CATHARINE LOWE meets Waitrose wine buyer, Dee Blackstock MW – the woman behind the wines on the shop shelves.
It’s not as romantic as many people think,’ begins Dee Blackstock MW, wine buyer for Waitrose supermarket: ‘I get into the office by 7.30am, deal with other people’s deadlines: hampers, exports, invoices, queries, provisions department, emails and stock levels.’ And there’s nothing romantic about Waitrose head office either: a large trading estate building on the edge of Bracknell, with rules such as ‘no coffee cups on desks’ that only large corporates could insist on.
However, invoices and coffee rules aside, Blackstock is quick to stress: ‘The most important thing I do is taste. I might be tasting new wines in general, or may focus on a particular region, or as a double check on wines about to hit the shelves; wines – anything from 10 to 50 a day – are tasted ‘seen’ by region and price. Blind tastings are reserved for a final decision on buying wines (so as not to be swayed by a name or label), and for comparative tastings against rival supermarkets’ wines.’ She claims no special treatment of her MW palate, except for keeping to a routine: tastings are always held 11am to 1pm.
But how do wines appear in front of buyers in the first place? ‘Wines are “discovered” through a number of different ways: contact with an ongoing supplier, approaches by a new supplier, through reading, travelling, talking to people, and even a few from customers reporting back after holidays to wine regions. We try to be very open minded. ‘I am responsible for Rhône, Champagne, sparkling wines, Languedoc, Australia and New Zealand – some lovely areas,’ continues Blackstock, who along with two other buyers sources 600–900 lines for Waitrose’s 136 branches. ‘It involves a fair bit of travel, covering wine fairs and meeting the producers.’
Blackstock acknowledges that supermarkets are often criticised for listing too many brands at the detriment to smaller producers and consumer choice. ‘Brands are reassuring to a lot of our customers but to stock too many is unexciting. We want to balance them with the esoteric and quirky wines. Of course, not all lines prove popular. Sometimes we love a wine, and yet it just doesn’t sell.’
Competition to get hold of wines can be fierce. ‘There are some wines such as Nepenthe which you virtually have to commit to as you taste. With others, such as Cape Mentelle, we had to start with 20 cases before they’d give us bigger volumes.’ And, Blackstock points out: ‘We do have targets to reach – an overall profitability – though no one seems to mind how we do it.’In the afternoons Blackstock might attend a generic tasting and, if passing, browse in a wine merchants to see what’s on offer… but there’s no donning of dark glasses to prowl and price up competitors’ ranges. ‘We have an in-house intelligence service to check out prices in other stores.’
Afternoons also involve media queries: ‘We recommend far more aromatic whites and supple reds like Grenache because of the growth in interest in lighter dishes, such as oriental food. Wine buying is affected by TV programmes, and by the press.’ Home time is around 7pm, though Blackstock hints that this is on a good day. ‘Ideally I’d go via the gym, but this doesn’t often happen. I don’t drink wine from Monday to Thursday, but at the weekend I’ll cook and open a nice bottle, preferably Champagne – you can drink Champagne with anything.’
Written by CATHARINE LOWE