Like so many of his peers in the wine trade Toby Sigouin first started out on a shop floor working at his local Fuller’s making ends meet as a student. But whilst he first discovered a passion for wine, re-stocking shelves and hosting in-store tastings in a subsequent role as a store manager for Oddbins he also realised if he was to have a serious career in wine he needed to widen his experience. So he was brave enough to step outside the sector and learn the skills you need to succeed in sales by joining Landrover where he was soon one of their top 10 best sales specialists in the country. On returning to wine he joined Forth Wines and following the acquisition by Inverarity Morton he progressed to the senior wine buying role where he has enjoyed considerable success. He has, though, due to Covid-19 now been made redundant and is looking for a new start. Here he shares his experiences and story in wine and how he hopes he can now help others with his new wine consultancy business whilst he also looks for a new senior buying role.
Toby Sigouin’s vast experience means he is well placed to start his new wine consultancy business. If you would like to share your wine story and what you are looking to do next then please contact Richard Siddle on how to take part in our Onwards & Upwards series.
Tell us about your background and how did you got into the wine and drinks industry?
I grew up in Edinburgh and went on to do a degree at the Royal College of Music in London where I studied the trombone. During my studies I needed to find a part-time job and fortuitously our local branch of Fuller’s Wine Merchants in west London were hiring. I did not have any real interest in wine – I was more attracted by the proximity of the shop to my halls of residence and the prospect of cheap beer!
Almost immediately that all changed, thanks to the interesting range of wines the shop carried and the regular staff training and tasting. I was also aware that my late grandfather, whom I have always admired, had been passionate about wine. I became very interested in the story behind the labels, and was keen to learn more about the vast subject of wine.
After a month or so I had the opportunity to attend the 1999 London Wine Fair at Olympia. Attending such a vibrant event made me want to pursue a career in the wine trade. After I graduated I moved back to Edinburgh. I successfully applied for a job with Oddbins, and my wine career commenced.
What range and experience of roles have you had in your career?
That first job in the industry as a part-time wine assistant and then as an assistant manager for Fuller’s were my first steps. I began studying for the various Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams and the role of course gave me wine retail experience. This experience continued and expanded when I worked for Oddbins. I began as a wine assistant and within three months, rather than the usual two years, was promoted to a branch manager position. It was very much an “in at the deep end” experience back then, which on reflection was the best possible way to learn quickly.
I had a lot of freedom in terms of what wines we stocked, how we promoted them and what ranges we focused on. In many ways it was like having my own business and as such our team took a lot of pride in what we did. When I was appointed as branch manager, that outlet was the worst performing store in Scotland for the company. After seven months it became the fastest growing store for sales and profitability. That success came through tailoring our wine range for the local demographic, enhancing the layout of the shop and engaging with the community.
I was aware that to further progress my career I required additional formal sales training and experience. To gain this I became a sales specialist at Land Rover and also the autobiography bespoke vehicle specialist for the dealership. My intention was to return to the wine industry after I had learned a new set of skills. The sales target driven environment meant a steep learning curve. The sales training was very advanced and detailed training, for example, on the psychological aspect of sales, and was very beneficial for me. I became one of the top 10 UK sales specialists for the company by summer 2006.
I knew, though, that my true path was working in the wine industry and so, armed with this excellent additional experience, I moved to Forth Wines in 2007. I was a sales account manager for Edinburgh and the Borders selling a wide range of wines to hotels, bars, restaurants and independents, both family owned single outlets and also some national accounts. I was responsible for the existing customer portfolio and expanding it as well as providing staff training for customers, shaping wine lists and helping to develop and grow wine sales. I also completed my WSET level 3 and level 4 DipWSET while in the role.
How did you move into wine buying?
Halfway through studying my Diploma I became increasingly interested in becoming a wine buyer, whilst I was still enjoying the sales role I relished a new challenge, and the chance to travel more and gain a deeper understanding of wine production. The position of wine buyer at Forth Wines became available in late 2012 and after a detailed assessment process (such as being tasked with finding a new Bordeaux and Bergerac producer for the portfolio) I was appointed into the role four months later.
After the merger between Inverarity Morton and Forth Wines I became the wine buyer for Inverarity Morton and ultimately became senior wine buyer for the company. It was a wide-ranging role and gave me extensive experience in managing a vast wine portfolio whilst continuing to source new wine agencies, taking market needs and demands into account. Quality control and fault analysis was, of course, essential as well as managing a stock control team and being responsible for the requirements of importing from around the world.
I continued to arrange wine tastings, but on a larger scale, as the company held Scotland’s largest trade wine tasting annually which I organised. I also continued staff training, primarily in house, in this role. The diverse nature of my job meant I also developed bespoke labels and brands as well as creating unique blends for the company. The role required regular and extensive solo international travel which I always found enjoyable and stimulating, especially the contact with producers in their own environment.
What do you see as key skills and experience you have picked up during your drinks career?
Due to the diversity of my different roles I feel very fortunate to have developed a large and transferrable skill set in: wine buying, brand creation, wine blending, wine importation and inventory management, wine judging, wines sales, wine fault analysis, diagnosis and quality control.
I have years of experience of buying wine at all price levels from low priced bulk to first growths and almost everything in between. With brand creation I have being involved in the entire development process. I have experience in liaising with design agencies, the intellectual property office, wineries, shippers and bottlers.
When wine blending I have worked both with producers on one-off projects, such as Cava Vilarnau’s gold award winning Extra Seco, and with others annually at every vintage to ensure a consistent style and regional typicity to clients and my employers private label wines.
