As one of the longest serving members of staff at The Wine Society, Mark has seen some incredible changes in his 44 years’ service. We look back on some of Mark’s memories
Mark Buckenham joined The Wine Society in February 1973 and is one of the few left of the staff to remember our London office. In fact Mark was originally employed to manage the office in Bolsover St – a collection point and tastings venue for London members. He had previously worked for Ingleton’s of Ilford, a wine merchant based in Maldon, Essex and took over from Clive Coates MW who had moved to Stevenage to look after ‘promotions’.
‘Curiously, my job title was “Export Manager” despite the fact that we didn’t export at all in those days!’ When Sebastian Payne turned up later that year, Mark too moved to Stevenage, where he took over management of shipping and our bottling hall. ‘In those days we still bottled about 60% of our wine here; The Society’s Claret, Rhône and Burgundy were all bottled here, along with Ports, sherries and spirits. The wines would arrive in huge stainless steel road tankers with different compartments inside separating Bordeaux from Burgundy.’
'It’s been a while since Mark and I were climbing onto tanker lorries to taste shipments of The Society’s Claret or dipping pipes of Tawny Port to check quality before bottling. Mark has been a brilliant colleague, determined to see that you all get the good wines you deserve and we have shared many good bottles and many good laughs. I reckon The Wine Society will always run in his blood.’
Sebastian Payne MW
Port and sherry were shipped in cask and the sherry butts sent up to Scotland to the whisky distilleries for the ageing of our special house whisky blend. Comparative tastings of Ports shipped at source compared to Wine Society bottlings have been very favourable. Mark attributes this in part to the fact that they would ‘rouse’ the barrels, by rolling them up and down the yard, before bottling, and the fact that Stevenage is considerably cooler than Oporto when it comes to maturing the Ports. ‘When we bottled spirits we had to have a Customs officer on site – they insisted on having their own office and lavatory! Once the bottling had finished they would take the filters and sprinkle them with bleach to make sure we didn’t squeeze out another drop from them!’ Eventually, we were given responsibility to bottle without an officer on site, having earned the trust of Customs and Excise.
The old bottling hall in Stevenage which Mark was responsible for
The bottling line fell silent in 1992 (the last wine off the line was The Society’s Crusted Port), when bottling at source proved both a cheaper option and one that was starting to be enshrined in some appellation laws, Mark continued to oversee shipping and freightforwarding. He also looked after quality control and gave advice to members. He then became directly responsible for purchasing Port, Madeira, spirits and liqueurs, beer and accessories. When English wines started to become of commercial interest, Mark then took over responsibility for these too. ‘It has been fascinating to chart the rise of home-grown wines and English sparkling wines in particular. It’s great to see them finally gaining the respect and following they deserve.’
Mark has seen some enormous changes at The Wine Society and in the world of wine over the past 44 years, but one thing that has remained constant is a commitment to quality and a respect for the people from whom we buy and to whom we sell. ‘The Wine Society is an astonishing company to work for. We are given a huge amount of opportunity to carry out our jobs in the way we see fit and as buyers we are privileged to be able to buy something because we think it is good and members will enjoy it. It’s not about buying to a price point or focusing on turning a profit; we’re unusual in that respect. Ours is a simple business model, but it works and we’ve had years to perfect what we do; I’m not surprised that The Society is such a successful organisation and I’ve enjoyed being a part of it.’
Mark shares a joke with Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates
‘On behalf of all my colleagues in the buying department and the wider business, it’s been a real pleasure to work with Mark, who over his many years of service has become part of the fabric of The Wine Society. His silver-tongued, boyish charm, infectious laughter and his regular (if quite often not-entirely-PC) stream of jokes have kept us royally entertained. So much has changed in the wine business in the 44 years since he joined us, yet Mark’s unwavering focus on ensuring member satisfaction has never let up. It is testament to Mark’s ability to move with the times that has ensured that he has remained a valued and respected employee. We wish him well in his retirement.’
So what is Mark looking forward to as he retires from The Society? ‘Well, I’m not a pipe and slippers man, that’s for sure! I’m a keen tennis player, and now that I will have more time, I might move towards playing a bit more golf.’ Mark’s ties with The Society won’t be ending anytime soon as daughter Dulcie is carrying on the family tradition, answering queries and taking orders in our Member Services team.
It just remains for us to say thank you to Mark for his dedication and commitment over the past 44 years, oh and for some really great laughs too! Mark, we’ll miss you.