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Buyer profile – Tim Sykes

Tim Sykes - head of buying

Tim Sykes joined The Society in March 2012. Tim is responsible for the purchasing of Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Sherry.

How did you get into the wine trade?

An old family friend with close links to the trade gave me the names of several luminaries in the wine business, and suggested I contact them to find out how to get a 'foot in the door'. One of the contacts was a certain Sebastian Payne at The Wine Society, who generously gave me an hour of his time. He basically said go away and get some retail experience and do your WSET exams. A few months (and many applications) later I was offered a job at La Vigneronne, a fine wine shop in Kensington. My foot was firmly in the door...

What was the impetus that made you switch from law to wine and what was your first job in the wine trade?

I decided during my two years as a trainee solicitor that I couldn't face spending the next forty years sorting out peoples' divorces or wading through 100 page commercial leases. The day I qualified as a solicitor was the day I left the law (a move that I haven't regretted for a moment).

During my legal studies I had spent two years at the Sorbonne. My then girlfriend's family regularly invited me for lunch on Sundays or to nice restaurants in Paris, and plied me with delicious wines; what a revelation for a philistine from Yorkshire with more experience of Tetleys than terroirs.

On leaving the law I decided that I had to find a career that would keep me interested and stimulated and my thoughts immediately turned to wine.

At La Vigneronne I started as a dogsbody, shifting cases, stocktaking and manning the till. The breadth of choice of wines offered in the shop and at the weekly customer tastings was staggering, and in a very short time I built up a vast memory bank of wines I had tasted from around the world. After three years I moved on to OW Loeb, a small but quality driven London merchant specialising in estate Burgundy, Rhône and German wines, and then in 1996 I joined Enotria.

Has your legal training been useful in your career in the wine trade and in what way?

My legal training taught me the importance of good organisation and attention to detail, both of which are vital when buying wines from a large number of suppliers. It also taught me the importance of seeing situations from more than one angle.

Have you a particular passion for a specific wine or wine region?

Whilst I enjoy drinking wines from most regions and countries I have a particular fondness for cooler climate wines, so Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace and Mosel are probably at the top of my list. I love wines that are subtle, and which reflect their provenance and terroir, rather than knock you over the head with masses of fruit, alcohol and tannin. Having said all that, I still drink plenty of Italian, Spanish and new world wines at home.

What are your interests outside work?

I love travelling. In my youth I was lucky enough to experience a couple of round the world backpacking adventures and I still have the bug. Particular highlights for me were visiting Nepal and Burma as part of a trip to South East Asia in the eighties.

I am fortunate that my job frequently takes me abroad, and vine-growing regions tend to be nice places to visit. Also my wife and I take any opportunity to travel whenever we get some holiday time.

What do you perceive to be the main challenges to the wine trade in the next few years?

I think that one of the main challenges is always going to be encouraging people to trade up. I particularly enjoy working at The Society as I recognise that Wine Society members are much more inclined to have confidence in the wines the buyers recommend and are not afraid to try new things. For instance, it has been heartening to see the success of our range from Greece and the Balkans, which we continue to expand.

I'm saddened by the dumbing down of wine, in the off-trade in particular, and I think people are fed up with industrial wines. There's such a plethora of great boutique wineries all over the world that will struggle to survive if the big outfits take over market share. It would be a terrible shame for us all if they disappeared!

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