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