Meet the Wine Professional: Sam Orbaum from Pickers
The wine shop is very popular. Although the UK may be a small wine producer compared to its Old World neighbors, recent data on wine consumption shows that Britons love their wine. 32% cite it as the drink of their choice, only 3% under the beer. And not only do we drink it, we are also very curious about wine. In 2019, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) announced that 108,557 students had earned a WSET qualification (15% more than last year), with the majority of candidates being from the UK.
But whether you’re a purr-and-sniff or prefer to have the prettiest bottle on the shelf, we all agree that a large part of wine drinking is preferred. This is where Pickers comes in. Founded by hospitality veterans Sam Orbaum (featured on LLM’s list of Top FOH Professionals) and Nick Jackson late last year, Pickers provides a platform for people to discover new wines online based on their personal likes and dislikes.
“We’ve had amazing conversations with people who have no faith in wine at all and are looking for an introduction, and with people who have pretty solid favorites and either want more of them or want to be challenged a little. I think it’s fun to have such an interactive and personal model, ”Orbaum said.
Over time at London’s Barrafina, Quo Vadis, and The Drop Wine Bar, Orbaum tells me that both he and Jackson, whose skills were improved behind bars at Glastonbury’s Beat Hotel and the Bourne and Hollingsworth locations, thought it was important to wine make it accessible and less intimidating.
He explained: “We ask everyone a series of questions about wine without the need for knowledge, and then we focus much more on their general likes and dislikes. We want to know what they like to eat best or which band they have seen best live. They may not be able to tell us what they love most, but they can probably tell us where to go on vacation. “
Sam Orbaum (right) with Nick Jackson, the founder of Pickers
Much like the nostalgic mixtape, Pickers’ flagship is the Mix-Case (from £ 150 for six to eight bottles), which contains a selection of wines selected by Orbaum and personalized according to the customer’s questionnaire, as well as an accompanying tasting sheet. Customers can request changes prior to final purchase. If you’d like to leave everything to the experts, Pickers regularly has set cases with six different bottles to try (£ 75 including delivery).
LLM – Luxury Lifestyle Magazine food and drink writer Ina Yulo Stuve chats with Orbaum to learn more about starting a business while on vacation and the bottle that is most likely by his side right now.
You and Nick came up with the idea for Pickers in the middle of lockdown. Guide me through the course of a casual chat to a full-fledged business.
When I was on vacation for the first time, the big puzzle was what to do with all this time. I did the usual things, walks, food-based poetry, cooked, and selected bottles of wine for friends and family. When we got back to work and Nick asked about a case, it became clear to both of us that more people are likely to want a personalized wine buying service.
Shopping online can be a little faceless and the industry we come from is anything but. We talked about it during the shutdown, but the simple truth is that during the hectic Eat Out summer we were too busy and exhausted to help respond. As soon as the next ban came, that changed and we thought we might at least as well see if we could deliver a nice experience for people. A few months later we had all of our systems installed and some fantastic wines, but our approach hasn’t changed.
What was the biggest challenge in starting a new business?
Nearly everything. We try to make buying wine online a really enjoyable experience, and getting that feeling of warmth and human connection – in a traditionally volume-based market – takes a lot of serious consideration. However, if you want to learn about the challenge that nearly brought the entire operation to a standstill, then the UK seemed to run out of boxes just before Christmas – even by the time we started! Not the stumbling block we imagined, but it was the closest thing to decay.
The order pickers want to make the entire process fun, engaging and personal
Are there specific lessons you learned while working in the hospitality industry that you are now putting into practice at Pickers?
For me, the greatest lesson from hospitality is the importance of understanding people. You can and should know about your products, but what’s the point if you can’t properly apply that knowledge to your guests? In restaurants, the joy of service is finding ways to make someone’s night better. We know we have good wine so we could just sell it and be pretty sure people will enjoy it, but we’re looking for a way to make the whole process fun, engaging, and personal.
What’s the biggest misconception people make about wine?
Ha! All kinds. You hear some strange things. A major misconception is that people either think wine is scary and complicated, or it is really simple and presumptuous. A lack of knowledge shouldn’t be embarrassed – wine can be drunk and enjoyed by anyone. The most useful thing you can do is try to understand your own likes and dislikes and then professionals should be able to work from there. On the other hand, we don’t want to make what is an incredibly complex subject stupid. There is so much passion, hard work and expertise going into making exceptional wines that I think many take for granted.
They allow customers to review your recommendations and ask for changes. Why did you choose to offer this?
We discussed this in detail. Essentially, we are asking people who have never met us before to trust us with their money and their taste buds, which is a real privilege. We don’t have the ability to give virtual tasters so we wanted to give customers the opportunity to review their choices. Most of the time we get excitement and thumbs up, but if it takes us a little longer to find another bottle and write about it, so be it! It’s a conversation and it’s very important to us that people enjoy their choices.
Choosing different producers is something that Pickers will highlight in your offering. Can you tell us a little about her?
Not only producers, but also our suppliers! There are great people at all levels in the wine industry and it’s important to realize that. We have a great opportunity to introduce our customers to exciting bottles that they have never tried before. If they like a particular bottle from a particular manufacturer, it’s only natural to build on that and show them more. If you like the Beaujolais villages in the Domaine Chapel, give the Chiroubles a try. People may have drank Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco, but they have no idea that she’s making a truly remarkable frappato. We want to help people feel that sense of excitement and ownership when they not only find a wine they love, but also a new favorite producer.
Pickers want to introduce their customers to exciting bottles that they have never tried before
Now if we went into your house and saw you sitting on your couch, what bottle do you have next to you?
On most occasions, we both have a bottle of Sclavos Orgion within reach. It’s a victorious Mavrodaphne from Kefalonia, all made of red fruit and leather, and seems to charm everyone we send it to. We actually tried it for the first time because Vivino left a particularly memorable review – not our usual approach, but it shows that taking a punt can be amply rewarding! Otherwise, we were recently very impressed with Domaine Thillardon’s Chénas Les Carrieres. We try to try as many different bottles as possible to make sure our offering is constantly improving, but it’s always good to have favorites.
Restrictions wear off and you have friends over for dinner. What’s on the menu and what is everyone drinking?
That sounds like our questionnaire! I just got a new pizza oven, so I’ll likely do my paddling job pouring out gallons of pink txakoli – hot and vibrant, fluorescent good-time wine to keep the attention away from my sub-par pizzas.
If you work outside the house, you must have seen a lot. What’s the craziest thing a guest has done?
I probably can’t tell. People tend to focus on the aggressive or disgusting moments, but the truth is that most of the guests are great. I’ve been fortunate to see more random generous acts than bad behavior. Expect a few Aesop soaps to get jammed before the locks are in place, but I was pretty surprised when all of the £ 1 worth of Carex replacements went missing too. People obviously at least value good hygiene.
Instagram: @ pickers.wine