The Buyer
Giles James: choosing what wines stars drink at Groucho Club  

Giles James: choosing what wines stars drink at Groucho Club  

There will be many individuals in the drinks industry who might have lost an afternoon or two in the Groucho Club – or other similar private institutions in the heart of London. But Giles James has a very good reason for hanging out amongst the great and good of the film, media and acting worlds as he is responsible for deciding which wines they enjoy whilst they do their mixing and mingling. A role he has now able to make even more his own under the recent new ownership of the Artfarm group that is quickly making its name as one of the most influential custodians of premium drinking and dining institutions across the country. He talks to Richard Siddle about what really goes on behind the scenes at the Groucho – at least when it comes to drinking wine.

Richard Siddle
26th February 2024by Richard Siddle
posted in People,People: On-Trade,

As wine buying jobs go Giles James’ position at the Groucho Club takes some beating, but only if you don’t mind working on wine labels with Damien Hirst, co-hosting an evening with Stanley Tucci and creating a list capable of living up to Groucho’s motto – “where mavericks belong”.

Giles James believes he has a pretty good idea of what wines the average Groucho Club member wants to drink as he has been a member himself for over 10 years. Which meant he was ideally placed when the club’s previous owners were looking for a friendly face to take over managing the list.

“I was approached by the club in 2019 to come in as both wine buyer and staff trainer,” says James. This was the first appointment of its type for the club.

The fact the club turned to James to take on the role was, he believes, down to the fact that, yes, he was a member, but he had also built up a good relationship with the club’s management team and understood the workings of the club, the wine trade.

The Groucho club is a complex set up with multiple bars, restaurants and private rooms to manage. “They wanted to bring in someone who could manage the supply and commercial side of things, build relationships with its suppliers and take the maintenance off their hands,” he explains.

Giles James has built up a strong network of producers and suppliers he can work with through his own wine importer business ID Wines known. Picture Thomas Skovsende.

A role that has been stepped up considerably since the Artfarm group, run by former Fortnum & Mason chief executive, Ewan Venters, took over the club for a reported £40m from previous owners, Alcuin Capital Partners, in August 2022.

Artfarm brings it into a business dedicated to supporting, promoting and investing in premium, and prestigious restaurants, bars and hotels across the UK, and looks to preserve the clubs culture and heritage of a membership associated with the arts. The Artfarm group includes the Fife Arms in the Highlands of Scotland, The Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset, and the Audley Public House and Mount Street restaurant, plus the newly opened Farm Shop, all in Mayfair, London. Artfarm being the hospitality arm of Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s most successful commercial galleries.

Key changes

One of the first decisions Venters made on taking over Groucho was to bring famed chef and restaurateur, Mark Hix, out of semi-retirement as food and beverages director which has been a particular boost for James as he now has an even more starring role pulling an ambitious, but carefully targeted wine list together. Acclaimed bar and cocktails consultant, Nick Strangeway, has been brought in to look after the spirits and bar side of the operation.

Highly respected chef and restaurateur Mark Hix has been brought into Groucho as its new food and beverages director

“The brief is to very much carry on what I was doing before, but with a clear direction that we want to enhance our members experience every time they come to the club,” explains James.

“We will sit down together and look at the sales data and what is selling well and what is not.

Mark also brings a wealth of knowledge and contacts to the mix too”

He has worked hard to build an understanding of and close working relationship with Hix,so that he can source the wines he thinks can work well in the club and compliment the style of cuisine.

In turn, Hix has also freed up James to explore new wines for the list. An opportunity he has grasped to shine a bright light on English wine with a number of new listings for both still and sparkling wines.

“Mark and I are great advocates of the English wine industry and together have curated a concise but growing list working directly with the producers.”

Groucho is now working, amongst others, with Beacon Down, Castlewood, Dermot Sugrue, Herbert Hall, and Gutter & Stars.

Chris Wilson’s Gutter&Stars winery is one of a number of small, independent English producers that James has introduced to Groucho’s list

“If you can find the right wines, England can be a real point of difference now. There are such modern, elegant, exciting styles of wine out there. It is developing into such an important category that we now have a range of still wines coming through as well.”

Quality and value

The Groucho club might be private with a black book of members that even the Oscars would like to get their hands on, but its members are a broad church and want to see value for money at every turn on both the main food menus and particularly on the wine list.

