A day in the life of a wine buyer and merchant

by | May 2, 2018 | Business and Marketing

You don’t have to be a winemaker to work in the wine industry. We’re often so enamoured by wine as a product it’s easy to forget what goes into (and onto) every bottle. This series celebrates the diversity of the people and their careers that make the industry every bit as complex as its finest vintages.

If you’re tempted to enter the South African wine market, either as a buyer or seller, expertise is invaluable.

Since time immemorial there has been a need to trade goods and services for commodities or coins. The wine trade started in the 6th Century BC between ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Carthaginians. Even in biblical times fine wine was traded for a few shekels.

Derek Kilpin of Great Domaines is the epitome a modern-day wine trader. He and his team make it possible for South Africans to enjoy some of the most renowned wines from across Europe.

His partner, Wayne Visser, established Great Domaines in 2000. One of the most challenging aspects when buying wine directly from some of the most sought-after estates in the world is establishing relationships.

“The producers’ historical relationships with importers from around the world combined with limited volumes makes getting a foot in the door very challenging,” Derek says. “We for instance visited a certain producer every year for seven years before they finally agreed to make some wine available to Great Domaines on an annual basis.”

The wine market has seen significant growth since Great Domaines’ launch 18 years ago. While the wine import market is burgeoning, according Wosa, the South African export wine market grew by 9.8% in 2016 to R9.0 billion or 428.5 million litres compared with 2015.

Michael Bampfield-Duggan is one of wine retail gem Wine Concepts’ founders. He says an important aspect of the Wine Concepts business model is wine list consulting. This business-to-business aspect involves designing wine lists and procurement of wines. Game reserves, hotels, restaurants and trains in Wine Concepts’ care have won more than 100 wine list awards.

Customers at the Wine Concepts Newlands branch in Cape Town are always greeted by Michael’s warm smile. His wine career started in London when he worked as a batman for a St James Street firm of commodity brokers. They had a wine cellar in the basement housing some of the world’s finest wines. Michael was responsible for pairing wines from the cellar with boardroom lunches and dinners at the directors’ country residences.

“My interest in wine was sparked during the two years I worked closely with wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd two doors away,” Michael says. “During this time I learnt so much about wine, pairing it with food and entertaining in general.

“When I returned to South Africa I worked at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg for three years before going into partnership with an ex-Carltonite to open a restaurant in Cape Town called The Upper Crust,” Michael says. “It was here that I created interesting wine lists for which I won several Diners Club Winelist Awards. Living in the Cape provided me with ample opportunity to visit wineries where I saw how they operated and marketed their products.”

South Africans’ increasingly sophisticated wine palate is of great interest to both Michael and Derek. “Today there are over 7 500 labels available locally and at any one time we have 1 000 labels on our shelves,” Michael says.

In October last year electrical engineer Walter Melato opened wine and tapas bar Le Wine Chambre in Joburg’s trendy Illovo. “I call myself a self-taught wine connoisseur,” he says. “I developed a personal wine collection over the years and at one time I had more than 400 bottles in my wine cooler. This collection helped me craft Le Wine Chambre’s wine list.”

Walter, who worked closely with qualified sommelier Eric Botha to compile the Le Wine Chambre wine list, believes the Gauteng wine market is becoming increasingly sophisticated but says when communicating with customers wine jargon should be used with caution. “It’s almost like playing golf with pros and wannabe golfers,” he quips. “Big words on tasting notes create a huge barrier for simple wine enjoyment.”

Connecting with his customers is a critical part of Walter and his team’s roles at Le Wine Chambre. “My day starts at 5:00 with an hour-long workout at home with my personal trainer, Ali Mhlanga. I then I take a two-hour nap. We work from noon to midnight. We’re closed on Mondays to recharge our batteries.”

Michael has completed Cape Wine Academy, and KWV courses as well as correspondence courses through the American Hotel & Motel Association. Keeping his ear close to the ground is a vital part of his role in the wine retail environment.

“I have a strong team so am able to attend wine functions as and when I can,” he says. “Attending functions and launches is not only a social occasion but often a learning experience because you’re interacting with colleagues in the business which often results in hearing about important news in the wine industry.”

Derek, who has completed a Level 3 Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course, agrees with Michael’s sentiments. “A lot of the work around wine happens after hours and over weekends when dinners and tastings are happening,” he says. “It certainly helps that I love the job so I’m never worried or concerned that I’m not doing a 9-5 job. But achieving a work-life balance is important as it’s not easy to say no when fine food and wine are involved!” Among the wines on Derek’s shelf are new vintages from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Vega Sicilia, Pol Roger, Quintarelli and Miani.

The devastating drought in the Western Cape has seen price increases of seven to 15% in some instances, Michael says. It’s vital that he remains abreast of what’s happening in the market so he’s prepared for each day. “On a typical day I chat with my team about the day’s orders and deliveries. Before we open we carry out random stock takes and check that all products displayed have price tags. Fridges and shelves are restocked from the previous day’s orders. We order what’s short and new products as required. I check emails for orders and handle queries and questions from customers.

“From time to time we attend trade tastings or launches of new wines and wineries. Then of course we attend to our customers who come to our store and give them the best advice we can on what to buy. We offer daily tastings and listen to our customers’ thoughts about the wines they’ve tasted. We keep our Twitter and Instagram accounts alive with daily info on what’s new and what we’re currently tasting. We open at 09.00 and close at 19.00 so it’s a long but fulfilling day, thanks to our happy customers and clients.”

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