The Master of Pall Mall

An interview with Ronan Sayburn MS by Robert Joseph.

Ronan Sayburn MW/Cath Lowe
Ronan Sayburn MW/Cath Lowe

Since being named top sommelier in the UK, Ronan Sayburn MS has worked in many of the country’s best restaurants, as well as in leading establishments in New York and Tokyo. In 2013, he helped to plan then execute the launch 67 Pall Mall in London as a members’ club for wine enthusiasts and the wine industry. By March 2020, when Covid-19 closed down clubs and restaurants — along with almost every other business sector in Britain — 67 Pall Mall had already become known internationally and builders were working on a new offshoot in Singapore. The decision to launch large numbers of online tastings, however, has helped to build the reputation of the club, and Sayburn, across the world. As well as being wine director of 67 Pall Mall, he is also the current CEO of the European chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

MEININGER’S: How did you get into the wine industry? 
SAYBURN: I grew up in Scarborough in Yorkshire, and my father was always interested in wine. I’d love to say I sat on his knee and drank my first glass of Petrus when I was four, but his interest was in making it from parsnips and blackberries rather than drinking fine stuff. 
When I was at university studying geology, I did summer jobs in catering, got my catering qualifications and got more and more into wine. I remember reading tasting notes and smelling wine and thinking “it’s all bullshit”, then one day reading that barrels could give wine a vanilla character and picking up a glass of Chardonnay and being bowled over because it smelled exactly like creme brulée.

MEININGER’S: Was it easy to become a sommelier in the UK in those days? 
SAYBURN: I got to be a restaurant manager in Scarborough in the 1990s, when there weren’t any sommeliers. So I did all the buying while taking my WSET exams. One day I picked up a restaurant magazine with a picture of Gerard Basset on the cover in his sommelier uniform holding a bottle of Sassicaia. I wrote to him saying “this is amazing, there’s a job where you can actually do wine and you don’t have to be the manager and worry about all the other stuff”. He wrote a long letter back advising me to work somewhere good with a big wine list. So I phoned Raymond Blanc at the Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which at the time was a gastronomic temple. And he offered me a job.

MEININGER’S: Was that a baptism of fire?
SAYBURN: I was the only person in a team of 14 who wasn’t French, and was older than the others. I had quite a lot of knowledge but no tasting ability or fine dining service skills, so I had to catch up pretty quickly. I’d see the guys huddled in the corner talking French and I’d be thinking they must be talking about the subtle nuances of difference terroir between Burgundy vineyards, and they were actually talking about the football or the good-looking girl on table six. So I studied and tasted like crazy and absorbed as much information as I could about wine, and eventually they made me number two because I had management experience and could organise a team. After three or four years I went to work selling wine for a top London merchant called O W Loeb.

MEININGER’S: Were you a good wine salesman?
SAYBURN: No, I was far too much of a sommelier. I’d sit down and taste all the wines and say, “they’re all a bit closed and mean at the moment… How much do you want to buy?” But I’d won the UK Sommelier of the Year competition and really wanted to get back into the sommelier world. I worked for Gordon Ramsay in London, Tokyo and New York for a few years, then took some time out teaching scuba diving in Thailand and Malta, and flew back to London on the day that the whole world melted in 2007. Then I worked for the Greenhouse, Hotel du Vin and the Dorchester.

MEININGER’S: And then came 67 Pall Mall?
SAYBURN: In 2013, I met Grant Ashton and he told me about his idea for a wine club. I thought it sounded like an amazing idea, but there had been other attempts to start other wine-based clubs in London, so I needed to be convinced.

MEININGER’S: What made this project different?
SAYBURN: The others were by people in the wine or hospitality business; 67 started off as Grant with a lot of his friends — city guys who’d end up buying lots and lots of wine they never get around to drinking. They were saying we need to have a venue where we can go, take our own wine and drink it for a very small cost — a bit of a boys’ drinking club with steaks for £20 ($26) and £20 corkage on a bottle of wine. The more people they told about this the idea, the bigger it got and I now think we’ve got about 80 investors.

MEININGER’S: How has the project evolved? 
SAYBURN: Grant’s a banker and he didn’t know much about hospitality, so very early on, conversations went “so what do we need to do to make it the best wine venue in London, if not the world?” And I’d reply “we need the best glasses, and lots of them”. And he’d say, “Okay.” Then: “We need a big sommelier team” — “Okay.” “We need a big wine list” — “Okay.”
And then there were these very innovative ideas about how we were going to do things, and the most important thing for me was having low mark-ups of between 20 and 40 percent. 

MEININGER’S: So how did all this translate into a venue within a stone’s throw of Buckingham Palace?
Sayburn: We found an empty bank on the same street as some of the most famous old clubs in London and it immediately felt right.

MEININGER’S: How easy was it to get a long lease?
SAYBURN: It belongs to the Crown Estates and the people at the Palace don’t like people who are too pushy. If you come in gently with a sensible plan, they say “let us think about it for a year”. And then another year. And if you’re soft and gentle and quiet and not too pushy then it’s “okay we’ll give you a go”, which means you get a lease. But you then have to go through the St James’s Trust which looks after all the businesses and clubs in the area. 

Ours was the first members’ club to open in St James for 98 years. And those historic clubs like the Travellers, Boodle’s and RAC follow quite strict dress codes and licensing hours — all of that sort of stuff. For our dress code we managed to get “smart casual”; a collared shirt and a jacket. You can wear smart jeans because the film director Ridley Scott insisted.

During our first summer “smart casual” meant no one could take their jackets off because if the St James’s Trust had come in we could have got in trouble. 

