Having joined The Wine Society’s team in 1973 as promotions manager, Payne became the head buyer in 1985. He stepped down from this position in 2012, when Tim Sykes took over, but has remained on the buying team ever since.
As part of his responsibilities, Payne has bought in every region throughout the years but, in recent years, focused mainly on Italy and Bordeaux.
He was also instrumental in introducing wines from Eastern Europe and Greece to the portfolio.
The Wine Society described Payne’s contribution to the business as ‘extraordinary’. Payne played a ‘significant role’ on the executive team, created the Wine Champions and introduced the Wines Without Fuss subscription scheme.
Paying tribute to his predecessor, Pierre Mansour, current director of wine – as the position is now called – said: ‘Sebastian leaves an extraordinary legacy, both for The Wine Society and the international wine trade.
‘He is a razor-sharp taster with the understanding and humility to appreciate that good wine comes at every price point. Decisive, often strong-minded, Sebastian is an excellent buyer and inspiring role model, and his talent with the written word is remarkable,’ he said.
Payne’s ideas and vision were ‘game-changers’ for The Wine Society, Mansour added. ‘He has championed wines from unknown regions, was among the first to import wines from Tasmania, years before the rest of the UK wine trade. He adores discovering what he calls ‘Cinderella’ regions, off-the-beaten-track wines, another strand of our buying strategy that he instilled.’
Describing Payne as a ‘colossus in the wine world and in The Wine Society’, chairman Alan Black said: ‘He is the epitome of what we want in a buyer – great fun, with extraordinary enthusiasm, and a wonderful raconteur about wine. We will miss him greatly.’
Looking to what lies ahead for The Wine Society following his departure, Payne himself said: ‘People who make wine will always be more important even than the grapes they grow and the ground they grow them on, and it is our job to know whom to trust and support.
‘Wines from all over the world are better, more varied and more exciting than ever. It will be The Wine Society’s job to find them, describe them and deliver them to members.’
The Society was awarded several top gongs in the Decanter Retailer Awards 2021, including Outstanding Retailer of the Year and Large Online Retailer of the Year.