Explore / Expertise

Buying from France: The importance of experience, trust & integrity

Contents

Tim Sykes Tim Sykes / 14 April 2021

'Experience is everything when it comes to buying from France, and The Wine Society team is probably the most experienced in the business'

Buying French wines for The Wine Society is akin to being a child in a very large, well-stocked sweetshop. France has an enormous diversity of wines, both in terms of regions and styles, for us buyers to get our teeth into and I know that my colleagues, like me, relish the challenge of keeping members' wine-racks stocked with an enticing array of interesting bottles. France makes good, poor and indifferent wine, like any producing country, but the skill from a wine-buying perspective is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and this comes with experience, something that is not in short supply within the buying team at The Society.

'the skill from a wine-buying perspective is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff'

Whether we are looking for wines from France's classic regions or lesser-known sub-regions, the buyers are encouraged to explore all corners of France's viticultural areas. In normal, Covid-free, circumstances we can travel to the regions that we are responsible for as frequently and for as long as we deem necessary to do the job properly.

Wine Society buyers between them, spend roughly 200 days a year 'in the field' in France, up until 2020 that is

Burgundy buyer Toby Morrhall with the jovial Alain Coche at Coche-Bizouard
Burgundy buyer Toby Morrhall with the jovial Alain Coche at Coche-Bizouard

Toby Morrhall chooses few, but lengthy trips to Burgundy and South America, sometimes going away for close to a month – I admire his stamina, most days tasting at five or six domaines for weeks on end. Marcel Orford-Williams doesn't go away for quite such lengthy trips, but during his frequent Rhône and Southern France 'en primeur' trips he visits similar numbers of properties each day, but distances between visits are considerably longer. The rest of the team, myself included, prefers short trips of three or four days maximum. With France well served by regional airports, it's simple to spend a few days on the ground and to maximise one's time visiting producers, and then be home by the weekend.

There is simply no substitute for visiting growers in their cellars and vineyards. All the buyers have stories about stumbling across exciting wines in the dark recesses of cellars – derrière les fagots as the French would say – and committing there and then to buying the wine for members. We are lucky to have free rein to choose the wines that we believe in, and as long as they sell successfully we can carry on doing so.

Tim Sykes with Jean-Marc Darbon blending The Society's White Burgundy in 2019
Tim Sykes with Jean-Marc Darbon blending The Society's White Burgundy in 2019

Wine Society members are well aware of the difference between price and value for money. As a buyer of French wines this is a blessing, as we do not feel the need to buy to 'price points'. If I taste two clarets, one at £9 per bottle and one at £11 per bottle and the latter in my view provides better value, I will select the more expensive bottle. Not all merchants would follow suit, and this is one of the benefits of being a co-operative. We are here to maximise member satisfaction, not profits, and this translates into a French range that offers diversity, authenticity and value.

'The Wine Society works with well over 300 individual producers of French wines.'

As The Society has grown, we have increased our supplier base in France, and today we work with well over 300 individual producers of French wines. This adds a huge amount of complexity to the business and is far more than most wine companies of comparable size have to contend with. But in order to maintain our dual ethos of working with small, family-owned estates that produce authentic wines, and ensuring that we deal as close to the wines' source as possible, we believe that this is a fundamental point of difference that reaps significant rewards. Despite our size, we are still able to buy wines that are only available in small volumes, sometimes taking parcels of fewer than 10 cases of a particular wine. Again, this adds complexity, but allows us to offer as broad a spectrum of French wines in our range as possible.

Marcel with Vinsobres legend Claude Jaume. We've been buying the Jaume family's wines for more than 35 years
Marcel with Vinsobres legend Claude Jaume. We've been buying the Jaume family's wines for more than 35 years

The importance of trust and integrity

The final, and possibly the most important element of our success in buying from France resides in trust. Members as a general rule trust the buyers' selections, and are often willing to take a punt on unknown wines that they might not normally consider buying. It is thanks to this exceptional degree of trust that The Society is able to sell prodigious quantities of unusual, off-the-beaten-track French wines. Our recent offer of a completely unknown red variety from southwest France, the Bin#008 Manseng Noir, sold over 500 cases in under a week. I don't believe there is another wine merchant anywhere that has such a trusting customer base. Trust also applies to the relationship between the buyers and the producers. Conducting business with integrity is one of the fundamental tenets of The Society, and the building and maintaining of trust with wine producers by buying year in year out and not just in the top vintages, paying on time (or even early if a key supplier is experiencing cashflow issues) and never reneging on deals goes a very long way in maintaining high levels of trust and loyalty, often putting us at the front of the queue when it comes to getting our hands on the cream of the crop.

Going the extra mile! Jean-Marc Hugel helps Jo Locke MW back to her car with samples
Going the extra mile! Jean-Marc Hugel helps Jo Locke MW back to her car with samples

Knowledge accrued over many years

The regions within France for which the buyers are responsible rarely change hands within the team, and this ensures that the buyers' knowledge and experience accrue over a very long period of time, ultimately benefiting Wine Society members.


Read more articles by Tim Sykes

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.