Laura Vickers goes behind the scenes with Toby Morrhall to find out what it is like to be a wine buyer for The Wine Society.
‘Oh, so does that mean you get to drink wine all day?’
This is many people’s first question on meeting a wine buyer and – sadly – the answer is no. It’s still a job that’s up there with the best of them, and there’s obviously lots of wine involved, but you’d be surprised at what a buyer has to squeeze into their busy schedule.
Given that a buyer spends on average three months a year travelling to meet growers and decide which wines to buy, it’s hard to encapsulate an average day with any degree of accuracy, but longstanding member of the team Toby Morrhall – the buyer responsible for Burgundy, sherry and South America – takes me through what to expect from any given day on the job. It really is so much more than deciding which wines The Society sells.
‘The first order of business is e-mails and correspondence,’ he says, and it is surprising to learn that the buyers still respond personally to all the letters they are sent from members. ‘With the advent of e-mail, blogs and social media, this is becoming more of a 24/7 role, but we genuinely enjoy hearing from members and discussing our wines.’
A surprising amount of admin
There’s actually much more admin than you might think – as well as correspondence, buyers are responsible for adding information about each new wine to our database, including – among various other things – tasting notes, prices, drinking dates and vital statistics about the way they were made and notes about the producers.
You’ll notice we haven’t reached the wine-tasting or buying part of the day yet, but there’s plenty of other responsibilities to come before the buyers even so much as look at a bottle – for instance, the vast amount of copy they write each year, from the main Society List and Fine Wine List to regional offers, blogs, How to Buy guides and en primeur promotions offer notes.
‘The vast majority of offer and literature copy is still originated by the buyers,’ Toby tells me, explaining that both they and The Society’s marketing team feel it’s vital for wine notes to remain in the buyers’ own words so members can make their choices with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they aren’t being ‘sold’ to. As it is the buyers that have selected the wines and more often than not, visited the property, they are best-placed to tell members all about the wines and the people behind them.
Dotted throughout our literature are photographs of growers, vineyards and tastings, and I was surprised to learn that many of these are provided by Toby himself, who is a keen photographer.
Glasses at the ready…
Alright, now we’re getting to the wine tasting – but this too is not as simple as you might expect. Of course, a healthy portion of the buyers’ tasting sessions consists of choosing the best wines to buy for our members, but actually, there’s so much more to their wine-tasting sessions than that, as Toby explains:
‘Sometimes it’s a comparison of wines in our existing range (especially for offers like the Wine Champs and Buyers’ Favourites), sometimes it’s tasting wines with other Society staff – particularly those in Member Services – to provide education and give better confidence to those giving wine advice to members, and sometimes it’s tastings for the Committee members to keep them abreast of new discoveries and vintage conditions.’
Members with wines in our Reserves will also be pleased to know that buyers continually test longer-lived wines to check for quality complaints and keep drinking dates accurate, and at the other end of the scale, Toby and the team also taste new arrivals that they have only previously sampled in the cellars pre-bottling, to check that new wines live up to expectations.
And if members return wines they feel have a quality issue, the buyers are always on hand to test for wider problems and – in the rare instances that this is necessary – withdraw a wine from sale for further investigation.
The importance of meeting and greeting
Of course, some of the most important tastings the buyers participate in are the 100+ UK-wide events that The Society hosts for its members each year. You will usually find at least one or two buyers at these events, especially at those centred on each buyer’s particular regions and countries of expertise.
Not only is it useful to have someone that knows each of the wines inside out at hand in case of any queries or feedback, but the buyers also relish the opportunity to enjoy the wines directly alongside the members who buy them.
Naturally, one of the most crucial aspects of a buyer’s job is maintaining close and trusting relationships with our growers. As well as going out to visit the properties of the various producers we work with, this includes maintaining regular phone and e-mail contact throughout the year to keep abreast of vintage conditions and changes in the winemaking team, and also involves the growers coming to visit The Society when they are able.
The buyers will welcome a different grower to our headquarters in Stevenage roughly once a month, introducing them and their wines to our staff, as well as showing them our unique set-up: ‘We're one of only a few suppliers that don't sub-contract things like our deliveries and warehousing, so it's always interesting for growers to see how everything we do is in one place.’ says Toby. ‘We also like to try to give them a token gift, such as a port from their birth year, which always makes the trip a memorable one. Many of our growers go out of their way to attend tastings with our members and do so at their own expense, so this is a good way of saying thank you.’
No substitute for being on the spot
With the wide array of sophisticated modern communication methods, why is it still necessary for buyers to visit the wineries themselves? ‘Quite simply, it builds trust on both sides, and ensures we’re getting the best out of each other in the long run. We’re fair, and this means growers are eager to keep working with us,’ Toby says. ‘We like to visit early – before bottling – this allows us to taste the entire range, pick the best wines for our members before they are snapped up by other merchants, and buy them for a better price.’
It also gives the buyers an opportunity to assist with the blending of some wines. They do this a lot more than most members would think, particularly when it comes to wines in The Society’s and Exhibition ranges – in fact, this year alone Toby has had a hand in blending 25 of his wines. It adds significant value to what the buyers do, ensuring our wines are good value and in line with our expected house style.
‘It's a fine art, and in fact it’s rare to get a wine that isn’t improved by blending,’ Toby says, going on to explain that the process can take two years, with blendings both pre and post-barrel ageing. He works with some legendary winemakers, such as Ignacio Recabarren at Concha Y Toro, and has learned that a variation of just 1% of the constituents can make a difference in a blend.
While Toby admits the blending is fun, the visits themselves are far from a holiday! ‘We schedule five visits each day, starting at 9am and often not finishing until 6pm. During these visits you're not just tasting, you’re writing notes, deciding on drinking-dates, and evaluating the quality and price. It's intense, tiring work.’
At the end of a long day, buyers mostly forego restaurant meals in favour of a beer and a sandwich! ‘Even better,’ reflects Toby, ‘is dinner with the growers themselves – chatting to them is inspiring, fascinating and one of best bits of the job.’
It's certainly a job with a heady mix of challenges and perks, but The Society's buying team obviously feels the latter outweighs the former, as they tend to stick at it for quite some time – the team's longest-serving member, Sebastian Payne MW, took on his buying role in 1985, and a few of his current colleagues weren't far behind him. Many things it may be, but a buyer's job is never boring.’
Laura Vickers previously worked as a wine adviser in our Member Services’ team and is now a freelance writer and active blogger
Find out more about our team of nine buyers
Read more about the blending of Society and Exhibition range wines