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Interview: Lydia Harrowven, Head Buyer at Adnams

Lydia is evidently a self-starter. She left home aged 17 to work in Holland as a pastry chef. Since then, she has worked as a cellar hand, graduated from Plumpton University, sold and marketed wine in the Maldives, and been a sommelier. Her current job as Head Buyer for wine at Adnams is her most exciting yet. We talk about how she’s using her decision-making position to effect real change.

At Swirl we’re huge fans of yours! When we were discussing this interview, Sarah described you as a ‘guardian of quality’ who never walked past a low standard without working to fix it. Where does this approach come from? Do you think it’s a particularly female quality?

I actually attribute this all the way back to my training in catering and hospitality management. Working as first a pastry chef and then as a sommelier – it was drilled into you to notice the details. The miniature of detail is where real success lies. I do agree that there is a certain ‘women’s touch’ element to it – though, particularly in the hospitality sector, I’ve met several men who have that same mindset. It comes from having interest too. I’m interested in people. I’m interested in their happiness, and them getting the what they need and what they want and anticipating people’s needs. So, for me, [being a ‘guardian of quality’] is not letting other people notice errors or problems, but fixing them before they become an issue.

How do you think your background of varied roles in the industry informs your current role and buying ethos?

Going through university I was a mature student and self-funded, holding down three-to-four jobs to pay my way. If you’re looking for a job you panic and think bloody hell! If anyone looks at my CV they’re think I’ve had 350 million jobs which can be seen as a bad thing. But for me, I see it as a good thing because I understand the context. I think [having a background of varied roles] helps you think of costs from every angle, and understand quality from every perspective. The whole point of buying, the whole point of doing what we do, is for the customer to have a fantastic experience at the end point. So, it’s important for me to know where our customers are [when they’re enjoying our products].

How are they experiencing us? How are they interpreting us? It’s more than just spreadsheets – that wine ticks all the boxes, done. I’m thinking about whether people are enjoying our wine in a restaurant, in a pub or  at home. I’m always asking myself: what’s the context? What does the wine say about us? So, it’s really important for me to have a wide perspective and I think a varied professional background has laid the foundations for this.

Adnams is most famous as a brewer and spirits company, though of course they’ve more recently built a great reputation for wine too. I’m interested to know if you see any correlation between wine being seen as a relative outlier when people think of Adnams and your experiences as a woman in the trade?

There is absolutely no denying that wine has historically been a male dominated environment. I’ve always felt that – from day one of my career. But that’s obviously changing. People are lot more open minded than they ever were. But I think also that my experience has meant that I can hold my own in that environment. I left home at 17 and went to work for the Roux brothers in central Amsterdam. I moved there on my own, worked in a kitchen with 16 chefs as the only woman. It was a bold, difficult move but I always held my own because I knew I was doing a good job.

There are still lots of businesses, I think, where men hold the space – women are seen as contributors but perhaps not leaders. Most women in any position of power [in this trade] are very aware of that. There’s a feeling there that you’re one of the few.

Adnams is incredibly liberal – especially compared to my former job in the Maldives which is very not liberal. But there may always be that feeling that I’m in a male dominated environment and I’m very young – but because I left home so young and have held down so many different jobs – I sort of just plow on and try not to overthink it. It’s so easy to think ‘that’s difficult because I’m a woman’ – but sometimes I think it’s a bit about how you interpret the circumstances. Though, there’s no denying that sometimes when you’re meeting an older male supplier, I do catch myself wondering: ‘what are you thinking about me and my position here’. I do get those questions a lot to be honest. Historically, Adnams has had older male wine experts in this role.

The sustainability of local sourcing is a key part of your beer and spirits offerings. How do you reflect these values in your wine sourcing, given that the UK is still in its relative infancy in wine-producing terms?

I’m completely onboard with the movement for sustainability. But I also think we’re all a bit fed up with talking about sustainability but not really meaning it, or not really knowing what it means or how to follow through with concrete actions.

I’m really keen to delve a bit deeper into what we exactly mean by ‘sustainability’ and how we stand by the definition we come to.

In my role, part of that is working with more local producers where we can. But we do face a lot of challenges there – pricing, availability, volumes, and quality – I’d love to work with all of the local [English] wineries but I’m not willing to take anything but the very best so sometimes I’m having to go a bit further than I’d like to. We’re a very small island and we still have a low footprint when you look at the wine world more broadly. So, I am focussed on working with the best UK suppliers or producers I can find. I championed an Adnams Bacchus launch two years ago, as well as an Adnams rosé and I worked really hard to make sure they were best in class. That does mean to some extent that there’s very little sustainability behind those products because [the UK trade is] in its infancy so I’ve found consistent quality and volume a challenge across vintages.

These products we took on a couple of years ago are now limited edition because we can’t access them anymore. We have to be more agile in our approach. We have to be able to readily chop and change our range. I want to work with English producers as much as possible so I imagine our range there will develop quite significantly because I want to represent the diversity in the industry and we do have some really exciting English listings coming up.

[But apart from local sourcing] I see broader sustainability as a much bigger subject. One person’s interpretation of sustainability can be very different from another’s. For example, the previous buyers here their view was to make sure everything was UK packed to reduce freight impact – which I do agree with. However, I think that if we do that too much, we lose a bit of interest within our range. It can homogenise things a bit. So, I’d like to bring back a bit of uniqueness.

One of the things I’m trying to do is make sure that as many of our wines as possible have sustainability credentials on the bottle so at least the wineries we’re working with are considering their own sustainability and their impact. And I’m also being more conscious of the producers we’re working with and how sustainable that relationship is. So, while cost is very very important and we must have the best prices to pass on the consumer, it’s got to be sustainable. If you push your producers too hard they don’t enjoy working with you, you don’t enjoy working with them and everyone’s always battling over prices. You’re in this battle every year – or every couple of months even – and it’s just not sustainable. We need sustainable prices and sustainable relationships with our producers and we then need to consider how that impacts our customers in a sustainable way. Can we produce that product sustainably in terms of quality, pricing; are we fair, are we presenting real value for money. Is the product even necessary?

We’re really interested to know how you approach emerging regions/ esoteric wines in your role as obviously now you have a bit more weight to say ‘let’s go with stuff that’s a bit unusual’.

Absolutely. I’m so excited about this category. It gives us a story to tell and gives our marketers something to say. Everybody in our stores is hugely passionate and hugely qualified – they’re all very very interested in wine. One of the things we teetered on the edge of was homogenising our range and losing its identity and excitement. There’s just such a huge world of wine out there and our customers are interested. Yes, the sales might not set the world alight but it will keep us interesting and revitalised so [wines from esoteric regions or using lesser-known grapes] can only be a good thing.

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