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Cellar Chats

From Fine China to Glassware: Richard Brendon’s Journey to Working Jancis Robinson

April 27, 2021

Written By Coravin

Richard Brendon launched his brand in Notting Hill back in 2013 starting with, Reflect, a reflective bone china collection. Fast forward a few years, Richard teamed up with a luminary in the wine space, Jancis Robinson, to create the perfect wine glass. 

In our conversation with Richard, we cover how strolls down Portobello Road inspired him to make fine china, the difference between crystal and glass, how the industry has changed since the pandemic started, and his favorite wine experience.

Watch the interview and shop Richard’s collections on the Coravin marketplace.

photo of richard brendon holding a tea cup with text to the right

Richard Brendon's Journey to Glassware with Jancis Robinson

Lindsay Buck, Coravin: Today I'm talking to Richard Brendon, founder and owner of Richard Brendon and of Jancis Robinson wine collection, both of which lines we carry on our marketplace at Coravin.com. Welcome, Richard.

Richard Brendon: Hi, Lindsay. Thanks for having me today.

LB: Good to see you. How are things on the other side of the pond right now?

RB: We've been in a pretty strict lockdown since the beginning of January, or even the end of December. But I think there are some really positive signs at the moment. The vaccine rollout seems to be going well. COVID numbers are going down. And finally, there's a sort of a date in mind where indoor dining and hospitality should be able to open again.

RB: Hopefully from mid May, it starts to look a lot more like it used to look. 

LB: Yeah, let's hope. How have you seen the industry change during the pandemic? 

RB: It's been closed a lot in the UK is the reality. We had a point in the summer last summer where things were open, but with still quite a lot of restrictions in terms of the number of people that were allowed to dine together. And then as the levels of COVID started to get worse in the Fall, those restrictions got much stricter. It was only people from one household that were allowed to dine together. And then unfortunately, it had to close again. So yeah, it's been really rough on the hospitality industry. But, yeah, I think clarity is the thing that the hospitality industry really needs. And you know, it's so hard when you don't know if you're allowed to open or not. And yeah, and you can't make plans. I think now, hopefully, they should be able to make plans with more confidence.

LB: It impacts so many people. So switching gears a little bit, how did you get into the glass making business?

RB: I studied product design. So that was really the starting point of my journey. And in my final year of university, I actually designed a product, not in glass but in ceramics. My brand started with [fine] china – and it’s one of our collections that we still sell today called the Reflect teacup. 

I designed that because while I was studying, I used to work at a pub on Portobello Road in London and Portobello Road is a big Antiques Market. Over a number of weeks, I started to realize there were hundreds and thousands of beautiful antique tea saucers but there weren't nearly as many cups. It turned out from talking to antique dealers, the reason for that was people break cups a lot more than they break saucers. So I had this idea that I could make a cup that was mirrored on the outside and you put it onto the tea saucer, it would reflect the pattern. I went to Stoke-on-Trent in in the north of England and I found someone who thought they could make it. One thing led to another and, before I had a brand or really any business idea, I had a product that was selling. 

What that collection did is it taught me all about the history of British ceramics because I was buying antique tea saucers. I fell in love with the potteries in Stoke-on-Trent and this incredible industry that's been there for over 300 years. I also realized that these phenomenally skillful crafts – these were skills that we were losing at a really frightening rate. My brand and our business is all about trying to make products that are as good as they can be and a lot of the time you can only do that if you're working with really, really good crafts people. So, I suppose at that point, part of our purpose became about supporting and trying to regenerate these industries – and ceramics very naturally led into designing glass. I think exactly the same philosophy goes into our glass and our crystal designs as it does with our bone china. I tend to take inspiration from the past, I look at what we've made in Europe, particularly over the last 300 or 400 years. I look for beautiful things and things that were really good. I generally try to come up with a way of reinterpreting what was beautiful and making it more contemporary and more relevant for today's consumer. So with glassware, we started with cut crystal and my first collection of cut crystal was the diamond collection, which is on Coravin.com.

LB: Can you explain bone china? I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't completely understand it. What is it? What does it do for your products? 

