Buyers with a lot of bottle

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The Independent Culture
Buying wine sounds like everyone's dream job: travel, the hospitality of generous wine folk, and the newly important role of not just finding but also creating a significant proportion of the wines you sell. It's not just flying winemakers who hop from one continent to the next, but flying buyers as well. Sometimes they are one and the same.

Jane Kay, buyer and technologist in Marks & Spencer's wine department, is unique among the wines buyers for the British supermarkets and wine shop chains in being a fully qualified wine-maker. After a chemistry degree, a job in the labs of a Cognac firm seemed as good as any. Then, friendly winemaking students from the nearby Bordeaux University hooked her out of the labs and into a postgraduate wine diploma course. She was running a winery in Corsica when a couple of marauding Marks & Spencer buyers ran into her. Now she can be found flitting from Chile to South Africa to the south of France. She visits each established M&S supplier at least twice a year, sometimes more, prospecting for new wines, new suppliers and visiting "benchmark" wineries. "I enjoy travelling, drinking fantastic wines and eating fantastic food, but it can be very tiring."

Wine buyers' travel schedules have changed a lot since Allan Cheesman began wine-buying for Sainsbury's 24 years ago. In those days supermarket wine came almost exclusively from the classic wine countries of Europe. Now there are over 20 countries to visit, and a double buying season, taking in both hemispheres. "These trips are hard work, none of them are jollies," he says. "But you've got to eat, and I'm blowed if I'm going to go to Chateau Lafite and sit outside with a thermos flask and packet of sandwiches." Neither Sainsbury's nor M&S accept free flights or hotels from producers, unlike some other British supermarkets.

"There's as much entertaining as we want," says Steve Daniel, buying controller at Oddbins. "But I tend not to want to be entertained too much: I don't like to feel indebted." Steve trained as a chef, then worked as a wine shop assistant before spotting a job as trainee buyer at Oddbins eight years ago, and working his way up. "Buying wine is not usually a matter of saying a straight `yes' or `no'. It's more `not at the moment, but if you do x, y and z we might be interested'. It's not a matter of bullying. We can often see where they are going wrong. They don't always know what is right for our market. I rarely accept what people offer me. I think I know what our customers want."

The buyers' best buys

Jane Kay, Marks & Spencer: 1995 Gold Label Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc (pounds 4.49), "rich, ripe fruit with some oak ageing"; Viognier, Domaine de Mandeville (pounds 4.99), "a lovely, delicate peach nose"; 1994 Saint Germain Minervois (pounds 3.99), "spicy Garrigue-style nose with nice concentration"; 1991 Gran Calesa, Coster del Segre, Raimat (pounds 5.50), "plummy fruit with vanilla, just starting to mellow."

Allan Cheesman, Sainsbury's: Sainsbury's Navarra Rosado Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 3.99), "stunning, a real summer slurper"; Sauvignon, Domaine de Saint Marc, Vin de Pays d'Oc (pounds 3.99), "poor man's Sancerre"; 1995 Chardonnay Cave de la Cesanne, Vin de Pays d'Oc (pounds 4.45), "ripe, honeyed"; 1992 Chateau Vieille Cure, Fronsac (pounds 7.35), "this vintage didn't make lots of stars, but this one is stunning - and the 1990 that's coming later this year is a wine to murder for ... "

Steve Daniel, Oddbins: 1995 Chardonnay Casillero del Diablo, Concha y Toro, Chile (pounds 4.99), "a textbook under-pounds 5 Chardonnay, no-nonsense, juicy, rich fruit"; 1995 Aspirant Buchet, Concha y Taro (pounds 4.99), "deep colour, with rich, ripe fruit; 1994 Mariquita (pounds 4.99), "mix of buttery Chardonnay, crisp sauvignon and floral Muscat, a very complex wine; 1994 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay (pounds 11.99), "unfiltered, rich and elegant."