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 After my hint in the last issue that it might be worth bypassing the multiples and buying from small independent merchants, let's have a look at what they have to offer.

Ultimately, wine is for pleasure, and so it is essential to find a merchant who supplies you with wines that you enjoy.

What should you look for in an independent merchant? First, enthusiasm – a person who really takes an interest in the wines on offer, who knows about them and has tasted them. You will be most unlikely to see big brands. The priority will be to sell wine that will bring the customer back – wine that is not simply pleasant, but positively interesting and satisfying, even thrilling, with character and individuality. There may be gaps in the range, but a conscientious merchant will not compromise on quality just to fill a gap (unlike the multiples which have to stock a range of everything for the mass market). A small specialist will choose a range with great care – there is not sufficient cash around to carry any passengers: every wine has to earn its place.

In addition, as I mentioned last month, the mass retailers have real difficulty selling wines over £5 a bottle; since they can't shift the volume, they have no more buying power than a small merchant. And the small merchant works on much narrower margins, since there isn't a board of directors who require to be paid gigantic salaries, nor any shareholders requiring to be paid dividends. So small merchants really can, and do, compete on price, if they buy carefully.

It is, of course, a leap of faith to dare to trust a small wine merchant. It is much easier to take for granted that the large retailer will be cleverer and have smarter buyers than the small independent; however, it is often the case that the supermarket buyer will have been buying fruit and veg one moment, and then gets moved across to "BWS" (beers, wines and spirits), before moving on in short order to, say, garments; while often the small merchant will be well-qualified, with years of experience; for example, I have personally put myself through (and passed!) all the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) exams, including the Diploma in Wines and Spirits (a two-year course, approximately the same standard as an old Polytechnic degree). I have been buying and selling wine commercially for over 20 years – there aren't many supermarket buyers who can match that! And, if they can, they're not on hand in your local store to advise you.