'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
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
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
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
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