Thu 13 Aug 2015

A Grand Tour: Highlights of an Italian Buying Career with Sebastian Payne MW

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Sebastian Payne MW celebrates 42 years at The Wine Society this year. During that time he has seen the Buying Team grow from just one in 1985 (himself – although he started at The Society in 1973 as promotions manager, he didn’t officially take a full buying role until the mid eighties) to its current size of seven active buyers scouring the globe for the best the wine world has to offer.

One constant over that period of three decades has been Sebastian’s role as Italian wine buyer.

Sebastian Payne MW

Sebastian Payne MW

Sebastian’s involvement with Italian wine started even before taking on the buying role he is now synonymous with, as assistant to the wine buyer of the time. `We were buying Italian wines in the 70s but not in a serious way. We had about eight reds and six of them were Chianti,’ he recalls.

It wasn’t until visiting Italy’s largest trade show, Vinitaly, in the early eighties that things started to take shape. At the time the easiest solution for a UK wine merchant or supermarket looking to stock Italian wines was to approach one of a few large companies in Italy who could effectively offer an off-the-peg range of Italian wines. No need then to invest time and money searching the length and breadth of a country whose sheer size let alone regional and stylistic diversity was for many an obstacle.

Hofstätter

Hofstätter in the Alto Adige: The Society’s first direct Italian supplier.

For Sebastian, Vinitaly 1982 changed all that, establishing The Society’s first direct Italian supplier, Hofstätter in the Alto Adige, a relationship that still stands today.

Sebastian has visited Italy every year since 1990. With each visit he meets with established suppliers and one or two new prospects, gradually widening the range – a policy which over the last 25 years has seen strong relationships develop and bear fruit while still introducing exciting new finds and freshness to the range.

One such visit in the early days of his tenure was to a producer in Panzano, in the centre of Chianti country. The Society had been buying Chianti from a producer in the town for a few vintages and while the wine was good, the owner of the winery was a little unpredictable (and easily distracted with an obsession for making Vin Santo!). His neighbour at the time was a terracotta tile maker who also had an interest in Chianti having purchased an estate some decades earlier in the late 60s.

Sebastian Payne MW in 1973

Sebastian in 1973

His name was Dino Manetti and his wine was called Fontodi. That initial meeting was in 1985. Today, Dino’s son Giovanni Manetti will be familiar with many members who have attended one of The Society’s Italian tastings in recent years, as the relationship continues.

Dealing with suppliers in some regions, particularly during the early days in Campania, hasn’t always been so smooth. Business practices that today would be considered outrageous were unfortunately much more commonplace. It wasn’t unheard of for a buyer to taste one thing at the winery and yet receive something quite different at point of delivery. These producers fell by the wayside and a core of reliable trustworthy growers were maintained – growers who shared The Society’s view of a building a successful long-term relationship.

One of the key roles of a Society buyer, as Sebastian sees it, is to `sell the idea of The Society to the producers so that they want to sell to you’. Understanding that their wines are being sold directly to interested wine drinkers who appreciate and understand where the wine has come from is a big pull for producers and reflects the reasons why many choose to make wine in the first place. It is with those growers and producers who fully understand this that we have developed the longest and most fruitful partnerships.

On the subject of communication, Sebastian modestly describes his grasp of the Italian language as ‘Cellar Italian’! He is happy to converse on wine-related topics drawing upon a vocabulary partly picked up at university studying the classics but mainly garnered from years spent in the company of growers and producers. However, by his own admission he’s less comfortable discussing the finer points of Serie A. The nice thing about Italians, he says, is that they don’t mind when you get it wrong.

Sebastian has witnessed a remarkable rise in the popularity of Italian food on these shores during his tenure, a huge boon to Italy’s wine industry. He cites more confidence amongst wine drinkers to explore new wines that might pair well with the cuisine, and also less fear in pronouncing Italian wine names!

The big international varieties such cabernet and merlot used to play a much larger part in The Society’s Italian range than they do today. Here Sebastian is unequivocal that, like any wine-producing country, Italy should show a point of difference and be true to its own individual character; and that this is best expressed by the local grape varieties.

It took years of external influence from winemakers and buyers alike to help Sicily regain its confidence in indigenous grape varieties.

It took years of external influence from winemakers and buyers alike to help push Sicily back on track and to regain its confidence in its own individuality.

An example of this individual character being lost and then slowly regained can be seen in Sicily. Sebastian first visited Sicily in a buying capacity in 1992 and described an island where many producers seemed intent on trying to emulate the success that Australia had had with big well-known grapes. In doing so, the island’s wines had lost their own unique sense of character. It took years of external influence from winemakers and buyers alike to help push Sicily back on track and to regain its confidence in its own individuality. Anyone who has tasted wines from the nerello mascalese grape grown high up the sides of mount Etna will be glad they did.

Since stepping down as chief buyer in 2012 (a mantle he had held for 30 years) Sebastian has been able to dedicate more time to take up what he describes as `unfinished business’ with Italy. It would seem that this investment in time and energy has paid dividends as Italian sales at The Society have increased strongly in the last three years and the range continues to flourish.

When asked about the biggest challenge he faces as Italian wine buyer for The Society the answer comes readily: the biggest challenge and paradoxically the biggest attraction is the sheer diversity of wine styles, regions and grapes. The excitement that there is always something new to discover goes hand in hand with the complexity of the region and as Sebastian points out, ‘if you are interested in a subject then the more complex it gets the more fascinating it becomes.’

Whether sharing his fascination or simply looking for something delicious to open, our membership has been well served by this approach over the past three decades. With Sebastian noting that Italian winemakers are approaching native grape varieties with renewed confidence, better winemaking and better knowledge, the future also looks bright for fans of the country’s wines.

