Times of Malta: The grape escape

Times of Malta: The grape escape

For the past years, oligarchs have been moving to London in such large numbers that the UK media has coined the term ‘Londongrad’ to refer to the capital.

Many of these oligarchs were forced to flee Russia after falling out with the authorities, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others have made London their business and personal headquarters out of choice. Roman Abramovich, the Russian multibillionaire who owns Chelsea Football Club, is probably the highest-profile Russian in Britain and is one of at least 10 Russian billionaires living there. An estimated 1,500 Russian millionaires now call London home.

Until it is safe for him to return to his homeland, Yevgeny Chichvarkin has exiled himself in London. The Russian entrepreneur founded the largest Russian mobile phone retailer, which made him the richest man under 35 years of age in his country. His personal fortune is estimated to be in the region of €1.5 billion.

"How this middle-class kid from a Soviet housing bloc ended up here is a Hollywoodesque tale"

From London, Chichvarkin campaigns against corruption in Russia while pursuing his business interests, the latest of which is a new wine store, Hedonism Wines, in London’s South Audley Street.

Patrick O’Brien (left) with Yevgeny Chichvarkin

Fleeing Russia, it would be in the British capital’s staid wine world that Chichvarkin would find his niche. Where top stores boast royal warrants with cellars that date to the Georgian era, he was the interloper from another universe.

Hedonism, located in the London’s millionaire haunt Mayfair, is impressive. It boasts a massive chandelier fashioned from 240 upended wine glasses hovering over a selection of nearly 10,000 of the world’s most covetable wines and spirits, from a complete set of the peerless Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Grand Crus en magnum to bottles of pre-Prohibition bourbon.

Down the bespoke wrought-iron staircase, amid backlit brickwork, is a large marble tasting table where you can sample up to 40 rotating wines and champagnes from the latest hi-tech sampling dispensers, alongside a turntable spinning a collection of vinyl albums and an iPad-adorned children’s play area.

The shop also stocks some very expensive whiskies — one retails at around €260,000. What’s the idea of such a bottle? "Idea?" he shrugs. "Open and drink".

How this middle-class kid from a Soviet housing bloc ended up here is a Hollywoodesque tale. 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 — later, the charges were dropped. Chichvarkin openly criticised government corruption and raids on businesses, eventually becoming a rising star in Russia’s pro-business Right Cause political party.

Hedonism Wines, London

In a bizarre string of events beginning 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 more than €900,000 worth of phones in 2003.

A Russian business daily reported at the time that the case was launched by the in 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 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 around for a retail opportunity. Though London was full of established 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. No one even tried to stock it for me."

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 is a man on the move as he hopes that, together with his exiled comrades, he helps change Russia’s political stage from abroad. But for now he is content roaming the world to find the best fine wines and spirits.

Source: Times of Malta. Published by permission of the author, Patrick O'Brien. 

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