Managing a team which imported around 6 million bottles of wine each year for seven years has given me extensive wine importation and inventory management skills. I have managed an award winning portfolio of 1,200 wines for over seven years. This included being solely responsible for wine fault analysis, diagnosis and quality control for wine importation and distribution for over seven years.
I also feel privileged to have been regularly invited to wine judge and have done so in international competitions including IWC, IWSC, Concorso Bacchus, London Wine Competition, Harpers Wine Stars as well as other regional competitions around the world. In wine sales I have significant experience in both retail and business to business.
These skills and experience have all, in different ways, helped my understanding of many of the major components of the wine industry and given me a well-rounded and global viewpoint. Whilst I am a passionate wine enthusiast, I have always made sure that passion does not get in the way of understanding the needs of the consumer. I want to make wine easier to understand and less daunting for the casual drinker. Understanding the commercial reality of our industry is important to be successful, and in my opinion does not in any way mean “dumbing down” on quality or authenticity.
In terms of wine tourism, I have frequently organised bespoke itineraries and taken customers on overseas trips, and presented wine dinners and tastings, both for the trade and consumers. I also have experience of presenting wine videos. More recently I have presented wine tastings via online streaming platforms.
What gives you job satisfaction?
I enjoy doing something which produces tangible results, particularly when those results benefit a customer. Helping a customer to increase sales of good quality wine and finding a new winery to work with are good examples of that. I have always enjoyed delivering wine training and then hearing about the benefits that education has brought, both to a business and to individual staff members.
I also find taking a new wine brand from start to finish has been extremely satisfying, from creating a name and story, to deciding on the right price-point and style of blend, and then working with producers and bottlers to bring the wine to market. It is always a unique journey and overcoming the unexpected but inevitable challenges along the way is very rewarding.
What have been some of your key achievements that you think best demonstrate your skills?\
I am very proud of becoming a wine buyer responsible for sourcing around 25% of all wine consumed in the Scottish on-trade, and succeeding in that role for seven years. It can be a tough job but it has meant that I have been in the Drinks Retailing News Top 100 Most Influential People in Wine for the past three years. I have felt honoured to have been asked to judge in a number of wine competitions and to return to those competitions again.
I have launched successful wines from scratch through brand creation and development. One example had the most rapid increase in company sales compared to any other wine in that competitive category. I am delighted that several wines that I have blended have won medals and that the wine portfolio I developed was award winning. Undertaking and passing the first year of the Masters of Wine was such a special achievement for me and I am currently studying towards the final MW exams.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced and how have you got over them?
My time merging the three portfolios of Inverarity Vaults, Forth Wines and William Morton into the award winning wine portfolio of Inverarity Morton was one of my career’s biggest challenges, and also one of the most rewarding. We started with over 4,000 different wines and I honed it down into a hand picked selection of 1,200 wines.
Doing this in an ethical way for all the wine producers affected was very challenging, and some tough decisions had to be made, but I truly believe the wines and producers that remained were the ones most closely aligned with the aspirations of the business, and of course all made great wine too.
You have now set up your own consultancy business. Tell us about that and the sort of advice and services that you think you can provide?
I will be providing advice to: wine producers around the world, importers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, hotels and restaurants in the UK. Due to my extensive experience of most aspects of the wine trade I can tailor services for these different sectors.
For wine producers for example I can assist with a targeted approach to finding new distributors by coaching export managers on effective strategies to gain new distribution, tailoring labels and blends for the UK market, Brexit planning and also by directly finding them representation with UK agency houses. Due to Covid-19 I believe there will be more demand for these kind of services in the local market as producers move to subcontract rather than fly export managers around the world at great expense. I will also be offering to represent wineries in English speaking markets for tastings, training and other activities where producers cannot justify the expense of travelling thousands of miles themselves.
For smaller UK importers, distributors and wholesalers I also believe subcontracting wine buying will become increasingly attractive, as well as outsourcing wine and sales training.
For hotels and restaurants emerging from what looks to be a harsh winter of lockdowns, it will be more important than ever to make sure their wine ranges and staff product knowledge levels are fit for purpose. I’m still surprised how many restaurants give all their business to one merchant and also let them devise and print the wine list too, effectively handing control to a supplier. I believe they’re missing a trick and I think on-trade wine sales are suffering in the face of stiff competition from other categories as a result. For this reason I’ll be offering wine list reviews, staff training and other wine related advice to help outlets take back full control of their wine offering.
Are you also open to any full time opportunities as well – if so what sort of position would interest you?
I am open to senior wine buyer and wine director roles. I am interested in roles where the position has a real influence, responsibility and input to the top line strategy of a company that can help to deliver positive change and innovation.
How would you describe yourself?
I am passionate about wine and food and it is important to me to have an in-depth understanding of what I am doing. Studying for the DipWSET and now the MW has hugely improved my confidence for this reason. I am resourceful, hardworking and calm in a crisis. I am also strategic, independent, decisive and enjoy taking a leadership role. I am a straight talker but a fair person, and always aim to look at things with a positive viewpoint. Know your strengths and stay true to them would describe my approach to life and business. I am also very family orientated and making time for my family is very important to me.
What do you look for in the people you most like working with or want to work for?
Positivity and openness. Also people happy to debate strategy and open to have their minds changed. Working in an environment where people are truly passionate about wine and hungry to learn more and share the love of wine with each other is something that is fundamentally important to me.
- If you would like to contact Toby Sigouin about his new consultancy business or a possible role then you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you have been made redundant and are looking for a new role and would like to share your story on The Buyer then please contact Richard Siddle on email@example.com.