Sumptuous cellars, hand-buying in France, free booze for the dons? Dr Hanneke Wilson, wine steward at Exeter College, shatters a few myths about the job.

Running the wine cellar

By Hanneke Wilson

‘When you took over as wine steward, did you find fascinating old bottles that had been forgotten about?’ The question shows what romantic misconceptions people have of the job of running an Oxford cellar. For it is a job, and in term there is some piece of cellar business to attend to most days.

Traditionally the wine steward might be a college fellow who has turned a hobby into a college office. My own position as wine steward of Exeter is unusual in that I am neither a fellow nor an amateur: I still do some teaching elsewhere in the University, but I am also a part-time wine merchant working for Haynes Hanson & Clark. When my predecessor, the ancient philosopher Ben Morison, left to take up a post at Princeton in 2009, he persuaded the governing body to do something thoroughly unconventional and offer the job to an outsider — but only after I had met the finance bursar for a ‘chat’ that was in fact a rigorous interview conducted with exemplary courtesy.

The wine steward runs a small business — rather bigger than a whelk stall, and the bursar didn’t want a duffer in charge of the cellar. As a friend remarked, perceptively, ‘If they take you on after that, they’ll support you’. And he was right. The bursar has become a good friend, and I continue to enjoy my little job.

‘Surely your wine cellar must be beautiful, with vaulted arches?’ I have seen beautiful cellars in Oxford, but Exeter’s isn’t one of them: it is a cramped downstairs space with wine racks that are so close together that the butler has had to put the tall Austrian bottles on the top racks to make sure that we can walk between the rows without bumping parts of the anatomy on bottles.

Although we imagine wines quietly ageing to perfection, the cellar isn’t tranquil either: in central Oxford the water table has risen over the years, and many of us have had to install air conditioning. And then there is a nasty steep staircase. . . . So fellows’ guests and old members returning to dine who ask if they can see the cellar are politely told that no, they can’t — especially not after dinner.

‘Presumably you go to France to buy wine for the College. Wouldn’t that be much cheaper?’ Imagine the scenario. When stocks are a bit low, the bursar and I tootle off to France and load up a van with wine. At Calais we get stopped by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We don’t look or sound like white-van persons, so the man from HMRC asks us why we are attempting to import all these cases of wine. ‘It’s for our daughter’s wedding’, William says, a little too quickly, and produces a smartly printed invitation card. ‘I remember that one from three months ago, sir. Would you like to step into my office, please, and you, too, madam?’ We would be all over the papers the next day.

Genius in the bottles

In theory one could do one’s own importing through a bonded warehouse in this country, but there would be no economies of scale or legal protection if one were sent the wrong wine, hence buying from a wine merchant is a much better option. So many merchants try to get into the Oxford market that one could go to two or three tastings a week in term time, but not all these merchants are equally expert and a few are less than wholly scrupulous; besides, limiting the number of suppliers cuts down on paperwork for me and for the accounts office.

When I took over from Ben Morison, I was sent a marvel of record-keeping, which must have been started by his predecessor, who had been a naval officer: to my amusement it was headed ‘SCR Wine Stock Muster’, though Excel was a new skill to acquire and rather less fun. Stocktakes, I was told, had to be done three times a year, so once every four months I gratefully watch Kate the catering manager and Elena the butler clambering up and down the racks, quite unaffected by the vertigo that keeps me shivering on a pile of wine boxes with my iPad.

So what is being counted? A cellar reflects the tastes of past wine stewards, the preferences and composition of the fellowship and the fashions as well as the economic circumstances of the time. When I took over, the mainstay of the Exeter cellar was claret. My predecessors had bought well, but the crus classés that we used to buy are now priced well out of our reach. Château Chasse-Spleen had been a favourite, so I arranged a Domus dinner at which we drank four vintages of this glorious wine. However much they liked their claret, my colleagues were in favour of diversification, and now Exeter cheerfully drinks wines from all over Italy, Spain and Austria.

I continue to organise wine evenings to introduce the SCR to these novelties. I guide them through the wines and give them handouts, but despite my déformation professionnelle, these evenings tend to get rather giggly; still, if one finds oneself having to reorder Blaufränkisch and if half of a large holding of Sangiovese from the Maremma has gone because the College staff chose it for their Christmas dinner, I think one can say that Exeter is taking its medicine rather well.

One final misconception, which is neither romantic nor harmless, needs to be addressed. SCR members pay for their wine on high table: there is no boozing at the taxpayer’s expense.

Oxford dons and their guests continue to enjoy their wine, and with ingenuity, contacts in the trade and hard work it is still possible to supply the cellar with good wines at affordable prices. The guiding principle has to be le meilleur rapport qualité/prix. The wine steward is, after all, servus servorum Bacchi, the servant of the servants of Bacchus.

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Main image © Symbiot via Shutterstock. Exeter College Hall © Oxford University Images / Toby Ord. This article first appeared in the Trinity 2015 print issue of Oxford Today.