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Chris Orr comments on… the art of wine buying

Faced with increasing business pressures and fewer resources, Chris Orr finds the current batch of wine buyers are having to aquire new skills, to the detriment of their wine knowledge

I was at a tasting the other evening when I heard a buyer for a major supermarket make the following comment to one of the UK’s leading wine journalists. “Yeah it’s a very exciting opportunity,” the buyer was saying, referring to their new post. “I could do with talking to you about Bordeaux, Burgundy etc, oh and Germany too.”

There were so many things that struck me as odd about this that I couldn’t begin to list them all, but two in particular kind of stuck out. The first was “Why on earth are you asking him for advice.” Because that’s essentially what the buyer was saying – or at least how it came across to me. What’s a leading supermarket buyer of wine asking a wine journalist, however brilliant and knowledgeable, for advice on regions? Perhaps, I argued with myself, they’re just looking for a little update. Maybe the buyers never really made that region his speciality before. You can’t after all know everything about every region, can you? But surely you can’t truly buy from one region, without knowing the basics of another. Presumably you can’t say this wine is great from South Africa, without knowing what it stacks up against in Australia, South of France or Italy. If you don’t then all credit to you for asking advice from someone whose job it is to know about it, but not entirely sure the job you’ve chosen is the right one for you.

The second, however, was the idea that that knowledge will have some use once imparted from journalist to buyer. In my opinion, I can’t see much relevance it would have. At least not at supermarket level. Because at that level, your buying decisions are pretty much pure commercial decisions. Given two wines, both of which perform a duty in taste terms at 4.99, both of which are offering the same marginal and promotional package, the wine you’ll choose will be the wine that will be most commercially sound – and if that means choosing a brand in place of a bright new thing, so be it. There’s not much extra input you need to make that decision. But you do need your own personal knowledge of the wines and where they come from, and what context you as the buyer puts them in.

But you can’t get that by simply asking someone – however erudite – for their opinions and then co-opting them. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It’s perfectly possible. You know journalists and their lovely theories. After all, buyers and journos chew the fat all the time, so why get worked up. Well, that’s true. But I can’t help feeling that there’s more to it than that. There’s an increasing impression being given that wine buyers, especially for the multiples and the supermarkets don’t need knowledge – or at least all round knowledge. That it’s as simple as buying potatoes, cabbage or chocolate bourbons. Many of the multiples insist that they want to offer choice in their wine range, that they want to buy the best for their customers and show them the wonderful world of wine and its infinite variety. Or at least that’s the line punted out. But showing the consumer the wonderful

world of wine is a lot trickier if your chief guide – the wine buyer – hasn’t travelled the globe. That’s a bit like paying for a guided tour of the empire state building from someone who’s never been above Floor 10.

I don’t blame the buyers – but rather the people who have turned them into desk bound paper pushers, unable to spare the time to really travel and really discover what is available in the regions they buy for. The people who have stripped out all administration staff so that a buyer these days combines both jobs. The people who have stripped out negotiators so that in fact a buyer has to do three jobs, not two. It makes it difficult to travel to the end of the central line, let alone discover what’s going on in the regions you’re buying and selling. Actually thinking about it, it’s no wonder the buyer concerned was asking advice – they have almost no other options open to them.

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