‘Sommeliers are the rock gods, independent merchants merely session musicians’

Our regular columnist Adeline Mangevine is tired of being put in her place …

It’s a quiet Monday afternoon and I’m “catching up” on Instagram. As I scroll through picture after picture of unicorn wines consumed over the weekend by people I don’t know, something grabs my eye. It’s a post by one of my suppliers of a group of four fresh-faced sommeliers from Michelin-starred joints standing in a vineyard on Santorini. “Awesome start to the trip!!” says the caption. “Time to taste some Assyrtiko!!!”

I am more than a little annoyed – and not just by the overuse of the exclamation mark.

I probably shift more of this producer’s Assyrtiko in a week than do all four somms combined in a month. I’ve championed it and built up a loyal following. Yet I have never been invited to visit the place where it is created. Why? Because independent wine merchants are not rock stars. We’re the uncredited session musicians. We don’t get showered in glory when we commit to buy six bottles of an obscure, skin-contact Spanish mountain wine that will impress other members of the wine trade (but will move slower than a snail wearing lead weights). We don’t get hard-to-come-by wines reserved for us (unpaid) for months on end. A suburban shop is just not as sexy as saying your wine is listed by hot new London joint The Bathing Pool or super-cool country retreat Doghouse Manor.

Yet collectively, we independent wine merchants are worth hundreds of millions. We are the alternative to supplier-squeezing multiples; we’ll take risks on unknown grapes, wines and regions; we are the people who convince consumers week in, week out to part with their hard-earned cash on a white that isn’t a Sauvignon Blanc and a red that is more than £10. But often, it feels like we’re the office juniors of the industry.

If somms are the rock gods, then wine writers are the movie stars. They’re always complaining about how few parts are available to them (for parts, read column inches) – but then act as if the nation stops in its tracks to read what they write.

Suppliers and producers swoon like fans when a well-known writer glides to their table at a tasting in the hope that these critics might write a glowing sentence about one of their wines. They’ll drop everything, including any merchant who might be tasting their wares. Instantly, we are reduced to being unpaid extras, holding empty glasses aloft.

I will be kinder to wine writers who are also MWs – and MWs in general. Same goes for Master Sommeliers. They’ve had to pass all those big, nasty exams to get to a level of expertise. I am happy to play house doctor to their consultant surgeon.

As for the buyers from the multiples and behemoth distributors, I see them as government ministers. Lots of attention is paid to what they say and do, much of it irrelevant to a major part of the industry: independent wine merchants.

This article appears in the June edition of The Wine Merchant.

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