“We’ve been here since records began,” says Brigadier Michael Smythe, formerly of British artillery corps, now chief executive of Vintner’s Hall, at the intersection of Queen and Lower Thames streets, London. A striking figure in a dark, two-vent English suit, the Brigadier adds, “That would be 1362,” when a structure went up on this side of the river to unload wine from sailing ships. “Unfortunately some of the records were lost in the great fire of 1666,” but not the charter from King Charles who forgave the Vintners for siding with Parliament in the 1642 rebellion.
The Vintners - the eleventh of The City of London liveries, others including not just the Butchers but also the Drapers, Fishmongers, Plaisterers, and many more - also own a third of the swans in England, the rest belonging to the crown and to the Skinners. “Every year we go up the Thames, collecting and tagging the new signets. It’s great fun.”
Vintners Hall isn’t accessible to the public except on special tours that can be arranged at the kiosk next to St. Paul’s. But persistence often pays off with the accommodating Brits. Here the Vintners’ descendants have found themselves in possession of heirloom art and furnishings accumulated over six centuries, and some of the most valuable real estate on earth.
Lots of other treasures also survived, including silver and gold that went to building the massive classical façade outside that looks more like a Roman bureaucracy than a temple to the grape. Some 15,000 bottles of mostly vintage Bordeaux and port lie somewhere under our feet, with a fulltime cellar keeper.
“That’s our view mark,” the brigadier says, pointing to a coat of arms: three wine casks arranged on a shield. The Vintners has some 500 members, many of whom are “patrimonies,” meaning their fathers belonged. Others are eminent in the wine trade, and that doesn’t mean bottle drudges in The City’s many wine shops, but importers, merchants, and people prominent in their fields. “So far checkbook membership has been avoided, although we do need a certain number of bankers and brokers to advise us on our holdings.”
My tour includes a statue of St. Martin Le Tours, 14th century patron saint of wine. “We made our first contact with France through Eleanor of Aquitaine. Wine was soon coming into the country, and fabric going out. French was as likely spoken here as English in those days.”
We enter the richly paneled council room where two dozen of the most august members meet once a month. Standing on an Oriental “worth a quarter of a million pounds the last time we had it looked at,” they discuss the charities and other organizations benefiting from the Vintners’ largess, under the eyes of another St. Martin, this one possibly painted by Van Dyke.
A former Swan Warden “kitted out” the adjoining room, says the Brigadier, circa 1710: peer glasses with candle holders, lots of shields of former vintners, two paintings of Charles I, “although one of them could be William – there’s no mustache, you see.”
The magnificent carved staircase leading to the second floor “is an Ancient Monument, the highest classification by the government.” It creaks, “but if you bring out a hammer and saw, people get very up-set.” Five kings having dinner together in the stained glass window watch us pass on our way to the document room. Illuminated parchments adorn these walls, “all saved from the Great Fire. This one’s from 1352, and signed by John Chaucer. His son, Geoffrey, worked in his father’s tavern and picked up all those stories” in The Canterbury Tales.
Here also are the Vintners’ charter from 1363, 15th century pall cloths used to cover vintners’ coffins, and a roll of honorary members including Lord Mountbatten and Margaret Thatcher, and British wine writers Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent. Once a year the Vintners, like the Butchers, don traditional raiment to be blessed by their patron church.
The Vinters process en masse across Upper Thames Street to St. James Garlick, known as “Wren’s lantern” because of all the windows, led by the Grand Master and his official Sweeper. “He removes any refuse from his path.” We're talking horseshit here. “Last year we had to cross Southwark Bridge, to a ceremony on the South Bank, and were led by two mounted policemen. One of the horses had to choose that moment to let go. It was a true test of the Sweeper.” The Brigadier pauses. “He failed.”