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Right on the nose
10:47am Tuesday 30th June 2009 in Wine
Not long ago I was in Spain with, among others, Nick Room who is one of the wine buyers for Waitrose — a supermarket which has a long-established reputation for employing some of the best ‘noses’ in the business, so when they have got something to say you tend to pay attention.
I thought it especially nice that Nick spoke so warmly and enthusiastically about Ben Woods, the wine advisor who works at the Waitrose in Henley on Thames: “He’s just great — and he has a real following.”
One of my great bugbears is the loss of knowledgeable and helpful staff in many of the high street wine shops, and I had not been aware that Waitrose had wine advisors in their stores. So, this was a man I had to meet.
Meeting Ben was (and I hope he will not be offended) rather like meeting your favourite pet labrador. He bounded towards me, all beams and smiles and eager to accommodate me in anyway he could.
The nicest thing of all is that it is not in the least put on. It is just exactly who he is and he evidently thrives on the opportunity to interact with both the customers and the people he works with.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Ben has become a huge wine lover. He has learnt on the job and has taken part in the company’s internal education programme that includes the opportunity to taste many wines on a regular basis. There are internal exams to navigate and six-monthly refresher courses.
“People are looking for value and it is important that I give them that. Take the Springfield Estate Sauvignon Blanc, it is so beautiful, dry, crisp with a lot of finesse. I think it is right up there with Cloudy Bay in terms of quality and a much better price.”
In a nutshell, Ben’s job is all about encouraging people to buy wine, and I suspect that his success is centred on his genuine desire to help, alongside a keen sense of the importance of helping people get value for money.
“It is my job to judge who needs and wants help and who doesn’t. I try not to be too pretentious and to use a vocabulary that everyone understands,” said Ben, who has customers who travel far and wide to take his advice.
“There is one couple who come from Stokenchurch and another lady who has been shopping at this branch for a while who spent £10,000 on wine here last year!”
Giving customers the confidence to spend such a significant amount of money is no mean feat and I suspect Ben’s disarming honesty will put people at ease.
I couldn’t help but smile when he said: “People are looking for value and it is important that I give them that. Take the Springfield Estate Sauvignon Blanc, it is so beautiful, dry, crisp with a lot of finesse. I think it is right up there with Cloudy Bay in terms of quality and a much better price.”
Ah, a man after my own heart.
Ben is just as enthusiastic about encouraging people to explore new wines and different grape varieties.
“I am pleased when people try something other than the wine brands which, I think, are sometimes quite overpriced for what they are.” One of his grapes of the moment is seemingly Cabernet Franc because of its versatility as a red wine for summer.
“It is just great a bit chilled and not too high in alcohol,” Ben said.
He acknowledges that he doesn’t get it right all of the time and is clearly sorry that his recommendation of a Pinot Grigio “reduced from £7.99 to £3.99” wasn’t to one customer’s liking.
“I thought it was a good wine at that price, but wine is so subjective. People do come and tell me when they have not liked something I have recommended”.
Still, as he has tried an estimated 70 per cent of the wines on the shelf, I am pretty confident that Ben will find you something to meet your taste and budget at the second attempt, if not the first.
I thought Ben was just fantastic. He has, without doubt, joined the ranks of the ‘truly, madly and deeply in love with wine’ and it shows in everything he tells you about it.
His enthusiasm and honesty are utterly infectious and, had I not forgotten my wallet, I’m convinced I would have left the store with a couple of cases myself.
Ben started at Waitrose as a part-time student and has recently graduated with a degree in graphic design. I don’t doubt that he’s very good at that too but it would be a tragedy to see him move away from wine. He is just what customers need. Waitrose are exceedingly lucky to have him.
Here is a selection of some of Ben’s recommendations for what to drink this summer (please note that all prices given are for orders placed at www.waitrosewine.com) Springfield Special Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Robertson, South Africa (£8.54). “This is a lovely summer drink, not too dry and very fruity. It’s made by as New Zealand winemaker and it’s got a real NZ quality to it.”
Le Rosé de Floridene 2008 Bordeaux, France (£9.49). “Not overpowering at all. Light, fresh and refreshing with lovely strawberry fruit. Don’t over-chill it! Great alfresco wine.”
Prosecco La Marca NV, Italy (£6.64). “I think this is much better than our [Waitrose] Cava because it’s less dry. Great value sparkling, really floral and, you can always make Bellinis with it.”
Château La Varière, Cuvée Jacques Beaujeau Cabernet Franc 2005 Anjou Villages Brissac, Loire, France (£9.26). “Light, fresh red with similar qualities to Beaujolais that can be served lightly chilled. Good fruitiness.”
Nederburg Shiraz / Pinotage 2008, Western Cape, South Africa (£4.47). “This is out of this world, great value for money and one of our best sellers. It is silky smooth with no tannins and a lot of people don’t like tannins. This is such easy drinking and I’ve never had anyone say they didn’t like it!”