Which is why James has worked hard to build a range that starts at just over £30 and works its way up to to over £1,000 a bottle. “Previously the highest priced wines went up to around £385.”

He adds: “It has always been crucial to offer value which is why we have kept the club red and white under the £30 mark. To facilitate this we now work with, and ship from the producer, directly”.

He has also introduced Coravin to allow the list to carry more prestigious, premium wines which can be bought by the glass, or the bottle. Which has allowed James to introduce more wines at between £100 to £200 a bottle and bring focus to the English wines.

“We have some classics from Burgundy, the Rhône and Tuscany and then some interesting things from across the New World. It’s working really well and there’s a good uptake from our members and guests. The English wines in particular are doing well under Coravin, as it’s an opportunity to experiment without committing to a bottle.”

The Groucho Club has a number of restaurants and bars that all share the same wine list

But he also has his eyes firmly set on searching the world and going to “lesser known areas” in order to “bring more interest to the list”. “Portugal, for example, has a lot to offer by way of uniqueness and diversity”

James says it has been great, for example, to work with Cramele Recas and source great quality, but excellent value wines from Romania priced at below £40 a bottle. “The staff love it and recommend it all the time. In fact if we took it off the list there would be a riot.”

He adds: “It is a balance between having new wines to discover alongside the more well known names and regions on the list, and recognising the fact a good chunk of our membership like to see the classics on there as well.”

Which is why he has also worked hard to build up its by the glass range to have a more diverse range of wines to choose from. That way members get to know the likes of Malavasia, for example, and they can be introduced to the main list.

All of which requires a good contacts list to source the right wines, which is where James’ extensive experience as a wine importer himself, through ID Wines, and his previous roles at Corney & Barrow and Bibendum really come to the fore.

“We have a broad range of suppliers that we work with and what we look for, crucially, is reliability and consistency, as well as a portfolio that meets our requirements. Having worked in the trade side myself I like to think I understand both sides of the equation and are fair while meeting the needs of the club.”

Going private

Giles James is looking to work with producers and suppliers to create more private label wines for the Groucho list

It is also increasingly looking to build up its own private label wines and go out and find its own producers to not just list their wines, but blend and make their own wines too.

Which has opened up great new opportunities to make the most of some of the amazing talent and credentials of its members. Particularly when it comes to choosing the designs for its labels.

There are not many private clubs that have Damien Hirst willing to offer his artwork for your private label wines. Its club white Burgundy, for example, comes with a Hirst painting on its label.

“It is so much fun to work on these projects and massively rewarding to get the chance to work with art from artists such as Damien Hirst and Sir Peter Blake,” says James.

Ultimately, though, it is about sourcing the club wines at better pricing. Which is where, again, he is able to use his ID Wines importer business to bring the wines into the UK and hold under his wholesale license, along with wines he buys via en primeur.

“I am able to consolidate a number of wines together, take control of the administrative side of things and buy in volume. We sell around 2,500 cases of our own label wines” he says. “And by buying direct we are able to continue to offer the membership great wines, at great prices”

There are also other smaller parcels of wine in his private cellar that he has been able to supply to Groucho at below secondary market value.

Training and support

Giles James also manages the wine training for the staff across Groucho’s bars and restaurants

James also manages the staff training across the club to keep the front of house team up to speed with the changes to the wine list. He works closely both with the floor and restaurant managers, as well as individual waiters in the different restaurants and bars. “That way the managers are able to pass on training to their staff too,” he says.

James supplies the teams with carefully crafted tasting notes that help them remember key lines to make it easier for them to recommend.

So whilst some of the training is formal wine education, a large part of it is customised to the needs of the team member so that it is memorable for them, he stresses. “We have to make it relevant to their jobs and what they do.”

In time, James hopes to recruit wine ambassadors in the front of house teams who can bring that passion to the restaurant floor and keep it going through mini tastings for staff. “We want them to galvanise the teams and help provide that extra level of training for when I am not there. To take on that extra responsibility.”

He has also established a Groucho Wine Club for members and is starting to host special dinners and tastings. Which being Groucho also means working with top chefs like Rick Stein, and Angela Harnett and even working alongside Hollywood star, turned food writer, Stanley Tucci.

“Not surprisingly they sell out very fast and do very well and we are also looking to build on more producer events this year, which started with Alvaro Palacios in January.”

So if you think your wines have the star billing to catch the eye of the potentially rich and famous then the Groucho is very much open for business – whether you are a member or not.