Tailored to your taste

  • Wednesday 11 January 2006

‘Cash-rich, time-poor’ are the by-words of every self-respecting professional. So now that we can get personal service to customise every aspect of our busy lives, can we do the same for our wine buying? Stressed mother of two Beverley Blanning MW finds out

Personal shopping is booming. Scathing attacks on our criminally bad dress sense or diabolical eating habits on such TV programmes as What Not To Wear and You Are What You Eat have fuelled the insecurity of millions. Style and taste have never been more important. But does such a service translate to wine? Selfridges’ charming personal shopper Dean Aslett tells me he’ll ‘do anything’ for me. It sounds terribly tempting.

Sadly, personal shopping for wine in a store like Selfridges amounts to nothing more glamorous than arranging an appointment to see one of the members of staff in the wine department. I am told it is unusual, but not unheard of, for personal shoppers to be asked to help with wine purchases as part of a consultation. Store-employed personal shoppers will generally assist you in spending money exclusively in their own store, although Do-anything Dean assured me that if a client of his had a specific request for something not sold in the store (be it a Chihuahua – a recent urgent demand – or a Latour 1945), he would personally source it externally.

Independent personal shoppers I’ve spoken to tend not to be sufficiently savvy in wine to make recommendations, although the ‘do anything’ service culture is prevalent here, too.

One person who does offer expert, independent services is wine consultant Susie de Paolis. She tells me: ‘I look after wine collectors with large portfolios of wine. Most of my clients are very busy, dealing with five or six different merchants and often buying from a mailed offer without really looking at it. They ask me to buy wine for them.

‘Many merchants claim to provide this kind of service, but collectors need independent, ongoing advice.’

De Paolis has over 20 years of high-end wine trade experience: she was instrumental in setting up and running John Armit Wines. She has only been consulting for three years (‘a friend set me off; he pointed out that I had the expertise he needed and asked if I’d do it’), and operates entirely on word-of-mouth recommendations. She has found business to be surprisingly brisk, and now advises 35 clients on a regular basis. Their cellars range from 250 to several thousand cases, with some valued at millions of pounds.

Her service entails an initial consultation and creation of a database. For this she charges a one-off fee of £1,000+, depending on the size of the cellar. This database provides clients with full information about all their current wine (valuation at current market price, when to drink, relevant ratings, scores and so on). She also gives her assessment of the cellar: whether the client has too much or little stock, what needs to be bought or sold and how it should be done.

The second part of her service is a long-term consultancy for which she is paid an annual retainer. She also charges a small commission on any transactions she undertakes on behalf of her clients. She stresses that her fees are ‘totally transparent’.

One of the first people to sign up to her services was Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks & Spencer. ‘Susie does a first-class job,’ he enthuses. ‘She’s independent, she can find you any wine you want and people are prepared to pay for that kind of service.’

Rose uses the service to help him organise his wine life: ‘I’ve always bought wine, as I love it. I’ve got more wine than common sense. What I need is someone with a bit of common sense, and that’s Susie.’

For those of us less advanced in our wine collecting, one of the benefits of enrolling on a wine course is being able to pick the brains of the teacher. Master of Wine Clive Barlow says that he is frequently asked for buying advice during educational courses, although he has never been asked to provide consultancy on an individual basis.

‘I’d certainly do it,’ he says, ‘but I think it would require a minimum planned spend for it to be worthwhile – say £5,000.’ Expert taster and educator Michael Schuster says he has done a little personal consultancy, but that he, too, dispenses advice mainly through recommendations on his courses.

Several honourable wine merchants offer tailored cellar plans for a range of wine styles and budgets, for current or future drinking. Mark Ross, an advisor in Berry Bros & Rudd’s Fine Wine department, says: ‘We advise our customers very regularly on which wines to buy – that is what we do.’ One of his main duties is servicing members of the company’s Cellar Plan. Members pay a monthly standing order of £150 or more. Each customer is then allocated a personal cellar manager, who will contact them with options of what to buy, based on the customer’s preferences.

Ross says the main advantage of the plan is that ‘you can be as involved as you like; it’s a completely painless way of building up a cellar in a short period of time – and it’s personalised.’ He says some of his customers contact him on an almost daily basis to discuss their needs.

Lay & Wheeler offers a similar service with its ‘Bin Club’, buying wine for members who pay a monthly minimum sum of £100. Again, purchases can be left to the discretion of the experts (within your given preferences), or you can be as involved as you wish, with the option to manage your plan via a dedicated members’ website.

Simon, a bond salesman, has been a member of the Bin Club for eight years. He says: ‘It’s very useful, because it allows me to buy a range of wines I wouldn’t have bought because I don’t know enough about it. And it’s also good because they contact me to tell me when the wines are coming up for drinking.’

