For finance it’s Wall Street, for acting it’s Hollywood, and for haute couture it’s Paris. But for those dreaming of becoming one of the world’s top sommeliers, London is the pinnacle, with Mayfair at its epicentre.
With its wine merchants (such as Corney & Barrow, Berry Brothers & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks), auction houses (including Sotheby’s and Christie’s), leading fine-wine exchange Liv-Ex, numerous top-level restaurants and private members’ clubs, London is the world’s capital of fine wine. Every fine wine made globally can be sourced, and often consumed on premise, somewhere in the city.
Mayfair’s square mile is home to the world’s most prestigious private members’ clubs, a typically British invention that has now been exported to many other destination cities aiming to emulate the prestige and luxury of Mayfair’s top establishments. These include The Arts Club (which now has a glitzy second home in Dubai), 5 Hertford Street, the wine-themed Oswald’s, Mark’s Club, George, Harry’s Bar, newcomers Maison Estelle and Club 22, and—arguably at the top of the tree —Annabel’s.
Thirty-seven-year-old Clement Robert MS—the ‘MS’ stands for Master Sommelier—runs the Wine Programme not only for Annabel’s, but also for the Birley Club Group which includes Mark’s Club, George, and Harry’s Bar. It is no surprise, therefore, that Clement is in charge of the largest sommelier team in Europe and is possibly the single biggest buyer of fine wine in the world. Clement Robert MS is undoubtedly The King of the Somms.
With power comes responsibility. In Mayfair’s fiercely competitive landscape, Clement has to be on top of his game to ensure that the Birley Clubs remain the leading player, juggling the differing interests of many stakeholders: fine-wine producers and merchants who are desperate to be listed; club members who want the best of the best all the time, any time; a large team of professional sommeliers who work under enormous pressure; and, most importantly, the confidence of his bosses, Richard and Patricia Caring, who have a reputation for being exacting taskmasters. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. And then there are the competitors who would love nothing more than to see Clement fail.
“We always have to lead from the front in a fast-changing environment,” he says. “There are more private clubs in Mayfair than ever before and the competition is immense. In the past five years, Annabel’s has quadrupled in size. We have seen the opening of Oswald’s, Maison Estelle and Club 22 who are pushing everyone to evolve and improve—which I view as a positive thing, as we can all learn from each other and raise our standards. Private members’ clubs have positioned Mayfair as a unique place, arguably the most sophisticated and luxurious place to be anywhere in the world.”
Emanating from Forges Les Eaux, a small town in Normandy, Clement inherited his parents’ love for fine wine and gastronomy (“I wanted to become a Sommelier from the age of 14,” he says). After attending catering school in Le Touquet in Northern France, he moved to Angers to study for a sommelier degree, working part-time in a Michelin-star restaurant. He then decided to follow a well-trodden path for French sommeliers by training under the late, great Gérard Basset OBE MW MS at his Hotel du Vin Group, first in Brighton and then in Cambridge and Winchester. A two-year stint as assistant head sommelier at Summer Lodge Hotel in Dorset followed. In 2011, he became Wine Director at newly-opened fine-dining London restaurant Medlar, before taking a role as Group Beverage Director at the 28-50 & Texture Group, stepping in to replace another former Basset protégé, Xavier Rousset MS.
David O’Connor, Clement’s former boss at fine dining Medlar, talks glowingly of Clement’s impact on his business: “It was huge,” he says. “Clement turned a £10,000 budget wine list for my new restaurant into a world-class wine program that is still renowned today as one of the best in the UK. What sets Clement apart from his peers is how well he copes with adversity, never taking things too personally. He’s now one of, if not the, most respected sommeliers in the industry. His legacy is still very much felt at Medlar.”
Clement’s first “wow” wine experience came during his sommelier apprenticeship in France when he tasted the 1983 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande: “It was just a superbly aged Bordeaux, and it made me understand that wine is more incredible as a beverage than I thought was possible—it gave me emotions and a feeling of great artistry,” he says. His mentor, Gérard Basset, was his biggest inspiration in the wine world. “He was an example of humility, success through preparation and hard work, and one of the nicest human beings. His passing [from cancer in January 2019] was the biggest loss the wine world has encountered.”
