreds of millions of roubles. At its height, Evroset had more than 5,000 shops in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But four years ago everything changed in a heartbeat. “I went out one morning the boss of a large mobile phone company and ended up in exile in London.”
Chichvarkin had been under investigation for weeks. The police alleged he had kidnapped a truck driver because he believed the driver had stolen a $1m consignment of the latest mobile phones. Prosecutors wrote to him asking him to appear for interview. He refused. He was innocent, he said. Three days before Christmas Day, he left home in his car to go to work and noticed he was being tailed by the police. That meant one thing. “They were going to arrest me and, after that, I knew it would be very bad,” he recalls. “Things in Russia don’t happen the way things do in England.”
‘They were going to arrest me and i knew it would be bad. Things in Russia don’t happen as they do here’
He managed to give the cops the slip, met up with a colleague and persuaded him to drive him straight to Domodedovo, Moscow’s main airport. Luckily, he was carrying his passport and already had a British visa. “I was so scared I lay face down on the back seat, so no police could see me.” At the airport, he bought a ticket for the first flight to London and was relieved to find immigration did not stop him leaving. “They were not expecting me to go just like that,” he says. His wife Antonina and their two children, then under ten, followed him the next morning. The family have been here ever since. They live near Godalming in Surrey.
Chichvarkin’s employee and co-accused, Boris Levin, was not so fortunate. He was arrested and spent years in prison before being released when a jury dismissed all the charges against both men. Chichvarkin was tried in absentia. He says he was targeted by the Russian authorities because he spoke out against government policies on business and tax.
Chichvarkin spent his first years in his new home selling Evroset for $400m, resisting extradition and fighting to prove his innocence. Once he had done that, he, like all entrepreneurs, got bored. Projects came and went. Like many tortured souls, he found his salvation at the bottom of a bottle — a £170 2001 Roda Cirsion to be precise. Chichvarkin wanted to share the Rioja with Antonina. So he telephoned Justerini & Brooks, Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nichols and just about anyone else he could think of. “They all had the same answer. No. The best any of them could do was to get it to me in two weeks. I was amazed. I knew then I had my business. Upscale wine with luxury service.”
He knew a bit about high-end retail: he used to manage the Vertu luxury phone stores in Russia. But, lacking the right palate, he needed help. It came in the form of the aptly named Alistair Viner. Chichvarkin persuaded him to leave his post as chief wine buyer for Harrods by handing him a more or less unlimited budget to buy the best booze in the world.
Two years and millions of air miles later, Viner has not disappointed. Hedonism stocks more vintages of the big names than a connoisseur could ever want — 4,500 wines and 1,500 spirits. There are walls of rare Krug and Dom Pérignon champagnes, some signed by family members. A magnum of 1959 Dom Pérignon rosé, the first ever made, can be yours for £19,954. Lovers of Romanée-Conti and La Tâche could spend half a day in the Burgundy section, and most of a fortune. There are 21 and 23 vintages of each. A 2005 Romanée-Conti complete magnum set costs £101,709.
There are 15 rare vintages of Montrachet. Latour goes back to 1961, Lafite to 1949 and Pétrus to 1945. Pride of place, however, goes to the amber-coloured wall of 85 bottles of Château d’Yquem, the world’s most celebrated dessert wine, the earliest an 1811. Yes, you read that right. The bottle really is 201 years old. The price? £98,700. There are rare sherries, Cognacs, whiskies, eaux de vie, and rums. A bottle of Glenfiddich 1955 Janet Sheed Roberts, bottle number one of eight, costs £123,000.
With big names and even bigger prices, critics and assorted wine snobs have dismissed Chichvarkin as just another Russian who has brought a “more flash than class” style to W1. He’s rich, all right, and not afraid to spend. The shop alone cost £2m — “crazy expenditure. I stress when I think about it.” He has hired 15 wine experts who can speak dozens of languages between them.
But Hedonism is not flashy. Think matt, not gloss, woods. Copper, not chrome, lights. Ben Murray, one of the wine specialists, insists he is “as happy putting together a case of whites and reds under £20 a bottle as I am selling the wines we keep under lock and key”.
Chichvarkin isn’t flash either. In fact, wearing his rumpled clothes, sporting a straggly beard and mullet haircut, and speaking so softly he’s almost whispering, he seems more like a Shoreditch artist than a cocksure gazillionaire. Hedonism “is not an oligarch’s plaything,” he insists.
But you can have a great time browsing — or bottle fondling as it’s known. And you can taste up to 40 vintages from a special cabinet that keeps opened bottles fresh for up to three weeks “although no bottle lasts that long”, Chichvarkin jokes. Prices for a 25cl shot — the maximum Hedonism’s licence permits — vary from 90p for Château Saperavi from Georgia to £21 for Château d’Yquem 1988.
Chichvarkin insists the venture “will break even by the end of 2015” and has hired a hard-as-nails Russian CEO, Tatiana Fokina, who used to run a modern art gallery in St Petersburg, to make sure it does. If that happens, what’s next? “Hedonism could work in New York or Shanghai. Only Moscow is off-limits. I can’t go back there.”
Chichvarkin’s father still lives in Russia but visits his son in London. Chichvarkin says he prefers a quiet family life to the billionaire boys’ club antics of many Russians in London. Friends confirm that he rarely socialises in town, except for business. “He spends most of his time working and then goes home to Surrey,” says one. His one big indulgence is polo.
Mobile phones or Côtes du Rhône, what’s better? He smiles. “To earn good money, it’s phones. But for balance, for what I really like to do, it’s wine.” Now all the Willy Wonka of wine has to do is drink some more, so he can learn to appreciate the grands crus he sells as much as those who buy them.