MEININGER’S: And how closely did the club resemble the original plan?
SAYBURN: There’s three ways you can drink wine at 67 Pall Mall. You either bring your own bottle and pay £20 corkage whatever the wine, or you can order off our list. And as a member you can store 12 bottles of your own wine and say, “I’ll be coming in for lunch tomorrow please chill it or decant it” in advance.

MEININGER’S: So where was the original investment from and how much was it?
SAYBURN: Grant is the biggest shareholder and a lot of his friends. And the cost began at something like £3m ($3.6m) but then it took another £5m ($6) or £6m ($7m) for the refurbishment.

MEININGER’S: How many wines are there on the list? 
SAYBURN: We’re at about 5,000, but we have just bought a garage up the road which we’re going to make into a cellar, so we hope the list will go up to about 10,000.

MEININGER’S: How important are events?
SAYBURN: We probably do five a week, perhaps one or two of which are our own. So a typical week might be something like me doing a masterclass, say, on the Rhone Valley in the St James’s Room; a winemaker might come in to do a class. There might be a private dinner booked by a member or a wine company, and a wine company doing a walk-around tasting for up to 120 people.

MEININGER’S: Before Covid-19, you were on track to open a second club in Singapore. What has happened there?
SAYBURN: I think the plan was always to go overseas. We looked at several sites in Asia — in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen — but the site we found in Singapore seemed like the best. A lot of our stock actually comes from members and we have a lot of them in Singapore. We should have been opening in October or November, but now it’ll be early next year.

MEININGER’S: When lockdown led to the London club closing its doors, what did you do?
SAYBURN: We thought, let’s try and do some webinars. Let’s contact the wine people we know and try to do something to keep our members engaged. Now, we’re doing 35 a week. It’s such a global audience that it doesn’t matter what time of the day they are. So people who are not going to watch them at 12 o’clock in London will see them at eight o’clock in Singapore. Everything is recorded.

MEININGER’S: Who gets to see them and how many viewers are there?
SAYBURN: All the webinars we’ve been doing are free during the lockdown but after that it will be more of a subscription. We’ve brought in virtual membership for £10 a month, which offers access to all our back library of video archives. And full members can order tasting packs so they can taste along with the expert. The biggest live audience was 600 or so, for Jasper Morris on Burgundy.

MEININGER’S: How did you come to devise the tasting pack?
SAYBURN: We were looking at the idea of liquid entertainment. Grant is very geeky. He loved working out how to let people taste small, 75ml samples of the wines that were being talked about. So he did a lot of trials, sending out packs, having people taste the wines and seeing how they travelled. On every bottle, there are two strips that tell you if the temperature has risen over 20 degrees, and the average temperature during transit.

MEININGER’S: How long did all this take to plan?
SAYBURN: Oh, a couple of weeks. We had to source the bottles. We’ve had deliveries of pallets of 4,000 from Italy.

MEININGER’S: What is the shelf life of these samples?
SAYBURN: We wash the bottles in alcohol and sparge them with argon, put the wines in, sparge with argon again and seal with a very tight plastic bung. We’ve only been doing it for eight weeks. But we FedEx them out and hope they’re going to get there within 48 or 72 hours — at least a couple of days in advance of the tasting, just to be sure. We’ve sent out more than 12,000 bottles and have had almost no issues. A couple of people said that a 2009 white Burgundy was a bit oxidised but that may have had more to do with the wine than the sample.

MEININGER’S: Who’s actually organising all of this?
SAYBURN: Initially it’s me contacting people all over the world saying, would you like to be part of it: vineyard owners, sommeliers, winemakers, journalists, authors, generic regions. And we’ve taken out all the tables and chairs of both floors of the club and turned it all into a bottling line where the office team and all the sommeliers are working — socially distanced, of course.

MEININGER’S: Are the producers paying for the sessions?
SAYBURN: Let’s say New Zealand Winegrowers wants to do a tasting of six wines for wine buyers and media. Rather than send them all six full bottles, we can bottle up tasting samples and send them out to those 30 people. The New Zealanders have a speaker who talks the people through the wines using their own Zoom chat or our Zoom licence. We don’t charge for the tastings but we make a £48 per six-pack charge for bottling the samples in sterile conditions and FedExing them. 

MEININGER’S: What is the largest number you’ve sent out? And where are they going?
SAYBURN: We did more than 200 for Jasper Morris. Most go to the UK and some places are easier than others. A pack we sent to Singapore got ripped apart because they wanted to know what was in it.

MEININGER’S: How sustainable is the production of 35 webinars per week?
SAYBURN: When we come out of lockdown, people will have to go back to work, but we’re building up a bank of solid webinars and good relationships with the wineries. Plus for them it’s good advertising. A lot of our members drink Bordeaux and Burgundy and Krug and that’s the level of their imagination, so it’s good to be able to show them new and different things. And, of course, we could use the same model to help Bordeaux run part of its en primeur campaign without all the critics having to fly there. Even if the Bordelais don’t get it, I’m sure there will be other producers who might like to have the new vintage of their new super premium wine rated by 100 of our key members. There’s a lot of potential. When we get the new garage space, we’re going to move the production line there, and we will livestream all of our events in the St James’s Room. 

MEININGER’S: Are there any other new plans?
SAYBURN: We’re developing Zoom webinars for merchants. Flint Wines wanted to do one on Burgundy for its best clients, so we packed the wine and sent it out with tasting mats with its logo. As far as its clients are concerned, it was a Flint thing. 
Our website has gone from being a site with information to a window to what we do. The next thing is food — starting a home delivery service of classic dishes the members love. We’ve only been around for five years but think most people in the wine world know about us. We’re at a stage where they are contacting us to say, “we hear you’re doing these webinars can we be part of it? And what else are you doing?”

Interview by Robert Joseph

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.

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