In addition to Basset, Clement was fortunate enough to be mentored by three of Basset’s greatest students, Dimitri Mesnard MS and Yohann Jousselin MS (who he worked for at Hotel du Vin) and Eric Zwiebel MS (during his time at Summer Lodge in Dorset). Although naturally shy, anxious and self-effacing, under the tutelage of these mentors Clement learned to project outward confidence and a sense of always being in control. A sommelier is always one small step away from disaster: a customer who believes an expensive bottle is corked; breaking a prized bottle or case; ordering high-priced wines for the list that don’t sell; dealing with drunk or rude clientele in the most diplomatic way possible while maintaining a perma-grin.
Clement won Best Young Sommelier in the World in 2010 and UK Sommelier of the Year in 2013. He also found time to pass the immensely difficult Master Sommelier exams—only 269 people have ever passed globally—becoming an MS in 2015. He is one of the judges for Decanter Magazine’s Decanter World Wine Awards, as well as the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), and he consults for The Retreat Hotel at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
According to Chris Campbell, CEO of the Rothschild Collection—which brings together the chateaux wines from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Domaines Baron Rothschild Lafite and Baron Edmond de Rothschild—“Clement deploys a delicate balance in his role: on the one hand, he extols gravitas and is erudite, while showing an esoteric knowledge of producers and vintages. And, on the other hand, he instils a clear, precise and highly successful commercial strategy—that combination is rare, and it’s delivered with charm and elegance.” Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Richard Caring came knocking. Caring hired Clement to become Group Wine Buyer in January 2019 and, subsequently, Head of Beverage and Wine Buyer for the Birley Clubs in 2021. Arguably the top job that any sommelier could hope to attain in the world of wine was now in the hands of Clement Robert MS.
“When I joined the Birley Group, my first mission was to implement a true Sommelier culture at Annabel’s and to dynamise the wine programme,” Clement says. “We opened [Italian fine-dining restaurant] Matteo’s shortly thereafter with the goal of creating a wine-focused restaurant inside Annabel’s; we then came up with the most decorated Best Italian Wine List in the World, with some of the largest known collections of Sassicaia, Masseto and Conterno’s Monfortino.” Clement is responsible for twenty-two sommeliers at Annabel’s, which he says is the largest sommelier team in Europe. “It’s no exaggeration to say that our wine programme is one of the most talked about in the global industry, and our owners have, in turn, benefited from a considerable increase in wine revenues from the Club.”
Clement’s next innovation was to create The Birley Wine Club in 2020. Members can purchase wines from the Club to be delivered directly to their homes, whether for immediate consumption or for their wine collections. It includes allocations from many of the most sought-after fine wine producers. Clement also created a Wine Dinner Programme that aims not only to be world-class, but also fun: “Our Wine Dinner Programme embodies our vision,” he says.” We’re running our dinners with minimal interruptions—two concise speeches—and the winemaker is touching every single table during the evening in an informal way. We also have a band performing during the evening, and offer unlimited top-up of any wines served. As a result, we have a large number of loyal members who attend every event, of which more than 40 percent are women, which is unusual for a Mayfair wine event.”
Another new project was the opening of Mayfair restaurant Bacchanalia, an £85 million undertaking by Caprice Holdings—also owned by the Caring family—where Clement has built another superb collection of spectacular Italian fine wines. Clement is also working on the re-opening of private members’ club George, where he is focusing on building a collection of organic, bio-dynamic and sustainably-made wines: “Most of the ‘classic’ historical estates are now making wines this way, and we will showcase collections from those iconic producers, including Cristal from Louis Roederer, Domaine Leflaive, Château Pontet-Canet, Montevertine and many others,” he says.
What’s next, then? “We’re planning international expansion—and with that comes new ambitions and goals,” he says. “Ultimately, I want the Birley Clubs to be known for having the best, most dynamic and prestigious fine wine and rare spirits program anywhere in the world.” Morgan de Premorel, UK director for the esteemed cognac brand Louis XIII, certainly believes Clement can succeed: “Clement is a man of great talents, combining strong expertise, a powerful international network and sheer audacity while cultivating humility and straightforwardness; a consummate professional who is shaking up the industry.”
