Sebastian Payne, MW joined The Wine Society in 1973. He served as Chief Wine Buyer from 1985–2012 and buys The Society's Italian, German, Greek and Eastern European wines.
How did you get involved in the wine trade?
There was a group of six of us at university, and although we were nothing to do with the official wine club, we used to go out and buy quite good bottles. I wasn't bad at guessing what they were. But after university, I had to go out and get a job.
I wrote to Michael Broadbent at Christie's [auction house in London], who couldn't offer me work, but suggested I contact his friend, Geoffrey Jameson at Justerini & Brooks. Geoffrey introduced me to a few people, and through that, I met a guy called Fred May, who was importing German wine. He wanted a dogsbody, and he gave me the job straightaway. He knew German wine inside out, and I learned everything I know about German wine from him.
He took me to Germany to taste the 1971 vintage, which was a great one in Germany, and I not only learned about wine, but also how to deal with suppliers.
So how did the job at The Society come about?
There was a job advertised at The Society for promotions manager, which was basically the entire marketing department! I did know about The Society before; in fact, I had become a member while I was at Oxford University. My job was to write about the wines for the Lists, which meant I had to taste all of them. But I joined in 1974, which was the 100th anniversary of The Society, so I was thrown in at the deep end of organising the celebrations.
When you did you start buying?
That was some time later, in 1985. A gap appeared, and remarkably, The Society decided to appoint me. Back then, there was only one person doing all the buying. I passed my Master of Wine examinations in 1977.
What's it like buying Bordeaux for The Society?
It's very different from other regions. It's a very big region, and unlike the Rhône for example, where you simply meet the winemaker and buy his wine, in Bordeaux, it really helps if you know who pulls the strings, because mostly, you're dealing with négociants.
And is Bordeaux your favourite region?
I suppose it is. I've got more Bordeaux in my cellar than anything else. Bordeaux keeps amazingly well. I like wines with finesse – I don't want my head blown off. But I love Italian wine and I love Rioja. My feet are firmly in Europe.
How do you feel the wine world has changed over the past 20–30 years?
The vintage has become less and less important, because the quality of winemaking has gone up so much. And when I think of some of the big brands that were available years ago, they were appalling. There was one called Corrida, a Spanish wine made by Stowells. The red smelled of drains and the white smelled like sick!
Any regions we should keep an eye on?
There are a huge number of wonderful wines being made in Spain, Italy, Hungary and the south of France. They are less exposed and less well known. Western Australia and Tasmania are very exciting, too.
Which Society wines do you drink on a regular basis?
I drink The Society's White Burgundy and reds from Domaine Jaume in the Rhône. Wine is not just alcohol, and I don't like the big international brands because I like each glass to taste different.
Now, the big question. What are your desert-island wines?
There was a magnum of Margaux 1953 that I remember very clearly. And a 1929 Latour was very good. Then there was Krug 1973. And Maximin Grünhaus Auslese 1959 – I love aged Riesling. Oh, and 1962 La Tâche.