The personal service club Quintessentially, meanwhile, which provides members with access to the more exclusive clubs, restaurants and events around the world, is launching a wine service built around a list of 150 relatively obscure, ‘inaccessible’ wines sourced by buyer Matthew Jukes. The most interesting option for time-pressed money-bags is to give Jukes a brief and a budget (though it would have to be well in excess of £5,000 a year to secure his consultancy), and have him source wines to suit your personal requirements. For upwards of £3,000 annual spend, customers will have to make do with another of the Quintessentially team, led by former wine journalist Chris Orr.

A cheaper alternative is available to members of The Wine Society via its Vintage Cellar Plan. Members can opt for ‘Rising Stars’ or ‘Classic Selection’. Monthly payment is from only £22.50, but this scheme offers less flexibility of choice than more costly cellar plans. Buyer Pierre Mansour explains that the scheme is aimed at the ‘cash-rich, time-poor’ membership.

Like buying a secondhand car, or finding out if your bum really does look big in this, when buying wine the advice of a friend you trust is priceless. There is no shortage of good advice for wine buyers out there. All you need to do is work out who your friends are.

SETTING UP CELLAR - WHAT THE MERCHANTS ADVISED

35 year-old Claire Tallis is looking to set up a cellar for medium-term consumption, with a budget of around £2,000.

She shopped around to see what kind of advice was available, talking to a number of high street merchants, internet wine companies, supermarkets and specialists. Her conclusion?

‘I thought the specialists gave the best advice,’ she says. ‘I felt I could trust them and they knew what they were doing. The ones that stood out were people like Lea & Sandeman. They asked me questions and were interested in the structure of the plan. Others seemed to be just trying to sell me something off their list.’

She also thought Corney & Barrow and Handford inspired confidence, because ‘it seemed like they’d done this kind of thing before.’

The sort of things a merchant should be asking you are: ‘What do you like to drink?’ (incredibly, hardly anybody Claire spoke to asked her this question); ‘How much do you drink?’; ‘Do you have a recurring budget?’; ‘When do you want to drink these wines?’

Oddbins offered Claire a DIY approach, suggesting she buy wine books and magazines, visit websites and join a wine-tasting club – all good advice if you’ve plenty of time to spare. Mr Christian’s (part of Jeraboams) proposed giving her personal tasting after hours to see what kind of wines she’d like. Harvey Nichols (which said it ‘had never had a request like this before’) told her not to bother with any wines costing less than £30.

Farr Vintners came up with a suggested list of solid, no-nonsense red Bordeaux and Burgundies. Virgin Wines sent a long, almost incomprehensible list of wines from around the world, most of which were unhelpfully marked with two alternate vintages.

My favourite recommendation was the mouthwatering list put together by John Armit Wines (although slightly over budget). It came with plenty of explanation regarding the choices, and recommended drinking dates. Red Bordeaux and Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, white Burgundy, vintage Port and a case of half-bottles of Sauternes – all lovely wines, and a real temptation to spend a little more.

THE COLLECTOR - WINES TO DRINK NOW

Rob Harley, a 38 year-old fund manager, is a wine enthusiast with a cellar of about 70 cases, including top Bordeaux and white Burgundy, northern Rhône, vintage Champagne, top Australian reds and some of the rising stars from the south of France.

His problem is not with advice on wines to lay down: ‘I know what I want at the top end,’ he explains. ‘My biggest problem is everyday drinking. I’d love someone to organise the drinking side for me, the £10-or-less wines.’

But surely this is the market most journalists are writing for? ‘On the whole, I don’t rate them,’ he says. ‘For a long time I subscribed to [Robert] Parker, but while I find his “exceptional wine values” useful, they are very much geared to the US buyer. I’m sometimes not too sure about his taste either. I subscribe to Jancis Robinson MW’s site and read her column. She is good and has similar taste to me, and occasionally provides some very useful value wine buying advice.’

He also uses Jamie Goode’s website, www.wineanorak.com, which he says has a ‘comforting, amateurish feel to it which suits the buyer who wants an interesting selection of wine to serve and drink now.’ He also likes Goode’s style: ‘He never gives the impression of lecturing from a position of superior knowledge, as some reviewers do.’

Other sites he rates include Tom Cannavan’s ‘excellent, comprehensive’

www.wine-pages.com, which ‘has the added bonus that you don’t pay for it.’

Rob gets plenty of advice from merchants, but is ‘suspicious’ of most, although he thinks Fine & Rare and Grand Cru Wines (www.grandcruwinesltd.net) provide ‘good and fairly impartial advice.’ However, he still feels ‘there’s a gap in the market for people like me. I’d definitely pay someone I trusted a monthly fee to recommend drinking wines for me.’

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