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Tate morderniser

Hamish Anderson got his big break when he landed the top sommelier’s job at the Tate.  Since then he has turned wine-list management into an artform, says Charlotte Hey

WHAT you find with most successful people – and it tends to be their most irritating trait – is that they’ve always been very driven, very dynamic and, most of all, they had a plan.

They knew what they were doing from an early age, and worked towards it with a level of determination that sets most people’s teeth on edge.  Which makes it marvellously refreshing to meet Hamish Anderson, head sommelier for the Tate and its varied selection of restaurants, author of the well-received book, Vino, and the man currently struggling with a second tome due to appear in print as soon as he pens the final words.

Why refreshing? Well, Anderson claims to have had absolutely no clue as to the career pattern he would follow, and he certainly didn’t envisage wine as the way forward.

"I didn’t really have a great masterplan when I left university.  Having studied history I didn’t really know what to do with my life and so I just came down to London," he explains in rather sheepish tones.

"I mean I’d always been very interested in food and wine and had a few connections via my godmother, but it was all a bit by chance.  "I took a job at Bibendum, the restaurant, with Matthew Jukes – mainly because I needed some money.

I started as a commis waiter and just really loved the wine side of it.  Within six months I became the sommelier and went off and did my WSET exams, including the Diploma.

Actually, I failed the Diploma partly because I found it just so incredibly boring, though it is partly my own fault because I am just so terribly bad at studying things.  Anyhow…"  Anderson is a fairly quiet, unassuming and almost shy character to begin with, but you soon learn that, like an efficient clockwork toy, once started it takes some time for him to wind down.

When he gets excited about things the words tumble forth and the sentences become less defined and more amalgamated.  "Anyhow, wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could pick and choose the bits you like in life?"

Oh yes, a lot easier indeed.  After two years at Bibendum, Anderson became more involved in the buying side, under the watchful eye of Jukes.  "I was very lucky at the time to meet someone who was connected to the Tate.

They had become involved in the various changes that were going on there at the time, one of which was on the restaurant side.  "The Tate had always been run in a very traditional way but the new change of focus that was being implemented – and remember this was about seven years ago, when I first joined – was very exciting.

And they were recruiting several people from the modern restaurant trade, ie outside the insitution of the Tate."  Taking stock Anderson was relatively lucky, given what he admits was limited buying experience.

"They gave me a short-term contract because of my lack of buying experience," he laughs, still somewhat amazed that they took him on.  "But it was pretty obvious what needed doing. When I first started they had £420,000 worth of stock.

It was just mad. Once I was put in charge I set about selling a lot of the old stock off.  The stockholding hadn’t really been properly managed for quite some time and they bought a lot of wines from a lot of smaller suppliers.

Plus a lot of what they bought was en primeur.  So, for example, there was virtually every vintage of Bordeaux from the eighties, but you’d find the 1984 on the list at exactly the same price as the 1983.

They’d obviously bought the vintages at more or less the same price and applied the same mark-ups.  That’s why I couldn’t figure out at first why we had 50 cases of La Lagune 1987, but none of the ‘86s and ‘88s left in the cellar.

Obviously, everyone had bought those wines in preference off the list, because they were a much better deal."  In Anderson’s view there was far more stockholding than was necessary for a business the size of the Tate’s at the time.

"I set about getting rid of a lot of it, and there was some quite good stuff.  The Lagune 1987 is a good example, because it’s not too shoddy.  I put that on at £15 and we sold absolutely truckloads of it."

Somewhere in the region of 50 cases? "Absolutely right," chuckles Anderson.  "Anyway, we sold some vintages that way, others we sold through Corney & Barrow, or at auction or to the trade in general."

Within a short space of time, Anderson had reduced stockholding down to a more appropriate level, and then began the task of rebuilding and modernising the list.  "We started reinvesting in the kind of stock we did want and selling it directly through the restaurant.

I think the stockholding combined for the Tate Modern and Tate Britain runs at around £200,000," he says, clearly quite chuffed at the tight ship that he runs.

"Although that does fluctuate depending on when we take delivery of our house wines, which we are now sourcing and shipping directly."  But with the addition three years ago of the Tate Modern to the portfolio, has buying for the Tate taken on slightly a schizophrenic quality – whatever the amount of stockholding? "Well, the remit for the two sites is very different," admits Anderson.   "Tate Britain is approached very much as a standalone restaurant. 