RB: Bone china's the strongest form of porcelain and, in the 17th century, everyone in Europe wanted to make porcelain because porcelain started to be imported from China and Japan, and Europeans had never seen ceramics of that quality before. It was known as white gold and it was the most expensive thing at the time. All of the countries around Europe started trying to make porcelain and, in Germany, they figured it out first (as you can imagine), then the French figured it out. In England, we were making something that was called soft-paste porcelain and it wasn't nearly as hard or as strong but the designs and the decorations were incredible. Then, there was actually a potter called Josiah Spode,who was messing around experimenting with different ingredients. He realized if you actually put cattle bone ash into the ceramic mix it resulted in a type of porcelain that was a lot whiter than the regular porcelain and it was even stronger. So that was how it began.

LB: Is that still how it's made today?

RB: It is, yes. It's a byproduct from the cattle industry. 

LB: That's, that's fascinating. Now, what makes crystal versus glass?

RB: That's a very good question and, because I've worked with glassmakers in different countries, I think I have the ability to be a bit more subjective on [the subject]. I think that if you spoke to someone in the Czech Republic, they would tell you crystal had to have 24% lead oxide in it or it's not crystal. If you spoke to someone in Waterford, Ireland, they'd probably tell you it had to have 32% lead oxide in it. Yet, if you spoke to someone in Murano, Italy, they would tell you, it doesn't have to have any lead oxide in it at all.  

So, I think crystal is a bit of a silly word. I don't think you can actually say there's something particularly that makes glass crystal

LB: There's no industry regulation, no matter the lead oxide in it?

RB: Exactly. And actually, the crystal reproduce is lead free. Years ago, some people said, “Well, if it was lead free it's not crystal.” At the end of the day, it's all to do with the purity and the quality of the glass. Things like soda-lime glass are not as strong and it's not as beautiful – it’s the sort of thing where you put it in your dishwasher and the glass starts to get dull because it's not as hard. So, really, I think crystal to me is to do with the quality of the glass and the purity of the glass – and, like I said, we're now completely lead-free crystal for our cut crystal and our wine glasses and the advantages of that are that the glass is very hard so it's dishwasher safe. 

Historically, the reason why crystal started was that if you put lead oxide in glass, it makes the glass a lot softer. It's really good for cutting because back in the day they didn't have particularly sophisticated technology for cutting so the glass needs to be softer. If it was really hard, they wouldn't have been able to hand cut. But now with technology and better machines, you don't need that softness. So, actually, having a harder glass is good for durability and also from an environmental point of view. If there's lead oxide in the glass, inevitably, there's waste and waste can end up getting into the environment – and we don't really want lead getting into the environment.

LB: So let's switch gears to the Jancis Robinson line. How did you get connected with her?

RB: One of the very first journalists who ever wrote about my work when I had just left University and I had only my reflective teacups and the antique saucers was a journalist named Lucia van der Post who writes about design for the Financial Times. Jancis also writes for the Financial Times – she's been the wine writer there for a very long time. So, when I decided I wanted to design wine glasses, I knew I needed to partner with a top expert because, as much as I'm good at designing and I know that we work with really great craftspeople and manufacturers, I was not a wine expert. And, even if I did lots of research, I wouldn't have the credibility that Jancis would bring. I love food and drink but, at that point, I hadn't done any studying about wine. I spoke to my friends who worked in the wine industry and I said, “Who should I try and collaborate with?” Everyone I spoke to just kept on saying, “Jancis.” I was introduced to Jancis by Lucia van der Post at the Financial Times and that was how it all began.

LB: That's amazing. She's a luminary. That takes me back to my days at the Hotel School at Cornell. We had the wines class – the famous wines class. All the videos Professor Mutkoski, I think now retired, put on were of Jancis Robinson. What was that design process like? How much input did she have versus you?

RB: The design process was incredible. Actually, it is still my absolute favorite collaboration in terms of how the design process worked. 

It was such an efficient design process. You know, I sat down with Jancis and we had a meeting. In that meeting, Jancis explained to me exactly what needed to be in the collection and she started with the wine glass and said, “Look, I honestly believe, and this is my opinion, but I think it makes total sense that you only need one wine glass for absolutely everything as long as it's the right glass.” 

She explained to me that the thickness of the glass was massively important. She wanted the thickness of the rim to be as fine as possible. She wanted the widest part of the bowl on the wine glass to be a sixth of a bottle – so, 125 milliliters, because that's a really nice sized pour. It also means that's where you've got maximum surface area so it will allow all of the aromas to get out of the wine. And, obviously, taste is all to do with aroma and aromatics and it’s the most important thing when you're tasting wine.

