Mike James: how to be a wine buyer

Mike James is the driving force behind an Aldi wine range that punches well above its weight when it comes to winning awards, earning column inches and growing retail sales. He has a strong track record of making shrewd decisions, exhibiting flair and dynamism in his buying choices and helping to shape the nation’s drinking habits. It has made him a serial number one on DRN’s Most Influential People in Wine list and earned him a reputation as one of the country’s most skilfull buyers. 

But it has not always been plain sailing and he got off to an inauspicious start in his career. “When I took over the wine category, we had a wine which back then sold for all of £2.99 a bottle,” he says. “I tasted it – too sweet, lack of fruit, pretty pumped up with too much sugar. So I got on the phone to the supplier and said look, you’ve got to reduce the sugar, it’s horrible, so of course they did what I said, because I was the wine buyer, I knew what I was talking about… Sales dropped 30% overnight.”

James can shrug it off now, eight years later, turning it into a lesson for budding buyers. “It is absolutely 100% not about you. It’s about your customers. Everyone has a palate, even people who buy wine for £2.99 a bottle – don’t forget that.” But at the time he was petrified. 

Little in his previous experience had prepared him for supplier meetings with experts who had lived and breathed the category for years. Before joining Aldi, he could be found atop a mountain in Sinai with his trusty camel for company, studying Pseudophilotes sinaicus, the world’s smallest butterfly, for a PhD. After realising there was not much of a lucrative future in tiny Egyptian butterflies, he applied for graduate jobs and became area manager for 13 Aldi stores in south Wales. Six years at the supermarket gave him a strong grasp of retail, and he had a fondness for vinous delights, but was by no means a wine expert.

“There was a rejig at our corporate office. The wine buyer left, they were looking for a new one, so I made the right noises, said the right things, and there I was, terrified, with no WSET qualifications, trying to blag it,” he says. “The first year was terrifying, when you are in awe of everyone because they are more experienced than you, and you are talking to talented winemakers and suppliers. 

“I coped with confidence. It was a bit of a façade. I had to give confidence, because I didn’t want to be buying rubbish for an inflated price, but it was pretty terrifying. I was almost waiting for somebody else to say something about the wine I was tasting before leaping in and saying, ‘yeah, I agree’. It was a baptism of fire.”

Confidence has continued to define James’s career as a buyer, as he explained at a recent talk to WSET students who aspire to follow in his footsteps as celebrated wine buyers. “Why do you want to be a wine buyer?” he asked the room. “You get to travel to beautiful and amazing places, you get to indulge your passion, you get paid for tasting some amazing wines and your work week is generally spent talking about your favourite subject with like-minded people. Why wouldn’t you want to be a wine buyer?

“Of course you want to be a wine buyer. It’s the Promised Land. But how do you get to that Promised Land? What skills, attributes and characteristics do I think, as someone who buys millions and millions of bottles of wine a year, are necessary?

Confident palate 

“I don’t have the greatest palate, but what I do have is a lot of confidence in my palate, and that confidence comes from the WSET’s systematic approach to tasting, because that approach to tasting drills into you a very specific and objective way of looking at wine. Objectivity is absolutely crucial when you are buying wine, not for yourself, but for your customers. It doesn’t actually matter if you like the wine you are buying or not. The key question you have to ask yourself time and time again is: ‘Is this wine representative of the style I am trying to achieve?’ The WSET qualifications enable you to taste and give you confidence. It is the qualification itself that gives you the confidence. You walk into a tasting or a supplier meeting with your head held a bit higher, because you nailed that diploma. Confidence is so important as a wine buyer. I hate to burst any balloons or preconceptions, but it’s my belief that nobody in the world, not even Jancis [Robinson MW], has a god-given talent for wine. It comes with a lot of hard work, a lot of practice. We’ve all got a palate, we’ve all got a mouth full of taste buds, we’ve all got an opinion, but if that opinion is not accompanied by confidence in your palate you will lose the respect of your suppliers, winemakers and your team.”

Aside from confidence, James believes wine buyers need to be armed with a corkscrew, a calculator and a particular set of skills. That includes the ability to network, the patience to pore over seemingly endless spreadsheets and the diligence to absorb as much information about wine as possible.

“It never really occurred to me before I started my WSET studies just how important geography is to a wine buyer,” he says. “Frost, hail, drought, China, America, exchange rates, Brexit – the theory involved in WSET studies gives you a broad palette with which you can create a wine and source a style that your customer demands. 