People come to enjoy the wine and the food and the restaurant’s ambience, and as a result the list reflects that.   At the Tate Modern, however, the whole aim is to be a service to the gallery visitor. 

We do get people there to eat because of the view, mainly on a Friday and Saturday night, but in general we are not viewed as a standalone concept. Consequently, people are looking for different styles of wine on the list. And so are we."

It’s surprisng how little cross-over there is between the wines on the two lists.  The list for Tate Britain is firmly wedged in the old world, with around 80%-90% of it coming from this sector.

At the Modern, on the other hand, there’s a split of 50:50 with the new world, though it tends to lean towards the latter – at least in look, feel and tone.  "And if you look at the sales stats, you’ll find that almost half the sales at the Modern are by the glass.  And the majority of those sales are actually new world," adds Anderson. 

Modern approach Anderson is the first to admit that he’s made mistakes.  "Take the Modern; at first I produced a much too complicated list, with the idea in mind that I had to do a new world/old world trade-off thing.

So I’d take a new world Chardonnay from, say, Australia, and then pair it with a Burgundy at the same price.  But it wasn’t what people wanted. I have had to change the list quite considerably since we opened three years ago. People wanted simplicity and reliability.

"One of the things that I had underestimated was the sheer size of the operation at the Tate Modern. I mean, we have 130 staff there in the two restaurants and the throughput and amount of staff training really made my original idea and plan more or less unworkable.

So now we have 30-35 wines on the list, the most expensive being a Puligny at around £40."  The volumes are also huge for the Tate.  They get through around 2,500 cases of house white and 1,500 cases of house red alone per annum.

And while this includes events, it’s still a massive amount.  "Hence why we ship it ourselves," says Anderson.  "With Tate Britian," he continues, "my remit is more or less to build a great list and, in that sense, I am very lucky.

At the Tate Modern the wines we sell most of are the 14 listed by the glass – obviously.  It was a real learning curve for me to go from the white tablecloth type of purchasing using a myriad suppliers, to buying by the pallet-load for the Tate Modern.

With the Tate Britain restaurant I thought initially we would stick to just three or four suppliers but, with the volumes I am buying there and the variety I need, it doesn’t really make a difference to the price I am paying so I may as well go for multiple suppliers.

With the Modern, I can trip out to VinItaly, find a wine I particularly like and ship it direct from a particular supplier because it makes sense to do so.  From that point of view, I am in a pretty enviable position."

Another example of the difference in styles between the lists is the preponderence of half-bottles at Tate Britain.  "I have to admit," says Anderson, "that I am just a little bit obsessed by halfbottles.

A lot of our stockholding is taken up by half-bottles because I have to buy upfront to ensure we get the decent stuff in decent amounts.  Nearly 30% of our sales are in half-bottles, first because we have a lot of lunchtime diners, and second, because we have made it a point of difference and people have come to know us for it."

While wine takes up the majority of Anderson’s time, he’s pleased with the fact that he’s had to adapt to other elements of the drinks industry – especially with regard to the Tate Modern. "It’s actually quite a job when you consider that 40% of our turnover at the Tate Modern is in nonalcoholic drinks.

That means a lot of time is spent signing contracts with the likes of Coca-Cola or coffee suppliers. 

Last year alone, for example, we sold 2.4 tonnes of Illy coffee.  That’s the side of buying that I have really had to learn on the job, if you like. But it’s incredibly interesting and a great asset to have."

So what’s the best thing about working for the Tate? "Well, I don’t have someone on my back all the time pushing for a minimum 64% GP on a specific product.  As long as I make it happen across the board generally, then I’m allowed to get on with it myself – and that makes a big difference."

So what margins does he operate at? "Oh, I couldn’t possibly tell you that," he says, reverting to a shyness that no longer becomes him.  Although I can tell you that I operate on roughly a 6%-7% variance in margin over the course of the year – something which would give your average accountant nightmares."

Just as well there’s an affordable but wide range of half-bottles for the hapless bean counters to treat themselves to in the depths of depression then, isn’t it?

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