Clement’s role is all encompassing: “Essentially, everything that touches wines for the Birley Clubs and Caprice Holdings Group—the sommelier teams, wine lists, wine dinners, producer and brand collaborations, including for spirits,” as he puts it. Assisting him is Erik Simonics, Group Head Sommelier of the Birley Clubs; Claudia Agliano, his assistant buyer; and Baptiste Cusimano, who takes care of all things logistical.
Clement was at the forefront of The Golden Vines Awards—which I founded with my colleague Sasha Lushnikov in 2021. Over a liquid lunch in the summer of 2020, Sasha and I pitched the idea of creating the first “Oscars of Fine Wine to Clement”, with the aim of giving recognition to the greatest fine-wine estates globally—as judged by hundreds of industry professionals—in a glamorous environment with world-class food and entertainment. Clement was enthused and immediately brought it to Richard Caring’s attention.
As Clement explains, “Richard loved the whole idea and agreed to host the first ‘Oscars of Fine Wine’— The Golden Vines—on 7th October 2021 in the Garden of Annabel’s, where we raised £1.2 million for the Gérard Basset Foundation to support diversity and inclusivity in the wine world. We served the most mind-blowing selection of fine wines during the dinner: Dom Pérignon P2 2003, Egon Muller’s Kabinett Alte Reben 2015, Le Montrachet 2017 from Domaine Baron Thénard, Domaine de la Romanée Conti’s Grands Echézeaux 2005 and Château d’Yquem 1988 in Magnum, as well as a limited-edition Macallan single malt. Kylie Minogue and The Kingdom Choir were the main acts. It was truly a spectacular event, and helped showcase Annabel’s as a leading fine-wine destination.”
Having been instrumental in the creation of The Golden Vines, Clement continues to support the charitable cause associated with the event. He is one of the five judges on the panel for the Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Diversity Scholarship, each worth £55,000, which provides for a student from a diverse background to study for the Master of Wine or Master Sommelier qualification, along with a fabulous 12-month internship at some of the greatest wine estates in the northern and southern hemispheres. “It’s crucial that more is done to encourage people from minority backgrounds into the industry, especially younger people,” he says. “The Golden Vines, through its support for the Gérard Basset Foundation, is the global leader in this field, and I’m extremely proud to be a part of it.”
Given there are so few MS’s in the world, it is rather remarkable that Clement found one to marry. His wife, Kathrine Larsen-Robert MS, is now studying to become the world’s first MW (Master of Wine) who also holds an MS. With their 13-year-old son, and an all-consuming job, his free-time is limited.
Clement is the quintessential modern sommelier: extremely knowledgeable, hard-working, problem-solving, eager to please, well-mannered and competitive. He wants to be the best, and is confident that if he is not already, he soon will be.
Clement Robert’s Desert Island Choices
Book: Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber
Luxury Item: His wedding ring
Film: Jurassic Park
Activity: “Nothing, that’s the whole point of being there.”
Top of Bucket List: Jungle trip to the Amazon forest
Craziest Moment Working as a Sommelier
Being chased by a Kangaroo who was beating its chest (a sign of imminent attack) in King Valley, Australia
Best Three Fine Wines Tasted
Domaine Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru 1970, Krug Vintage 2004, Château Mouton Rothschild 1945
Death Row Request
Any great vintage of Domaine de la Romanée Conti Le Montrachet
Lewis Chester DipWSET is a London-based wine collector, member of the Académie du Champagne and Chevaliers du Tastevin, co-founder of Liquid Icons and, along with Sasha Lushnikov, co-founder of the Golden Vines® Awards. He is also Honorary President and Head of Fundraising at the Gérard Basset Foundation, which funds diversity & inclusivity education programmes globally in the wine, spirits & hospitality sectors.
The Golden Vines® 2023 will take place in Paris between 13-15 October 2023, recognizing the world’s best fine-wine estates as voted by hundreds of fine-wine professionals. Please register your interest for tickets on the website. Robb Report is the Official Media Partner of the Golden Vines® and sponsor of the Golden Vines® World’s Best Fine-Wine Producer Award.