We caught up with Mark Davies, Director of Hard To Find Wines recently and put some questions to him about the business, wine and life in general (well, as it pertains to wine of course!).
Question: Please briefly explain your role at HTFW.
I am currently a man with many hats. From sourcing new wines and liaising with existing suppliers, keeping the website up to date (as much as possible) and boxing and sending the wines from our warehouse. All in all very much a plate spinner and juggler!
Question: How did you get into the industry?
Out of university I spent several years working in the catering industry as a chef, so was always surrounded by wine and people with a thorough knowledge of wines. Having worked unsociable hours in a hot and steamy kitchen for 5 years it was an easy decision to jump ship and enter the world of wine importing.
Question: What convinced you to start HTFW?
A friend had been working in the wine industry specialising in South African wines and operating on a local basis and was looking to expand his business. In partnership Hard to Find Wines was established.
Question: How did HTFW begin?
After 2 days locked in a small office with no windows and lots of awful name ideas, the name Hard to Find Wines was finally settled upon. We felt it concisely summed up what we wanted the company to become, specialising in quality wines from small boutique producers from around the world rather than the commercial alternatives in the big supermarkets and wine outlets.
Question: What sets HTFW apart from other retailers?
Although increasing in size year on year, we are still family-owned and run with the ability to offer truly personal service to all of our clients. I think unusually for the wine retail industry, we sustain incredibly close links with all of our suppliers, who in the main part are more like family friends. We also hold stock of all the wines we list so are able to offer next day delivery on the vast majority of our wines.
Question: How do you choose which vineyards to work with?
When looking for new vineyards to represent in the UK the search generally begins with some background homework online before jumping on a plane to visit. We usually focus on smaller vineyards with an ethos to quality and craftsmanship much like that of Glenwood Vineyard, where the winemaker DP Burger has been ensconced for over 20 years and is very much hands on.
Question: Tell us about a highlight since starting HTFW.
A highlight was actually quite recently when I was asked to organise a re-enactment of the Judgment of Paris from 1976, a famous blind tasting hosted by Steven Spurrier where Bordeaux was pitted against the best of California. In our tasting the US wines came out on top yet again, but was fantastic to be able to taste side by side the likes of Chateau Haut Brion and Ridge Montebello, some of the top wines in the world.
Question: What is it like working with family?
Based on our family farm in Shropshire, we have just completed building our new 6000 sq ft storage facility and offices and our old barn and farmhouse converted into a luxury guest house and function venue. Between Harriet and I we handle all aspects of the business, from travelling around the world sourcing new wines to boxing them up and shipping them out. One of us is always on the end of the phone to help customers with friendly and expert advice having generally sampled all of the wines we list.
Question: What do you do on your day off?
Being a small family-run business, days off are a rarity, but when I can and the sun is out I am not too shabby knocking a ball around a golf course.
Question: Tell us about a wine related challenge or failure you faced and how you overcame it.
Over the past decade it has been an incredibly steep learning curve, with wine being such a huge and complex subject. From not knowing my Claret from a Bordeaux, extensive tasting of all things wine has got me to possibly knowing 5% of what there is to learn! Who knows by the time I am 70 I may be up to 30%. Anyone who claims to know all there is to know about wine is way off the mark, and every week I learn something new.
Question: What is your favourite wine? Do you stock it?
Although a cliché my favourite wine is also our biggest selling wine, but in my opinion for good reason. Haute Cabriere Chardonnay Pinot Noir is produced in Franschhoek SA and has been in our portfolio right from the very start. It is a little unusual in that it is a blend of red and white grapes to produce a white wine, but is incredibly versatile and utterly delicious.
Question: Are you a collector? If so, what is your most prized bottle?
Through Hard to Find Wines I am incredibly fortunate that I am able to taste a whole range of wines, including En Primeur releases from around the globe. With my work hat on I purchase numerous wines for laying down ranging from the obvious French Bordeaux and Burgundy to Tuscan, Rioja and Napa wines. Personally my budget is a little more conservative, however, I do have a few nicely aged bottles tucked away and a case of Taylor’s 1977 vintage Port which I am yet to delve into.
Question: What wine do you favour for a special occasion?
Every Christmas I scour the warehouse for something special for Christmas day lunch. As a treat I always plump for a magnum as there is something a little more indulgent about opening a big format bottle, plus they age more slowly and develop often more integrated and subtle flavours. Last year was a magnum of Bodegas Hermanos Pecina Gran Reserva Rioja 1998 which was superb.
Question: Where do you enjoy travelling to most for wine related matters and why?
South Africa is where we started and still represents around a third of the wines we import and is without doubt my favourite wine destination. Wonderful weather, food, wine and people make the Cape an unforgettable experience every time you visit. I very rarely have to book a hotel and instead am welcomed on to the farms themselves to stay with the owners and winemakers. The other major advantage is that within a 2 hour drive of Cape Town you can tour all of the principal wine growing areas of the Western Cape.
Question: How do you keep up to date with wine trends and industry news?
For much of the year tastings are on a weekly basis and I often taste over 300 wines per week. Mingling with peers in the industry is by far and away the best way to keep up to date, along with following blogs and websites of some of the top wine journalists like Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker.
Question: What are the biggest perks of your job?
Without a shadow of a doubt the biggest perk is the people that I meet and work with. The wine industry is full of individuals all with a passion for what they do and each has their own specialities which you can learn from. The travel and wine tasting is a bonus too.
Question: What advice can you offer wine novices on choosing wine?
The most vital thing to remember when choosing a wine is that you must enjoy it personally. Every one has different tastes so do not worry what others think. It is also important to remember that the higher the price does not necessarily mean you will enjoy the wine more. However, with duty and VAT in the UK making up at least £3.50 of the cost of a bottle, for every extra £1 you spend the quality goes up exponentially. Also check the back label, often you will find wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum are mass bottled here in the UK and have lots of sugar and other additives such as egg or fish protein.
Question: Tell us an unusual/memorable wine tale.
Even though friends and family know what I do for a living, it still astounds me the number of people who, when invited around for dinner will bring wine! On occasion they will surprise me with a good choice, but invariably the opposite. Recently a friend brought a bottle of artificially flavoured Echo Falls which I promptly tossed out of the kitchen window.