Food and Drink: Masters of the made-to-measure wine: British buyers are using their muscle to demand from producers the styles and flavours that customers want, says Anthony Rose

TEN YEARS ago, if you walked into the nearest off-licence or supermarket, the chances are that the wine you chose had itself been bought 'off the peg'. The people who bought the wine tended to be making snap decisions on the samples placed before them. Control over the style was generally left to the producer. Apart from a nod in the direction of the bottling line, little attention was paid to the condition of the wine.

With increasing consumer expectations, not to mention the sums of money involved, buyers have had to think harder about what will please their customers. They have become a lot more adept at following the product through from conception to ultimate in-store destination. It is no coincidence that Safeway's wine department, for instance, has a quality and selection controller and a technical controller among its personnel.

The most dynamic among Britain's wine buyers have taken the process a step further. Responding to customer demand for quality, flavour and value, they are now insisting on a say in fashioning the style of the product itself.

The idea of a wine buyer poking his or her nose into the vats is alien to most traditionally minded producers, particularly in France and Italy, where the affinity between winemaker and soil is regarded as sacrosanct. But the need to maintain or increase market share or, in the case of emerging countries, simply to get a foot in the door, has given forward-looking buyers an edge. Go- ahead producers are starting to listen to those buyers who have clout and are looking for tailor-made products.

Buyers need to know the market well enough to be able to convince suppliers that it will pay to do things their way. Angela Muir started out at Grants of St James's, where her experience in bulk wine blending helped her to grasp the importance of linking what the supplier could do to what the customer wanted. 'You need the humility to realise that you're trying to please the public first so that they get conscious pleasure out of anything you choose,' she says.

She was one of the first to realise the potential of Slovakia, and recently collaborated with the Gruppo Italiano Vini to produce excellent white blends for, among others, Sainsbury's. Latterly she has completely overhauled the previously lacklustre Kwik Save range to put a new gloss on its cut-price wines.

Ms Muir believes in establishing a rapport with the producer to get the best possible service. Cold storage of white and rose wines from hot countries to keep them fresh is a feature she introduced and now insists upon. Training producers not to remove flavour by over-conscientious filtering is another. Not as easy as it sounds if the producer is brought up, as many are, to treat the stability of the product as top priority.

No one could accuse Oddbins of not knowing its target market. 'In our experience, being close to the consumer in the way you think is the most important thing,' says Steve Daniel, senior wine buyer. 'All of us have been through the shops, so we're all very tuned in to how the consumer thinks.

'Historically, marketing and buying are separate activities. We combine the two in a single operation. When we taste wines before buying, we ask ourselves how a wine compares against the benchmark and then put a price on it. That way, we can say to our suppliers: look, you may want price X, but we can sell your wine at price Y. We're a good shop-window for a lot of producers.'

Oddbins is starting to go into partnerships with producers for custom- made wines. 'A direct input into the wines means working with winemakers who understand what's required,' says Mr Daniel. It could be a little more time in oak barrels for extra flavour or complexity, or picking grapes earlier for freshness or later for more fruit ripeness. It might be a technical winemaking feature: a malolactic fermentation to give a chardonnay more buttery flavour, or less filtration or none at all.

Beginning with Randall Grahm's wacky The Catalyst, Oddbins is proud of the tailor-made wines on its list. The Vanishing Point, for instance, is a Coonawarra chardonnay custom-made for Oddbins by Penfolds. Vino da Tavola] is an oaky cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese blend put together with Rocca di Castagnoli.

Being quick of the mark is part of the art. Mr Daniel says: 'You have to keep your ear to the ground about what's happening in the local economy, in winemaking, in the winery. If there's an area under the cosh a bit, deals will be there.' He cites Spain last year, where recession in the domestic market (and a favourable exchange rate) made inward- looking producers more receptive to Oddbins. The result was new relationships forged with Spanish bodegas.

Useful lessons were also learnt. In one instance, Oddbins found a wine that tasted so good it wanted it bottled as it was. But instructions for immediate bottling omitted the all-important message not to filter. The producer duly filtered the wine to oblivion. The story is typical of the risks involved in custom buying. One small but vital misunderstanding can be expensive.

Custom buying is creeping into the traditionally more conservative independent trade, too. Simon Farr, wine buyer for London wine merchant Bibendum, spends several months of the year travelling, not just to find new products, but to get to know the producers. 'It is essential to understand the way the guy who makes the decisions is thinking,' says Mr Farr, who believes independent wine merchants need to be competitive to survive the supermarket onslaught. 'After all, there's never been a better reason for trading down. Looking at the quality of wines in the high street, you have to be competitive in 90 per cent of the market.'

To achieve his aim, he uses the bargaining muscle that buying in quantity gives him. In his words, he can 'bully producers into trying to do what I think will make the wine better'. With Val d'Orbieu, a giant 24-million-case operation in the South of France, he created La Serre Chardonnay, which at pounds 3.99 became White Wine of the Year in 1992. In California, he persuaded the producer of a souped-up sauvignon blanc to cut out the sugar. The resulting drier, fresher Kah-nock'-tie Sauvignon Blanc has been a hit in British restaurants.

Italy is one of the hardest nuts to crack. 'When we first went in, we realised it wasn't enough just to find good growers. No one talks in straight lines,' says Mr Farr. 'Quality control issues are a nightmare.' Now, by joining forces with an Italian-based importing company, he has been able to put together one of the most impressive Italian collections in the country.

GOOD BUYS

FOR A taste of what Angela Muir has been up to at Kwik Save, try her bordeaux selection: a refreshing 1992 Bordeaux Blanc, Cuvee V E, pounds 2.85, a fine 1992 Sauvignon Blanc, Cuvee V E, pounds 3.37, which has a little more depth, and juicy Claret, Cuvee V E, pounds 2.67.

Her new-wave Italian whites are exceptional. Now at Sainsbury's, the 1992 Bianco di Custoza, pounds 3.49, is a summer treat. The 1992 Le Veritiere Chardonnay is available, from pounds 3.99- pounds 4.50, at Bentalls in Kingston, Selfridges, Harrods, The Barnes Wine Shop, London SW13, Fulham Road Wine Centre, SW6, La Vigneronne, SW3, and Corney & Barrow, EC1.

Her St Laurent, pounds 2.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, is a soft, juicy red from Slovakia.

The best of Simon Farr's La Serre range is the fragrant southern French 1992 La Serre Sauvignon Blanc, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.99, Victoria Wine.

Oddbins's Spanish excursions include the fruity red 1992 Vega de Moriz Tinto, pounds 2.79 and the classy, modern white rioja, 1992 Campo Viejo Barrel- Fermented Viura, pounds 4.49. From the South of France, the 1992 Oddbins Red, pounds 3.39, is robust and fruity. The Vanishing Point 1991, pounds 5.69, is an elegant chardonnay from Australia.

(Photograph omitted)

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