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Q&A: Hallgarten's Steve Daniel on how to buy wine

Published:  12 December, 2019

In a new series we get under the skin of wine buyers from across the trade, quizzing importers, restaurants, independents and wholesalers about how they got into buying, what informs their day-to-day decisions and what tips they’d offer newcomers.

First up is Steve Daniel, head of buying at Hallgarten and Novum Wines, who is known for introducing the UK to Chilean and Greek wines in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to champion obscure regions and grapes. His tip for the top? Steer clear of florid tasting notes…

How did you get into buying?

I trained as a chef and whilst training in the culinary arts I was introduced to wine by one of my tutors, Brian Dennison. It was an absolute lightbulb moment and from then I knew what I wanted to do in my life. Brian told me I had a good natural palate and encouraged me to pursue this new found passion for wine - I am permanently indebted to him. I finished studying to be a chef, completed my Hotel Management course and promptly got a job in the wine trade.

My first job was as a shop assistant at Martinez Fine Wines in Ilkley. I fast tracked myself through the WSET courses and got the Diploma as soon as I could. I then moved to London, got a job with Arthur Rackhams and saw an ad for staff at Oddbins. I thought it looked very interesting and was put forward for interview as a trainee buyer. A few weeks later I was offered the job and within one year I became a buyer, another year later, Senior Buyer, and finally became Buying and Marketing Director.

What’s the difference between buying for different sectors of the market?

The way I work is simple: rule one, find and buy amazing wine that offers quality and value-for-money. Rule two, find a home for it.

When buying for the trade it is crucial not to see the on or off-trade as specific market segments and pigeon hole wines you are buying just for them. When I look for wines, I look for wines that will work from high-end sommelier-led restaurants in London, to gastro pub chains up and down the country, to independent wine merchants and online retailers.

For these sectors of the market, I aim to buy wines that are not overly oaked, overly sweet and are suited to the palates of the UK consumer. A wine with layers of minerality, and is able to provide something unique and intriguing to a list are the key drivers I look for.

What’s the best buying decision you’ve made in your career?

Although I certainly didn’t know it at the time, I suppose backing the fairly unknown wine country of Chile has to be one of the most significant. I was the first gringo wine buyer to visit back in 1988. During this time I worked with the wineries to help them develop their winemaking styles for the UK and brought them over to the market.

I don’t think you can call Chile unknown these days.

And the worst?

I can proudly say I haven’t made too many howlers… Many people criticised me for backing Greek wine 20 years ago. In terms of a business decision it was probably not my most astute, but I saw the huge potential and quality. I suppose the fact that most of labels were in Greek didn’t make the long-suffering but brilliant managers at Oddbins’ job any easier! But as always, they embraced the wines and gave them a real push. I stand by the decision to introduce them, now quality Greek wines appear regularly on top wine lists and in the high street, and I am still a huge fan.

How much does ‘gut feeling’ play a part when you’re buying wine?

It certainly plays a part – particularly when I first experienced Greek and Chilean wines - but usually there are number of other factors that help make informed buying decisions, such as the economics of the region, economics of the UK, demand etc.

What would be your top tips for wannabe buyers?

• Study hard and get the best grades you can in WSET

• Taste as much as possible whenever you get the chance with an open mind

• Don’t focus on making florid tasting notes

• Look for faults then typicity and try to put a value on the wine

• Get yourself out there and be enthusiastic

• Speak to people in the trade and don’t be shy about asking for advice on how to be a buyer

What are your wine trends for 2020?

Even more Greek wines! I expect to see an increase in demand for the more obscure grape varieties, particularly those from Georgia, the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Europe. As consumers become more interested in wines that are not the ordinary, particularly in London, we will see an increase in demand from those that are willing to taste new, intriguing products that can effectively display their provenance and charm them with a story.

On the back of the desire to be more sustainable, we will also continue to see the trend for vegan, organic and minimum intervention wines.