In awe of bankers who tried livin' large

March 06, 2002|By Rob Kasper

THE NEWS regularly generates stories about people who capture our imagination. The recently concluded Winter Olympics have given us plucky Sarah Hughes, earnest Derek Parra and bad-boy Danny Kass as the nation's new favorites.

As for me, I am a fan of the bodacious Barclays bankers. I am referring to the six investment bankers from Barclays Capital who spent $62,679, mostly on rare French wine, at Petrus, a fancy London restaurant, and then tried to put part of the bill on the company's expense account.

It didn't work. That is why, to be accurate, I should call my soul mates the wine lovers formerly employed at Barclays Capital, the investment-banking division of Barclays, one of England's largest banks. Last July these bankers closed big bond derivatives deals and then took their clients to dinner at Petrus, a one-star London restaurant known to attract movers and shakers.

Apparently the bibulous bankers first paid the tab with their own money, then tried to pass a portion of the evening's tab as client expenses. Last week, according to reports in the British press, the bank sacked five of the six.

The "correct" reaction to news of the meal is to be shocked and appalled at the brazen excess of such a stunt. I am, sorta. But I am also in awe of this attempt at livin' large.

As I pored over media reports of the meal and the list of wines - a1947 Chateau Petrus at $17,500, a 1945 Chateau Petrus at $16,500, a 1946 Chateau Petrus for $13,400, finished off with a 100-year old dessert wine, Chateau d'Yquem at $13,100 - I find myself saying "nice night" and "nice try."

The evening was not just about the wine; there was also gourmet fare. The restaurant, watched over by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, is known to turn out dishes such as sauteed medallion of stuffed confit pig trotter, roast breast of Anjou pigeon and parsnip galette. The chef reportedly was so impressed with the bankers' joie de vivre that he tossed in the food, worth several hundred dollars, for free.

Bottle-by-bottle accounts of the evening, reportedly a Guinness world record for the most expensive per-capita meal ever, have appeared in both the European and North American financial media. I have read many of them, and they have raised a number of questions in my mind.

One question is "Who was the beer guy?" A very small part of the bill was $10 for two bottles of Kronenbourg beer. You gotta wonder how two glasses of suds sneaked into a night that featured six glasses of champagne and five bottles of highfalutin French wine (in addition to the three bottles of Petrus and the Chateau d'Yquem, a $2,000 bottle of 1984 Montrachet was downed during the proceedings).

I figure the beers showed up early in the evening, when the crowd was just warming up and everybody was behaving. That is my explanation for the other quirky beverage of the evening menu, a $4 glass of juice.

There has also been some second-guessing about whether the bankers, dubbed the "Petrus Six" by some British papers, chose their wines wisely. Writing in The New York Times last week, R.W. Apple Jr., the newspaper's veteran Washington correspondent and world-class bon vivant, suggested that there were other vintages of Chateau Petrus, specifically the 1970 and the 1985, that could have given the bankers as just much oneological bang for fewer bucks.

Bob Schindler, proprietor of Pinehurst Gourmet and Spirits Shoppe in North Baltimore, said that the prices the bankers paid for the 1945 and 1947 bottles of Petrus were in the range of what other restaurants would charge for bottles of the rare, heralded vintages. But he questioned paying $13,400 for the lesser 1946 vintage. Or as Schindler put it: "They took their licks on the '46."

Tony Foreman, who along with his wife, Cindy Wolf, presides over Charleston restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor East, also said the group "got buried" on the price of 1946 Petrus. "I have got an '82 Petrus in the restaurant cellar for $2,750 that is far superior to the '46," Foreman said.

Perhaps so, but I suspect there was some birthday buying going on that night. I am betting that the vintages selected, 1945, 1946 and 1947, just happened to coincide with the years that some of the Barclays bankers, or their clients, were born. People go crazy on their birthdays, especially after a few corks have been pulled.

Some, but not all, of the festive former bankers and their clients have been named. One of the group, Dayanandra Kumar, told the London Evening Standard newspaper that he paid $12,800 of his own money toward the bill and, as a teetotaler, did not drink any of the wine. What a bummer. After coughing up the money, not getting any of the wine, and leaving his job, Kumar said he is headed off on expedition to the North Pole.

In some ways, the bankers' blowout evening, while extravagant, seems to have suffered from bad timing. Apparently such celebratory meals were more common in the financial world of the 1990s, when the markets were rising.

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