An eye for quality from vineyard to bottle

Few members will be aware that we employ a professional chemist who also happens to be a Master of Wine to carry out regular audits of our principal suppliers. What does this involve? Could this be the best job in the world? Our auditor David Bird MW explains the process

Audits, audits, audits! Is this just another symptom of our current fetish for bureaucracy? The origins of this activity can be traced back to The Food Safety Act of 1991, which introduced the concept of ‘due diligence’, a phrase widely used in present day legislation. This Act states that any company producing foodstuff (and this includes liquids) must show due diligence and take all reasonable precautions to ensure that its product is wholesome and will not harm the consumer.

Who is responsible?

David inspects Juan Gil’s old monastrell vines, Jumilla David inspects Juan Gil’s old monastrell vines, Jumilla

The Society offers a very wide range of wines that are sold under the label of the original producer, the responsibility for which lies with the producer, whose name and address are on the label. The Society also has an extensive range of wines under the name of The Society and The Society’s Exhibition labels, but in this case the responsibility lies with The Society to ensure that the requirements of The Food Safety Act are met. This led to the development of a programme of quality audits of all suppliers of such wines.

Whatever we might think about modern legislation, the application of this Act has been sensibly treated. Proportionality has come into play. It would be unreasonable to expect The Society to audit all of its suppliers every year, so it has been accepted that due diligence has been applied if it can demonstrate that a programme of auditing is in place, starting with those suppliers that have the biggest volume and are the easiest to audit.

Planning our annual audit programme

Every year an audit programme is planned in conjunction with The Society’s buyers, who decide which suppliers are to be used for Society labels. The quality control manager and the technical advisor then construct the programme taking into account any problems that might have occurred in the past or whether a new supplier is being used for the first time. Suppliers are then contacted and are warned that an audit is imminent; this elicits a varied response, from a feeling of horror, to one of a warm welcome! I have to say at this point that I never go in as a policeman with a negative attitude, but rather as a friendly consultant and a wine fanatic, which is the secret to a good relationship.

The day usually starts with a visit to the vineyard

A new supplier will always wonder what is involved, to which I can answer, ‘Everything, from the planting of a vineyard to the wine in the final bottle.’ So the day usually starts with a visit to the vineyard in the company of the viticulturist. This is the moment when I have to ensure that I keep my eye on the audit and do not get too distracted by the wonderful views and the possibility of endless photographs of vines because photography is one of my hobbies and great passions. (You can find many pictures of the vineyards that supply Wine Society wines on my website )

…then it’s the winery – the processes and equipment

Then we move to the winery and inspect the processes and equipment that are used to convert the grapes into wine. Here we are looking for processes that enable the latent quality within the grape to be preserved and not lost due to bad equipment or poor procedures. This is where my experience of a vast range of wineries comes into play, in that I can, if necessary, suggest better practices gleaned from other producers (unless such information is private, in which case I will keep silent). Most of The Society’s suppliers have beautiful modern equipment made of stainless steel, supplemented where necessary by traditional oak casks.

Franck Laloue, supplier of our Exhibition Sancerre, shows off his tidy hose rack!

Franck Laloue, supplier of our Exhibition Sancerre, shows off his tidy hose rack!

…and the bottling

The mobile bottling line arrives at Domaine Jaume, home of The Society’s Côtes du Rhône The mobile bottling line arrives at Domaine Jaume, home of The Society’s Côtes du Rhône

Next we move on to the bottling hall – if there is one! Some of our smaller suppliers make use of a mobile bottling line, which might sometimes be seen as a negative indication, but this is not so. There are some extremely professional units in operation, where everything that is expected of a first-class bottling line is in place: modern filtration equipment, bottle-rinsing machine, filler that is capable of sterile bottling, with all the most up-to-date safeguards that prevent any contamination occurring. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to bottle wine in an old-fashioned cellar deep underground, surrounded by old wine casks full of wine that is maturing gently and quietly, waiting until the time comes for it to be offered to the bottling machine.

The unavoidable form filling

The next part of the audit process is perhaps less interesting, but is equally important: the Quality Assurance (QA) procedures and processes. The time spent on this varies enormously according to the manner in which the supplier has approached what is often regarded as boring bureaucracy, but in reality is an essential part of the modern production of any foodstuff. A certain amount of paperwork is inevitable, but nowadays much of it is held on computer. There are some very clever ready-made programs that are available whereby every action during the winemaking is recorded, and complete traceability is possible from the wine in the bottle back to the very grapes from which it was made.

I never go in as a policeman with a negative attitude, but rather as a friendly consultant and a wine fanatic, which is the secret to a good relationship.

At last, the best part of the day! Tasting at Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja At last, the best part of the day! Tasting at Bodegas Palacio, home of The Society’s Rioja

QA procedures can be conveniently wrapped up within accreditation to one of the several systems available, but with variable degrees of success. The most widely used one nowadays has been successfully promulgated in the United Kingdom by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), but in Germany and France the International Food Standard (IFS) has found favour. The requirements of these standards are slightly different, but a new international standard, ISO22000, is gradually taking over, which will help in unifying the requirements.

A final tour of the establishment completes the audit process: looking at general tidiness, the care taken over the storage of dangerous chemicals and particularly at the state of the area where broken glass is collected, a region where many wineries fall down.

…and finally we get to taste the wine!

And, at last, the best part of the day: a tasting of the range of wines produced, and not just those that are supplied to The Society. This is absolute bliss after a hard day on the feet and on the brain. One has to be observant all the time, making sure that nothing is missed and all is satisfactory. But it’s a marvellous job, especially for a wine fanatic like me!

A Chartered Chemist and Master of Wine, David Bird is well known to students of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s Diploma for delivering the winemaking and technical part of the syllabus. His book Understanding Wine Technology is essential reading for those interested in the science behind wine and is available to buy at

All photos courtesy of David Bird.

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