Even the most seasoned collector can need guidance in the nuanced world of wine. Giles Smith Walker is the man to provide it. By Brian Noone
During his 12 years at pre-eminent London wine merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd, Giles Smith Walker advised individuals with some of the most refined palates in the world about which wines they should buy, which they should lay down and which they should drink up. For the last seven of those years, he was also in charge of hosting groups at the centuries-old St James Street premises, whether they wanted to sample a range of vintages or sup in the stupendous vaulted underground dining room.
It’s safe to say, then, that Smith Walker knows a thing or two about wine. But his easy, amiable manner displays none of the arrogance such expertise can so easily produce. He’s funny and candid, and his confidence is generous rather than imperious – doubtless the qualities that allowed him to strike out on his own in 2011, bringing many of his Berry Brothers clients with him to his new venture, The Independent Vintner.
His work for clients now takes a very similar form as his previous role: there is, in his words, “some buying, some consultancy, some event planning – I like to say ‘managing their drinking’.” He approaches each client individually, usually after a word-of-mouth recommendation, and finds out exactly what they want. For the most part, he says, they have the standard three questions: “What do I buy? Where do I put it? How do I look after it?” – all of which he’s well-equipped to answer.
Occasionally, given his background with hospitality, he’s asked to perform more complicated tasks. One client thought a wine tasting would be just the right way to ease into a business meeting on his yacht, anchored at Cannes, so Smith Walker flew in and hosted the tasting, slipping out after a few hours, once the banter turned into business.
“The other conversation I often have with clients is
about investment,” says Smith Walker. “I can source select, and I manage and store wines for people. I don’t offer direct financial advice, but historically wines have increased in value over time simply due to supply and demand.” It is, of course, a passion investment, and a number of clients do choose to drink their bounty rather than sell it on, but Smith Walker is well versed in the wine market, understanding just the sorts of factors – provenance, bottle condition – that can make a significant difference in valuation.
He was recently inducted as a Liveryman in the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the great 12 medieval guilds of the City of London, placing him in very select company. His own provenance, however, is from beer-brewing stock: “Our family were in the brewing trade,” he explains. “My great-grandfather owned a brewery in Greenwich.” He, too, was drinking almost exclusively beer, when one day “my father gave me a bottle of wine, and there were flavours, sensations – the taste buds were awakened from the dull lager I was drinking previously”. This interest led to a month-long stint at champagne vineyards in Epernay, where he picked the harvest, took part in the crushing of the grapes, then the sugaring and adding the yeast, all the while drinking champagne at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Within a year of this immersion, his passion was piqued – he says he was a “keen amateur” – and he had a job at Berry Bros, where his education accelerated.
And despite his reserves of knowledge, he says he’s still learning everyday. Next up on his slate is the annual April en primeur pilgrimage to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. “It’s good to get out there and taste,” he says. “You’ve got to do it every year because the wine can change quite a bit.” And for most of his clients, that’s the only change they’d like to see.
Only, Spring 2013