“Hawke’s Bay is pretty much the same latitude south of the equator as Bordeaux is north of the equator and has pretty much the same soil as Bordeaux has. Vintage 2017, late spring frosts in April, Bordeaux frosts down by about 40%, costs up by about 25% so far. Circumstances such as that force you to look for alternatives. Your customers don’t know the impact of those costs, but they know what they like. They want their Bordeaux blends, ideally at the same price they paid last year. 

“It’s not just geography. Science is also useful. I have a scientific background and I strongly believe that this has helped me understand the winemaking process more easily.”

James travels to beautiful places once or twice a month, but he spends more time staring at spreadsheets and crunching numbers, stressing that the job is by no means as sexy as it can sometimes sound. “You are a buyer in a business that wants to make money, so one way or another you have got to negotiate the best deal,” he says. “So, coupled with negotiation, you spend a lot of time as a wine buyer looking at a calculator, filling in spreadsheets. 

“You need to be sharp when it comes to negotiations, you need to be good at maths, you need to know about VAT, the Scots and their minimum unit pricing, duty, you need to learn to dread Budget day. Information such as this is crucial if you want to be a wine buyer. Wine generally doesn’t come from the UK, so you need to understand the logistics element in your cost and keep a close eye on exchange rates. 

“A €2.50 bottle of wine today is about 50p more expensive than it was pre-Brexit. You need to know bulk litre prices, how an ex-cellar bottle cost in South African rand translates to a cost in UK pounds sterling delivered, with all the intricacies that go with that. You need to know case sizes, the number of cases per pallet, the number of pallets per truck, does it have to go through France with the restrictions they have on the motorway? In other words, you need to know the cost of getting your wine from A to B, the cost from vineyard to your consumer. These are big factors that make up the cost of wine, and so your retail price and volume sales and margin, and you’ve got to get to grips with them.

“There are a lot of people out there who know an awful lot about wine, and they can be vociferous in their opinion, but clearly they don’t know the first thing about selling wine.

“If you are selling wine, your two key tools are a corkscrew and a calculator. First, get yourself a WSET qualification. Second, be creative, be passionate, drink every bottle of wine that you are involved with. Every supplier, every customer, every winemaker, give them the respect they deserve.”

Common ground

It all comes back to confidence for James. “I am no winemaker,” he says. “But I can confident

ly communicate to them what I want from a wine. That’s exactly what happened when I met Thys Louw, of Diemersdal Estate, at Prowein a few years ago. I’d heard his reputation as a really good winemaker, one of these young South African talents specialising in Sauvignon Blanc, and I was looking for a Sauvignon that was a bit different. I loved the impact of the deft use of a bit of French oak, the extra body and te

xture that can give to a Sauvignon, and we started discussing wines. After a while we realised we had some common ground, so he pulled out a dirty tank sample of wine he had brought with him from South Africa, and we tasted it and it was just what I wanted.

“Then he told me the story. He said he woke up one morning and there were a load of sheep in his vineyard, which was a bit of a shock. He was just about to get rid of them all when he noticed they were actually plucking off the leaves of the vines. They were managing the canopy, they were allowing the sun to hit the grapes and ripen them to a better extent. So from that conversation, further meetings, sampling, tasting, tweaking of blends, the Leaf Plucker Sauvignon Blanc was born. Stories sell wine. It’s not just about what’s in the bottle. The beauty of wine is that every one has a really interesting story to tell.”

His mission at Aldi is to open the doors to accessible wine of great quality and value for the British public. “Your customers are not going to be drinking your wine under the shadow of Table Mountain or among the gnarled vines of Ribero del Duero,” he says. “They are more than likely going to be drinking it on a cold, dark evening while watching Coronation Street. So whenever I taste a wine and think ‘this is great’ in situ, I take myself back to the east Midlands on a cold, wet afternoon, with rain lashing against the window, and if it still tastes good, then you know you’re probably onto a good thing.

“You have to give customers what they want: Pinot Grigio, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Australian Shiraz. You can’t just do something completely different, because you would fold. My job is to do that as successfully as possible. You have got your bread and butter, but you also need those wines that sell a fraction of what the Pinot Grigio sells but give you your halo effect, prestige, write-ups in newspapers and awards at wine shows. That helps the whole category, brings new customers in and makes customers who were already there try them.

“You need to be all over market data, the likes of Kantar and Nielsen, you live and breathe those things. But by definition that market data is out of date. It tells you what has happened. Which is why I also spend a lot of time in the on-trade. I find visiting the on-trade very useful.”

But he saves his finest piece of advice for last. “You need to be aware of trends, and know what your competitors are up to,” he says. “Read the trade press, Drinks Retailing News, Harpers, publications such as that.”

There you have it. Keep reading Drinks Retailing News and you will be fine and dandy.  

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