We’ll drink to that.

Gareth Park
Marketing Campaign Manager

NB: (added 9th August 2016) While you’re in the mood, why not check out our 2016 ‘The Best of Italy‘ offer 

Comments

  1. Gerald Milner says:

    Saluti a tutti!

    An excellent article about a difficult subject for those (like me) whose wine drinking experience has been founded on the products of France. The wines of Sicily have been a great success in recent years amongst the older swiggers who may have distant memories of piles of pasta and oceans of local red wine in a “Taverna caverna”.

    Arrivaderci!

    Gerald.

  2. Ian Shepherd says:

    Who replaced Seb as chief wine buyer and is this person still top dog?

  3. Tony Clifton says:

    How true about the diversity. When in Genoa a few years ago I tried a local red wine in the hotel I was staying at. It was called Ormeasco and was delightful. I tried to buy some to bring home and found I could not get any for love or money. It seems quantities are small and it rarely leaves the area.

  4. John McLusky says:

    And the oddball find at Vinitaly that year, as I’m sure you recall, was the famous rugby Spanghero brothers excellent Cassoulet from France which we followed up later and sold that Christmas. We bought some nice wine down there, too. Dominoes anyone?

  5. Paul green says:

    Salutations to Sebastian and all those he has groomed as excellent wine buyers in the past. The W S Italian range is tremendous in breadth and consistent quality and has been for many years.

  6. Mel Henry says:

    I just want to express my gratitude to Sebastian. He was very kind to me on the ‘phone when I wanted information about the wines of Janare in Campania. He was a mine of elucidation and I hope he remains associated with The Wine Society for a long time.

  7. Bernard Pendle says:

    A highly interesting article. However there was no mention of Prosecco which comes as no surprise as Sebastion has over the years willfully neglected member’s interests in failing to purchase a range of this excellent wine which I understand now outsells Champagne in the UK. I have despaired of getting it listed and have come to the conclusion that it must be purely a matter of viniculture snobbery although I see that Cava is listed but then I presume that would be a different and more enlightened buyer!
    Come on Wine society, you cannot afford indefinitely to loose out on members’ considerable Prosecco purchasing business!

    • Martin Brown says:

      Thank you for this feedback, which we found a little surprising, not least because we stocked two Proseccos for some time (one of which was under our own Society’s label), and which were very popular with members. Unfortunately these had to be withdrawn from sale earlier this year because of some problems with the glass bottles, which we regarded as a rare but unacceptable risk to members, but they will return to our range very soon, with stronger bottles, alongside a third Prosecco.
      Martin Brown
      The Wine Society

  8. Ian Hesketh says:

    Agree entirely that Sebastian has nurtured relationships with some wonderful wine estates (Fontodi, Gianni Brunelli etc. etc.) and presides over an increasingly impressive list. But for me there is a hole where the wonderful white wines of Friuli Venezia Giulia should be. I have asked about this previously; promises have been made but I am still waiting… patiently.

    • Martin Brown says:

      Many thanks for your comment, Mr Hesketh. Have passed on to Sebastian, who says the main reason many do not end up on our List is that so many are based on chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; grapes he feels are very well represented in our range from other parts of the world that usually charge less, because the Italian home market and restaurant market is so strong. Nonetheless, he tastes Friuli wines regularly and is keeping a proverbial ear to the ground. Best regards.
      Martin Brown
      The Wine Society

  9. Ian Hesketh says:

    I absolutely take Sebastian’s point about chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Rather what I had in mind was friulano, ribolla gialla, malvasia, not to mention the ultimate expressions of pinot grigio and the complex blends of all of these grapes.
    So … still hoping then.

  10. John Blake says:

    Just great to seeing a continuing focus on Italian wines, but sad to see that one of the best wines I have ever tasted in Italy is still not represented – Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. You have offered this in the past but not for several years now so I hope it will one day come back on the list!

    • Ewan Murray says:

      Thanks for your feedback, John. It’s been two years (almost to the day) since we last listed a cannonau, although of course we list plenty of its synonym grenache/garnacha from elsewhere. Sebastian is currently away, but on his return I shall interrogate him on the likelihood of our offering this again in the future.

  11. Jerry Wood says:

    The Wine Society offers such a tremendous range that it is a far better way to sample and explore the brilliant wines Italy can produce than we can source easily in Tuscany. My wine drinking here is potentially better and much more varied than when we are in Italy, and this must be due in large part to Sebastian, to whom we are all most grateful.

    A small caveat meant constructively is that I am sorry the WSoc range does not include (as far as I know) anything from Montepulciano (in Tuscany). We enjoyed both vino rosso and nobile on a recent visit, and were impressed with the modest prices charged for such quality wines. I think that the more fruity wines made rom the local sangiovese clone would be very appealing and in line with current tastes.
    The recent ‘Italy, Top to Toe’ offer featured a lovely photograph of Montepulciano, but didn’t include a wine from there!

    • Ewan Murray says:

      Thanks for your note, Jerry. Montepulciano does make an occasional appearance in our range, when the quality and price is right. Such an appearance (of a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) is imminent, so please watch this space.

  12. Fabio Genovese says:

    Being Italian I have a natural bias towards my country’s wines but having lived in the UK for over 25 years I have now developed a strong passion for French wines as well. What I would welcome now is more offering of organic wines (both French and Italian) as I have the impression that the chemical components are growing in the lovely nectar.
    I wonder what Sebastian’s view is on this topic.
    Thank you
    Fabio

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