10 of the best jobs in drinks and how to get them

Wine buyer

Name: Victoria Mason, Waitrose Wine Buyer (South Africa, Loire, Eastern Europe, bag-in-box, small Bottles, low alcohol)
What route did you take to your current job?

I arrived in my current job via an English literature degree, three years in supermarket management (starting off on the Waitrose graduate trainee scheme), and almost 3 years in horticulture buying. The transition from buying plants to buying wine was smoother than you might think. On my first visit to the Loire valley I spent the whole time in the vineyards with the growers, looking at frost-damaged vines and mildew… Not entirely dissimilar to visiting a plant nursery!

What’s an average day look like?
My job is as much about SELLING wine – to the Waitrose customer – as it is about BUYING wine, so my day combines both elements. There’s a customer-facing side and supplier-facing side to what I do. Every day will start with a quick review of sales performance, especially of key lines on promotion, to ensure things are tracking to forecast and stock holding is sufficient. If it’s a Monday then there will be various department trading meetings to capture the previous week’s performance and the key opportunities (“opportunities” rather than issues!) to address. I’ll have at least one supplier meeting on any given day (often a lot more), where we will be reviewing the current business plan and looking at where we might be able to further drive sales. This is not just about reviewing the pure commercials but also the marketing plan to support the lines – featuring in Waitrose publications, for example, or in-store tastings. I’ll have a catch up with the Supply Chain team, checking in on any potential challenges to supply and amending forecasts as necessary.

I’ll always have wines to taste, either samples from the beginning, middle and end of a new production run, or new vintage options for approval. Where possible, I will blend new vintages with the producer on site at their winery but sometimes they will come to me, and we’ll blend and approve in the tasting room at Bracknell. There is often some sort of new listing in the pipeline so I’ll taste and benchmark potential new wines against each other, and, where relevant, against the rest of the market. Then I will be back at my desk looking at financial forecasting, and ensuring my promotional plan for the year is still fit for purpose in the light of a dynamic, changing marketplace. The spreadsheet work is maybe the least glamorous part of the job but critical, and I love the combination of figures and analysis, and product and marketing. Then I’ll perhaps have a meeting with our media manager, for example about an upcoming feature on different wine formats in the Waitrose Weekend paper, ensuring we have the messaging right and the photography we need.

Some part of most days will be spent communicating with our in-store wine specialists, sharing updates about new products or promotions, or responding to their queries on our online community. Label design is one part of the job I did not anticipate but is time consuming and important – whether working on an own label redesign, a tertiary brand (buyer’s own label), or tweaking a producer’s label to get it absolutely right for our shelves. I will inevitably also have contact with potential new suppliers, either via telephone or email, or face-to-face if their proposition is really exciting. It’s fair to say every day passes in a flash! Travelling is also a big part of the job, especially after vintage; I am just back from 12 days in South Africa tasting the new 2018s and understanding the drought situation more fully.

What’s the best thing about your job?
Without a doubt the people – the incredible, passionate producers I get to work with. They care so much about what they do and it’s inspiring to experience it firsthand in the cellar and vineyard. Wine is as much about the people who make it as the terroir on which the grapes are grown, and getting to know about what the winemakers are striving for in their wines, the effort that goes into the whole process, and the challenges they are facing, is essential.

And the worst?
Not being able to list all the wines I love! If only supermarket shelves were extendable… Seriously though, I have to make difficult decisions about which producers/wines/brands to back and more often than not I will have several very good options to consider. So it’s a case of balancing the commercials, the long-term potential of the working relationship, the alignment of values of my business (Waitrose being a Partnership with a sustainable approach to growth) and theirs, and my gut instinct about what will capture my customer’s attention or fulfil a need they didn’t know they had.

What’s your best piece of advice to someone looking to land your job?
I never saw this job coming. I had just assumed I would need to be an MW or have years of wine experience to make it into wine buying. So everything I did that prepared me specifically for the role was out of pure enjoyment of wine. It kicked off formally with an evening course at Berry Bros over five years ago, which prompted me to go further and start working through the WSET qualifications. I also went to all the tastings I could (London has so much to offer!) and was in the process of planning a vintage when the job opportunity came up.

So my advice would be: follow your passion for wine and take every chance to learn more. Your passion is one of your best assets and in my view is essential if you want to be a wine buyer. If you are not already in the trade, think about the skills that you have that are relevant and can be transferred to the job – retail experience and previous buying roles in other areas proved helpful for me – and if there any gaps in your skillset, work out how to plug them now.

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