Big interview: Mike James, Aldi

Mike James is moving on after 10 years of heading up Aldi’s wine buying team. As he prepares to take on a new role at the retailer’s global wine team in Salzburg, Austria, he talks about the highlights of his career in the UK trade.

WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS IN THE ALDI WINE BUYING TEAM?

Being regularly short-listed for and winning Wine Retailer of the Year is a great testament to the efforts the team puts in, and is an acknowledgement that, over the past decade, Aldi has become respected as a wine retailer.

Our first ever major win was, of course, the 2015 Multiple Retailer of the Year at the Drinks Retailing Awards, hosted by DRN. This was so unexpected that I only attended last minute and had to catch a 7am flight to Spain the next morning for a buying visit – complete with our trophy stuffed into my hand luggage.

I am incredibly proud of our Exquisite Collection range, and for me this remains the best own-label wine range out there. We launched this range in November 2012, and since that time more the 60 different wines from around the world have donned the Exquisite Collection label. I believe this range is a great example of everything that we stand for: value, innovation and integrity.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PART OF THE JOB?

I would have to say that, without a doubt, it is when the production case of a wine that the team has meticulously worked on – often up to 12 months previously – arrives in the office. I drive my team mad, as I am like a child at Christmas – ripping open the box, admiring the finished label from our brilliant designer and then rushing to the tasting room.

Of course it is even better when the wine is quirky, but succeeds, flies off the shelf, gets great reviews and your gut feel when you came up with the concept and the hard work in the intervening months pays off.

I genuinely love being a part of the wine industry and at Aldi I have been lucky enough to work with a small, fantastic team. However, I also consider every supplier and every winemaker I work with to be part of the team and I love that it feels like being part of a very special and very welcoming family.

HOW HAS THE INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE PAST 10 YEARS AND HOW HAVE YOU RESPONDED?

In terms of customers, there is now far more acceptance of ostensibly esoteric wines than ever before, which is great news for wine buyers as it opens up opportunities for great value wines that might be from less traditional grape varieties or from less well known regions.

It is also much harder now to find a “bad” winery, as the bar has been raised with regards to overall standards. This is crucial when buying wine for a major multiple, and also exciting as it means a greater variety of wines become accessible.

WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL WINE BUYER IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE? DO YOU HAVE ANY HAVE ADVICE FOR YOUNG BUYERS FOLLOWING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?

It is crucial to respect and understand the wine industry. I have also found that careful forward planning is essential if you want to get the required volumes at the right quality and cost – and the best way to achieve this is to build long- term relationships. If you always get to know the winemaker, they will go the extra mile for you if they know you share their passion.

Finally, trust your gut, get excited, have confidence, and be passionate. If you invest your heart and soul into a wine it is likely to succeed.

WHAT WILL YOUR NEW ROLE ENTAIL? WILL WE STILL SEE YOU IN THE UK FROM TIME TO TIME?

I will be taking on a new global role based in Salzburg, Austria, and will continue to deliver great-tasting wines at affordable prices to Aldi customers. I will, of course, still have a hand in Aldi UK and will continue to work alongside the UK buying team.

WHY DO YOU THINK ALDI HAS ENJOYED SUCH STRONG GROWTH IN WINE SALES OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS AND DO YOU FEEL IT IS WELL POSITIONED TO CONTINUE FLOURISHING IN FUTURE?

I firmly believe Aldi’s strong growth in wine, as with the other areas of our customer experience, is due to our unwavering desire to offer value. Although everyone should remember that value does not mean cheap, as Aldi value is all about quality and price. With regards to wine, this has meant our top suppliers and talented winemakers want and are proud to work with us. In turn this has created a high level of trust in our wine range among our millions of customers, so wine critics have had to sit-up and take notice.

Of course Aldi’s wine sales will continue to perform, we are brilliant at never resting on our laurels. We will keep doing what we do best, offering the best value, innovative products.

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