Adam Bilbey has been on quite a ride since he broke into wine selling as a wayward youth 20 years ago. “A feral child who exhibits ostrich-like behavior” is how teachers described the boy from Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
In his last two years of high school, Bilbey chose to devote his time to working in a local wine shop, instead of studying for his A-levels.
His interest sprouted after he first tasted wine at the shop. It was Palliser Estate, a sauvignon blanc of New Zealand.
“I was a lazy student,” the 35-year- old recalls in his cockney accent. He loved English literature, but would rather read a wine encyclopedia. “If it was to do with the things I like, I’d be really passionate about it. But if it wasn’t, I’d just do enough to get by.”
Unsure about a career, he took a gap year after A-levels to visit viticultural regions, from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, Margaret River in Australia, to Stellenbosch in South Africa.
“When I got back, I quickly did my first and second WSET,” Bilbey says, referring to Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a professional qualification on becoming a wine master.
He also made a pilgrimage to Berry Bros & Rudd’s historic shop on St James’ Street in London. “I met the sales director and we just exchanged pleasantries. A couple of days later, I got an e-mail from him.”
At 20, Bilbey was offered a full-time job by the oldest wine and spirit merchant in England as sales manager at London’s airport. He told his parents that he would not go to university. He was excited about the job offer.
His parents disapproved of the choice, but he was adamant that he could build a career.
He did – after a frightful first day at work, serving Christopher Berry Green, the former chairman of Berry Brothers. “He was walking through and said: ‘Boy! Boy! Give this a try. What do you think of it?’ The perfume on nose I will never forget. But all I could say was: ‘It’s good.’ He looked at me, said: ‘Bloody well should be. It’s a 1961 Chateau Haut- Brion.’ ”
Bilbey worked for almost 14 years at Berry Brother’s, relocating to Hong Kong in 2010 to run the firm’s sales in the region.
Last June, he moved to Sotheby’s as its head of wine in Asia.
He looks after wine sales at local auctions, for which figures totaled HK$154.23 million last year. Bilbey also oversees a retail arm that aims to provide an added service for Sotheby’s customers. The SAR extension was set up just over a year ago after success in New York.
“On the retail, we currently stock 750 labels, focusing on burgundy and bordeaux at the moment,” Bilbey says. “We want to, and will, expand our range even further. We are already looking at wines that we will drink ourselves; wines that we think represent value.
“A wine at HK$5,000 still represents value if you know the attention to detail that is put in.
“We are not trying to compete with Watson’s Wine or our own auction business. What we are trying to do is to offer that extra level of service for our customers who come in and pick up a piece of art and couple bottles of wine for the weekend.”
Like fine wine, Bilbey has matured well. You wouldn’t think to look at him how wild he was.
Take the story of how he ended up selling instead of making wine at the late Bailey Carrodus’ Yarra Yering vineyards in Australia.
“Plowing is quite therapeutic but sometimes you can drift off. I did that once. I didn’t pull up the plow so I got stuck and lost balance. I went vroom, flying straight through two end roads. Carrodus walked over, looked at the tractor and said: ‘So the hand throttle didn’t work? Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. We have all done it.”‘
His passion has also converted his parents, former non-wine drinkers.
He knew they had officially caught the wine bug when they uncorked a bottle of 1997 Barbaresco for a curry dinner – and told him the exquisite vintage was a bit young.
They has mistakenly opened his gift from Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja.
“My dad was absolutely right because I tried it the next day. It was a little bit young.”
The article first appeared in the Standard on January 8, 2016.