Then Jancis wanted the wine glass to taper into the smallest possible opening that you could still get your nose into to smell the wine and wanted the glass to be quite tall so, when you swallow the wine, there's plenty of space and the wine is not flying out of your glass – that's quite important. [When it came to the] stem and the overall height of the glass, Jancis wanted the glass to fit in domestic dishwashers as well as commercial dish dishwashers because that's really important.

Then Jancis got on to decanters and said that she really didn't think anyone had made this distinction properly: You need to decant different wines for very different reasons. For example, if you are decanting an old or mature red wine, you're really decanting to get the wine off the sediment. Then, a lot of the time, you don't want those wines to get much oxygen because they're quite fragile. Whereas for young wines, it's all about getting oxygen into the wine. So the young wine decanter is the opposite – it's bold and it’s got a big surface area. It's got this nice long neck so you can swirl the wine around and get oxygen into the wine. Then, the final piece in the collection, the water glass. It's exactly the same shape as the wine glass.

LB: I come from the same school. I don't like the stemless glasses for wine. So, it sounds like you've had a bit of a journey on in terms of wine education.

RB: During the last lockdown in the UK, my wife and I actually started studying so we did our WSET. We used Coravin a lot [while studying for our WSET] because we had 25 bottles of wine delivered for a 7-week course and I didn't think we should be drinking that many bottles of wine every week. We used Coravin to drink sensibly and slowly.

LB: That's, amazing. The Coravin certainly enables wine tasting in a different way than before it came along.

RB: Yeah, it really does. I love Coravin because it encourages me to spend more money on the wine I buy in order to buy better quality wine. I can have just one glass and enjoy it. It's lovely if you want to drink multiple glasses of wine in an evening – Coravin gives me a lot more flexibility in what I can drink.

I love Coravin because it encourages me to spend more money on the wine I buy in order to buy better quality wine. I can have just one glass and enjoy it. It's lovely if you want to drink multiple glasses of wine in an evening – Coravin gives me a lot more flexibility in what I can drink.

Richard Brendon

RB: I think the reality is, I've liked wine, since I was just about old enough to drink wine. And, the older I've gotten, the more I've learned about it and the more I've enjoyed it. But, I think for me, a couple of moments stand out. One was in New Zealand: We had been traveling all around the different wine regions in New Zealand and we were staying in Wanaka in Central Otago and there's a really lovely little restaurant there, which I think had only opened in the summer, called the White House. It looks like a little Greek building and they serve Mediterranean food with a wine list that's just written on a chalkboard and, when the bottles are gone, they're simply crossed out. We were about to order another bottle of wine and the table next to us was overhearing our conversation about what wine to order. Just before we ordered, they said, “If I were you I would order the Amisfield 2013. Amisfield is wonderful and the 2013 was a particularly good vintage – we got some good, good local knowledge on that.” And the wine was fantastic but I think it was just one of those settings where everything was so good. Sometimes you drink a really good bottle of wine but you're not in the right environment.

This was one of those moments where everything was just really, really lovely. 

We were going around the various vineyards and wineries. One of our stops was a really beautiful vineyard where all of the wines they produce are just from a single vineyard, which is unusual because, you know, a lot of the time it's wine from lots and lots of different vineyards which blended – but this was a single vineyard. On the property there's a house from maybe the 15th century and we did a tasting of all of their different wines. Their Grand Reserve, I can't remember what year it was, was really fantastic. 

LB: That's awesome. I was hoping that this question would transport me to a different place. My last question is, is there anything you'd like to plug or anything on the horizon for Richard Brendon that you'd like to tell our customers about?

RB: It's top secret, but I'm desperate to talk. We didn't launch any products last year because of the pandemic – we put everything on hold. I think, like a lot of businesses, we hit the brakes in April. Fortunately, our sales recovered really, really well in Q4 last year so now we're getting ready to launch all the products we hadn't launched. The first release is in April 2021 and it's a collection of cocktail glasses which I think will complement the Jancis collection really nicely.

LB: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. If you're interested in any of that Richard Brendon and Jancis Robinson glassware, you can go to Coravin.com check out the marketplace