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James Hocking Biography

Director of Wine – The Vineyard Cellars

Tell us a bit about you
I was born in Padstow, Cornwall and on leaving school embarked on a banking career with Midland Bank, later to become HSBC. Whilst I was "OK” at the job, I can’t say I really ever enjoyed it and found every day the same routine. Basically, I got bored!

When did you realise you had an interest in wine?
Probably around late-teens. We are talking the early 90’s when Oddbins were at their very peak of success and individuality. I would walk into a shop and the sales guys really motivated me to try different things and experiment. Coupled with that, I’ve always had a very inquisitive nature so would look at a wall of bottles in a shop – some were £3.99, others £100. Why? So I set about "drinking my way” through the shelves. Finally, after 9 years in banking, I quit, joined Oddbins the following week as a cellar rat and joined the wine trade folding cardboard, stacking cases and driving a white Ford Transit van (which I have very fond memories of!)

Then what?
I knew that I wanted to make wine my career, so needed some restaurant experience. I was aware that Rick Stein at The Seafood Restaurant was expanding the business and needed a beverage manager, so applied and landed the post. I was responsible for the wine lists and stocks across his restaurants, as well as presenting tastings to the (then very new) Seafood School. Whilst I was there, not only did I learn a lot about the business of wine and hospitality, I also met Joscelyn, now my wife of 11 years.

So what about California?
A good friend brought a bottle of 1992 Peter Michael Winery Les Pavots to dinner one night many years ago. Until then I was a proper wine snob – had to be European! This one bottle altered my perspective of wine. It was just sensational. I found Peter Michael Winery via the internet, signed up to the mailing list along with other wineries in California and started buying for my own consumption. I’ve learned over the years that California’s true North Coast (Napa, Sonoma & Mendocino Counties) really does rival the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Then to The Vineyard Cellars
I was in at the start of The Vineyard Cellars’ inception, first as retail sales manager, followed by general manager, and for the past few years as director. We are Europe’s only exclusively-Californian wine merchant and sell our wines to a select group of hotels, restaurants, other merchants, and direct to consumers. We ship direct from Oakland, San Francisco around 4000 cases per year and our business client base includes Harrods, Majestic, China Tang at The Dorchester, Clos Maggiore plus a host of others. We are multiple winners of the International Wine Challenge Specialist US Merchant award, and I act on the judging panel for Decanter Magazine and Square Meal Imbibe Magazine. I’m not sure there are enough hours in the day!

Can you give us an insight into running The Vineyard Cellars
It’s a very all-encompassing job which I love. I source new wine, manage the purchasing and our inventory, right through to sales and making sure the delivery gets to the client in the right place at the right time. We are one of the few businesses that actually see the process through from vineyard to customers’ glasses. This gives us a real insight into what is selling, what the current trends are, and what we need to do to improve. Of course, the buying trips to California are quite nice as well…

So what to you drink when it’s not California?
I love Riesling, especially from the Mosel region in Germany. Spain is also a wine love having been there some years ago and visited a number of properties in Navarra, Rioja and Ribera del Duero. I’m becoming an ever-increasing fan of English sparkling wine, and am also having something of a love affair with the UK’s increasing range of top quality Gin such as Bermondsey and Sipsmith.

So what do you do outside the world of wine?
Er, still drink wine really! I was passionate about wine before I joined the trade and still get very excited about a new find now. We also cook a lot at home so are continually trying out new combinations. Leaving that aside, I’m currently restoring yet another Land Rover, and work an allotment complete with small vineyard attached, planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I also grow unfeasibly large vegetables to show at events around the country and have won a number of firsts for our produce. Home is in Hampshire, along with Kerenza, our daughter who arrived late-last year, and the two Siamese cats…

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