Richard Bampfield is a well-known figure in the UK wine trade as a master of wine, wine educator and the face of one of Britain’s leading multiple retailers. Vineyard editor Christian Davis converses…
So how did you stumble into the wine trade?
“An early enjoyment of wine and a desire to use my French degree,” says Richard. “Since 1981 – so 40 years,” states the 62-year-old. “I was lucky to work for some inspirational figures in my early career. I spent 10 years working in wine merchants in Manchester and Chester, where both my managers, Robert Shiel and Piers Dutton, had an extraordinary ability to work out which wine would suit a customer without necessarily having enormous wine knowledge themselves.”
“They taught me the key lesson that the best choice was normally the wine that suited the occasion and/or the individual rather than the wine that had the so-called best taste.
“I then spent 10 years working for Brown Brothers through the 1990’s when Australian wines could do no wrong in the UK market and opportunities were opening up in continental Europe too. It was an exhilarating time and one which saw the transition from Europe-dominated wine shelves in the UK to a more international selection as other countries saw the potential in the channels that Australian wine opened up.
“Another key aspect of this period was that Brown Brothers was a brilliantly managed company and I learnt a huge amount about business management, forecasting and budgeting…even though ultimately I decided that those aspects of work were not my personal preferred use of time.
“I started working for myself in 1999 and one of my first clients was Yvon Mau who just happened to have set up a wine school at Château Preuillac in the Médoc.
“So I spent much of the ensuing 12 years taking groups of wine journalists (Vineyard editor Christian Davis being one of them) and merchants to Bordeaux, hoping to ensure that they returned with an up to date view of what was going on in a region that has always been far more innovative than it is given credit for. It was hugely enjoyable work. It also reminded me of what I had learnt when working in wine shops – that I just love talking about wine,” says Richard emphatically.
What drove you to become a MW?
“The knowledge that it would help my career. And the confidence that I could do it.” And the most difficult part of becoming a master of wine? “Discipline of practising timed essays and papers,” he says.
Richard is more than a ’high and mighty’ MW. There are more strings to his bow. So how does he describe himself? “I still don’t really have an answer to that question. MW is a title, not a job/role. Ultimately most of my work involves communicating about wine, whether through presentations, TV (www.67pallmall.tv) or the written word on-shelf at Lidl. I guess I like to see myself as an enthusiastic and open-minded advocate for good wine,” he adds.
He adds: “I am not a buyer at Lidl. They buy the wines. I taste them and ascribe scores, tasting notes, food pairing recommendations, etc. Lidl had two English sparkling wines in its Winter Wine Tour trading period: Broadwood Folly Brut and Broadwood Folly Rosé.”
And what does he regard as his expertise, his passion?
“Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, sustainability. But becoming an MW requires an interest in and curiosity about all aspects of wine, so I try to keep informed about everything that is going on. Apart from no-lo. I find it hard to get enthused about that.”
So, what do you like about the wine trade?
“People, humour, camaraderie, travel…and the fact that so much of my current work involves enjoying good wine, good food and good company,” he replies succinctly.
Conversely, what frustrates you about the wine trade? “Introspection. And an embarrassment about making money – we tend to look down on the success stories rather than celebrate them.”
If there is one thing you would like to do to improve things, what would that be?
“Challenge the way wine is sold and merchandised,” he states.
And your opinion of English and Welsh wines?
“Highly positive and I am actively involved in various ways. I also believe that, with still wines in particular, the best are yet to come.”
So what are they doing well? “Setting prices high and trying to keep them there. Hiring better trained people, thanks largely to Plumpton College. Involving experienced business people from outside the wine business on their boards,” lists Richard.
What improvements can be made?
“Continually improve tourism facilities and experience. Consolidation/partnerships to enable better economies of scale.
Diversify into wine-related, income-generating activities that ensure better financial viability and might attract investors.”
So, does master of wine Richard Bampfield have favourite wine, style, region, country?
“No, I don’t, he says emphatically. “The single attribute of wine that I value highest is its diversity. And that is reflected in what I drink. I very seldom buy more than 2 bottles of the same wine – there is not time to drink the same wine too often.”
So, what are you drinking at the moment?
“In the last week, I have drunk wines from Australia, Chile, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Portugal and Georgia. Does that answer the question?”
He goes on to say: “The wine business needs to be more aware of the broader political and social drivers that will impact the environment in which is sold. I have no wish to be a politician but do think wine will benefit from being seen as a product that can have a positive influence in our fight against climate change – the ‘canary in the coal mine’, if you wish. So sustainability does need to be at the heart of the decision-making of all companies involved in the wine business, whether production, retail, marketing, supply or logistics. I would urge all to become involved in the Sustainable Wine Roundtable
(www.swroundtable.org) which we hope will become a hub for discussion, debate and sharing information, data, research and resources relating to wine sustainability.”
Summing up: “We can all make a difference. Both individually and, with even more impact, collectively. And we should also do all we can to support the excellent work being done on our behalf by the WSTA,” says Richard Bampfield MW.