Did you always want to be a wine buyer?
The rest of my family were in teaching, but I didn't want to do that. I'm mad keen on history. History is about dates, and it always fascinated me that there was this thing called wine which had all these vintages. You give me a date, and I'd give you a list of battles and a list of vintages!
Where was your first job?
At Europa Foods in 1980, I was stacking shelves, as a temporary job to earn some money before travelling. The wine buyer was Liz Berry, and she had just passed her Master of Wine exams. My next job was at Augustus Barnet, an off-licence, and then I went to a independent wine company, Freddie Barrett in Shepherd's Bush, west London, as manager.
How did you come to work at The Society?
In 1986, I saw an advert for the role of assistant to the buyer. Sebastian (Payne MW) had only just been made buyer when I came along. My job involved setting up tastings for him, going round cellars, lots of things. We used to bring wine over in bulk in those days, so once or twice I had to climb on top of a tanker with my glass to taste the wine, with all these cars going past hooting their horns. And I spoke French fluently, which helped: Sebastian would ask me to ring up a particular grower and bully him on price!
You've bought Rhône for a long time - how has the region changed?
I've been putting Rhône offers together for 20 years, and the wines have changed completely in that time. Quality has soared. There was a time when Rhône wines were accused of rusticity. Take Cornas, for example. Twenty years ago, you defined a Cornas by being able to stand a spoon up in the wine, and you couldn't drink it for 10 years! But nowadays, it's become a very fine wine.
Your other love, the Languedoc, doesn't seem to get the credit that other regions do. Why is that?
I think, to my parents' generation, the Languedoc is associated with plastic bottles and plastic caps. And don't forget that 16 million hectolitres are made there each year - a lot of that remains garbage. There are two sorts of winemakers in the Languedoc: the ones who go off to watch bullfighting all the time, and leave their grapes to rot; then there are the others, who never stop working.
Which wines do you enjoy other than from regions you look after?
I like Italian wine, and from the New World I enjoy Australian shiraz, because it's a taste you cannot find anywhere else - and that's the same with zinfandel in the US.
You do a fair bit of blending for The Society - how do you approach this?
I really enjoy this aspect of my job and never cease to be amazed at how even just a tiny percentage of a particular grape of wine from a slightly different terroir can really lift the final blend. I go out to France in early January each year to assess and taste the young wines and make sure we buy up the best lots for our members. The new Vin de France category has opened up possibilities for cross-regional blends which can be highly successful. It is important to keep your ear to the ground for potential good new sources for these types of wines.
And your favourite all-time wine?
One of them would have to be 1955 Alfred Gratien Champagne. On my first-ever trip to Champagne in 1987, I went to Gratien with Sebastian. They opened two bottles: a 1947, which is Sebastian's birthyear, and a 1955, mine. The 1947 wasn't tasting particularly well, but the 1955 was as fresh as a daisy!
You can follow Marcel on Instagram @marcelthewinebuyer