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Meet the wine expert: Sam Orbaum of Pickers

By Ina Yulo Stuve  |  May 21, 2021
Sam Orbaum

The wine business is a popular one. Though the UK might be a small wine producer compared to its neighbours in the Old World, the most recent data on wine consumption shows that Brits do love their wine with 32% listing it as their drink of choice, just 3% below beer. And we’re not just drinking it, we’re actually really curious about wine too. In 2019, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) announced a record-breaking 108,557 students took a WSET qualification (up 15% year-on-year) with the majority of candidates coming from the UK.

But whether you’re a swirl-and-sniff connoisseur or prefer to grab the prettiest looking bottle on the shelf, we can all agree that a large part of wine drinking is about preference. That’s where Pickers comes in. Founded by hospitality veterans Sam Orbaum (featured in LLM’s list of top FOH professionals) and Nick Jackson late last year, Pickers gives people a platform for discovering new wines based on their personal likes and dislikes, all online.

“We’ve had equally amazing conversations with people who have no confidence in wine at all and are looking for an introduction, and those who have quite firm favourites and either want more of the same or to be challenged a little. I think that’s the fun of having such an interactive and personal model,” shared Orbaum.

With time at London restaurants Barrafina, Quo Vadis, and The Drop Wine Bar under his belt, Orbaum tells me that both he and Jackson, whose skills were honed behind the bars at Glastonbury’s Beat Hotel and Bourne and Hollingsworth locations, thought it was important to make wine accessible and less intimidating.

He explained: “We ask everyone a series of questions that touch on the topic of wine without requiring any knowledge at all, and then focus far more on their general likes and dislikes. We want to know their favourite local takeaway or the best band they’ve seen live. They might not be able to tell us their favourite grape, but they can probably tell us where they want to go on holiday.”

Sam Orbaum and Nick Jackson of Pickers
Sam Orbaum (right) with fellow Pickers founder Nick Jackson

Similar to the nostalgic mixtape, Pickers’ flagship product is their mix-case (starting at £150 for six to eight bottles), which comes with a selection of wines chosen by Orbaum and personalised according to the customer’s questionnaire, and an accompanying tasting sheet. Customers can ask for any edits before the final purchase is made. If you’d like to leave everything to the experts, Pickers has regularly changing 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 find out more about launching a business whilst being furloughed and the bottle that’s most probably by his side at this very moment.

You and Nick came up with the idea for Pickers in the middle of lockdown. Walk me through how this went from a casual chat to a fully-fledged business.

The first time I was on furlough, the big mystery was what to do with all that time. I did the usual things, walks, food-based poetry, cooking, and selecting bottles of wine for friends and family. When we got back to work and Nick asked for a case, it dawned on the two of us that more people would probably like to be offered a personalised wine buying service.

Online shopping can be a little faceless and the industry that we’re from is anything but. We’d chat about it during close downs, but the simple truth is that we were too busy and exhausted throughout the hectic summer of Eat Out to Help Out to act on it. As soon as the next lockdown came along, that changed, and we thought that at the very least we might as well see if we could deliver a nice experience for people. A few months on, we have all of our systems in place and some fantastic wines, but our approach hasn’t changed.

What has been the biggest challenge of launching a new business?

Pretty much all of it. We’re trying to make online wine buying a really pleasant experience and getting that sense of warmth and human connection – in what is a traditionally volume-based market – needs a lot of serious thought. Although, if you want to hear about the challenge that nearly derailed the entire operation, that was when the UK seemed to run out of cardboard just before Christmas – also the time of our launch! Not the stumbling block that we imagined, but that was the closest we came to crumbling.

Pickers wine
Pickers like to make the whole process fun, engaging and personal

Are there any specific lessons you learned whilst working in hospitality that you’re now putting into practice at Pickers?

For me, the biggest 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 apply that knowledge adequately for your guests? In restaurants, the joy of service is in finding ways to improve someone’s night. We know that we have good wine, so we could just sell it and be pretty sure that people will enjoy it, but we’re looking for an opportunity to make the whole process fun, engaging, and personal.

What’s the biggest misconception people make about wine?

Ha! All sorts. You hear some strange things. A significant misconception is people either think that wine is scary and complicated or really simple and full of pretention. There should be no embarrassment attached to a lack of knowledge – 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 dumb down what is an incredibly complex subject. There’s so much passion, hard work, and expertise that goes into producing exceptional wine that I think is taken for granted by many.

You allow customers to review and ask for changes to your recommendations. Why did you decide to offer that?

This was something that we discussed in detail. Essentially, we’re asking people who have never met us before to trust us with their money and their palates, which is a real privilege. We don’t have the opportunity to give virtual tasters, so we wanted to add in an opportunity for customers to review their selection. Mostly we’re met by excitement and a thumbs-up, but if it takes a little extra time for us to find and write about a different bottle, then so be it! It’s a conversation and we really care that people enjoy their selection.

Featuring different producers is something Pickers highlights in your offering. Can you tell us about some of them?

Not just producers, but our suppliers too! There are great people at every level in the wine industry and it’s important to recognise that. We have an amazing opportunity to introduce our customers to exciting bottles that they haven’t tried before. If they like a particular bottle from a certain producer, then it’s only natural to build on that and show them more. If you like Domaine Chapel’s Beaujolais Villages, why not give their Chiroubles a go? People may have drunk Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco but have no idea that she makes a truly remarkable Frappato. We want to help people feel that sense of excitement and ownership when they find not only a wine that they love, but a new favourite producer.

Pickers wine
Pickers like to introduce their customers to exciting bottles that they haven’t tried before

If we walked into your house right now and found you sitting on your couch, which bottle do you have next to you?

We both tend to have a bottle of Sclavos Orgion within arm’s reach on most occasions. It’s a winning Mavrodaphne from Kefalonia, all red fruit and leather and seems to charm everyone we send it to. We actually tried it the first time because of a particularly memorable Vivino review – not our usual approach, but it shows that you can be richly rewarded for taking a punt! Otherwise, we’ve been hugely impressed by Domaine Thillardon’s Chénas Les Carrieres recently. We try to keep tasting as many different bottles as possible to make sure our offering is constantly improving, but it’s always good to have favourites.

Restrictions ease and you’re having friends over for dinner. What’s on the menu and what’s everyone drinking?

This sounds like our questionnaire! I just got a new pizza oven, so I’ll probably be practicing my paddle-work and pouring out gallons of pink Txakoli – sharp and sprightly, fluorescent good-time wine to keep attention away from my sub-par pizzas.

Working front of house, you must have seen a lot. What’s the craziest thing a guest has done?

I probably can’t say. People tend to focus on the aggressive or disgusting moments, but the truth is that most guests are awesome. I’ve been lucky to see more random acts of generosity than bad behaviour. It can be expected that a few Aesop soaps might get pinched before we have the locks in place, but I was pretty surprised when all of the £1 Carex replacements disappeared as well. People obviously care about good hygiene, at least.