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robert camuto: letter from europe

Exiled on Wine Street

A Russian phone magnate unleashes Hedonism on London. Is it the world’s wildest wine shop or what?
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Yevgeny Chichvarkin created a special display room for his favorite California wine, Sine Qua Non.

Posted: May 12, 2014 11:00am ET

Yevgeny Chichvarkin is a big-shouldered guy who likes big wines—preferably in very big bottles.

When he opened a store in London nearly two years ago and decided to call it Hedonism Wines, he really meant it. Hedonism displays dozens of great wines—Bordeaux to Barolo to Spain and Sonoma—in huge formats that are at least eight times the size of a magnum.

Chichvarkin, 39, takes particular pride in a 27-liter bottle (equal to 18 magnums) that he commissioned of the 2010 vintage of his favorite Rioja, Bodegas Roda Cirsion, listed at $14,000.

What’s the idea of such a bottle? I ask. He looks at me like I'm crazy.

“Idea?” he shrugs. “Open and drink.”

Chichvarkin, a self-made business whiz turned political dissident who fled his native Russia five years ago, is one of wine retail’s most interesting characters.

Located in the London millionaire haunt Mayfair, Hedonism offers more than 7,000 wines—from less than $20 to $120,000 for a bottle of 1774 Jura vin jaune—in a gorgeous, 7,000-square-foot space of light woods, glass and metals.

At the entry to the store is a long, glittering chandelier fashioned from hand-blown glasses. The lower level—chilled to 60 degrees—features a wall of Château d’Yquem vintages from 1811 lit by LED, a dizzying number of verticals that include complete sets of Ornellaia and Dominio de Pingus, and a cozy tasting area with Enomatic dispensers and a hulking turntable for vintage vinyl.

“You like Jethro Tull?” asks Chichvarkin, looking like a bearded, middle-aged rocker with his red jeans, hooded sweater and a few strands of long hair he leaves flowing at the back of his head.

Hedonism’s most surreal feature is the small arched room for Chichvarkin’s favorite California wine, Sine Qua Non. Protruding from the walls are wildly colored acrylic appendages—from humanlike hands to alien claws—cradling bottles from a collection of more than 120 quirky SQN labels.

How this middle-class kid from a Soviet housing bloc ended up here is a Hollywood-esque tale: From Russia with Disdain. Chichvarkin quit graduate school in the 1990s to start phone retailer Yevroset, which boomed into Russia’s largest phone chain.

Like many Russian businessmen who have fled their country, Chichvarkin became entangled with authorities, who accused him of illegally importing mobile phones but later dropped charges. Chichvarkin openly criticized government corruption and raids on businesses, eventually becoming a rising star in Russia’s pro-business Right Cause political party.

In a bizarre string of events beginning in 2008, two Yevroset security executives were arrested and charged with kidnapping and imprisoning an employee and forcing him to repay debts to the company after he allegedly stole $1 million worth of phones in 2003. A Russian business daily reported at the time that the case was launched by the aggrieved employee’s father, an official in the Interior Ministry.

Facing criminal charges himself, in late 2008, Chichvarkin sold Yevroset stock for $400 million and travelled to London with his family. He says he’s staying until Russian president Vladimir Putin "is dead or in prison.”

Russian authorities sought Chichvarkin's arrest and extradition in 2009, but the following year, all charges in the case were dropped after it was revealed that one of the investigators had himself illegally trafficked in Yevroset’s confiscated phones.

Initially bored in exile, Chichvarkin shopped for a retail opportunity. Though London was full of venerable wine sellers, he got an idea when he searched in vain for Bodegas Roda’s Cirsion. "They all just said ‘No, we don’t have it,' and that was it—they didn’t try to get it.”

Chichvarkin saw his opening to build the world’s “best wine shop no one could beat.” To curate, he hired Alistair Viner, the energetic former wine buyer at Harrods.

Chichvarkin personally prefers big, dark, New World wines. He came of age drinking vodka and cheap wine, and on a trip to Paris a decade ago, he discovered top growths like Château Mouton-Rothschild 2000 (93 points). “I never tasted anything so nice,” he says. But he has no pretensions of being a connoisseur of most of the Old World wine appellations in his store. “When I try new things now, I try Burgundies,” he laughs. “But they are not for me.”

While Hedonism promotes some of the world's elite wines, some prices amaze even Chichvarkin. He shows me his store’s most outlandish offering: the exclusive Penfolds Collection, including a vertical of winemaker-signed bottles of Grange from the inaugural 1951 vintage to 2008, plus 105 magnums from the Australian winery.

Who, I ask, would pay the price for this room: $1.2 million?

“One day someone will buy it as a present for a king or maybe Putin,” he muses. “I don’t know who will enjoy this wine—maybe a nice guy or dictator—but the wine is perfect.”

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 12, 2014 1:29pm ET
Awesome, he doesn't care if the Blue Eyed Devil drinks his wine as long as someone pays for it. Now THAT is capitalism!
Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  May 13, 2014 12:49am ET
I visited last year and it was an amazing experience, I saw a number of bottles I had never seen before, it was a bit like being in a modern museum for the best wines. I found plenty to buy at fair prices, the service and whole experience was excellent. As we say in Australia 'Good on Him'
MT
Peter A Lennox
Vancouver, Canada —  May 18, 2014 4:26pm ET
Was there last fall. Amazing experience and fantastic helpful staff. It is now a permanent fixture on all London trips!

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