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A Collector's Tale (June 6, 2002)

Wine lovers are born with the collector's gene. I know a woman who collects wine stains. At home tastings she uses a white table cloth, and when it gets stained she embroiders the name and vintage of the wine next to it.

Once you're hooked on the grape, you get a little crazy; you begin to amass labels, notes, corkscrews, gadgets and other vinous paraphernalia. In my case it's books. My library groans under the weight of some 700 volumes, most which I have never consulted for information. I just love having them around – rather like never going to the British Museum.

I used to haunt second-hand book stores for old wine books, and one day, nearly 25 years ago, I struck gold.

In a pile of eight books there was a ledger-like volume measuring roughly twelve inches by eight inches. Its stiff buff cover was printed with the name Berry Bros. Inside, written in black ink in a thin, sloping hand, were a series of top growth wines mainly from the 1933 vintage. What I held in my hands purported to be the cellar book for the wine cellar in Queen Mary's dolls' house!

I was curious about the book's origins, so I phoned up Berry Bros. and asked to speak to one of the directors. I was put through to Anthony Berry, who invited me to the shop in St. James's the following morning. He ushered me into his office, and when we sat down, I handed him the cellar book. He glanced through it and he told me that it was indeed what it said it was: the hand writing he identified as that of his father, who had been requested by Buckingham Palace to lay down the wine cellar for the Queen's dolls' house at Windsor.

Everything in the Queen's dolls' house is perfectly to scale, Anthony Berry told me, even to the straw sleeves that cover the inch-long champagne bottles in the cellar. And each of the bottles contains the precise wine that is listed in the cellar book, syringed into the miniature bottles. The cellar book I had purchased in a second-hand book store was the model from which a reproduction in Lilliputian form was made -- in exact proportion to its surroundings.

I could see that Berry was holding the book lovingly. I looked around the oak-panelled office that reeked of history and tradition. I thought of my book collection and I gazed at the old account ledgers that spoke to the history of the British Empire. "This book really belongs here," I said. "I would like to present it to you."

I must confess that my gesture was not entirely altruistic. I thought that such a munificent gesture on my part might be rewarded with some really splendid bottles.

"That's very generous of you, old boy," said Berry. "I would like to give you something in return."

Visions of 1927 Taylor's port or a brace of Cheval Blanc 1947 danced before my eyes.

Berry stood up and reached for the shelf above my head. He took down a book, reached for his fountain pen and wrote the following on the fly leaf: "For Tony Aspler... In exchange for the Wine Cellar Book. With best wishes from Anthony Berry, 28 July 1972."

He then handed me the book. It was a copy of Number Three Saint James's Street – A history of Berry's the Wine Merchants by H. Warner Allen.

In hindsight I wish I had inscribed the cellar book to Anthony Berry.

Next time you drop by Berry Bros., ask if you can see it. I do hope it's still there.




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