This turned into a longer piece than I had anticipated, but hopefully you’ll find it all interesting.
The Wine Society is something of a retail institution that runs under many people’s radar. It shouldn’t. Anyone who enjoys wine can join the club, and there are no arcane entry rituals.
It is a membership society and as such, has a warm, cuddly feel about it, as though you are talking with colleagues, not someone on the other side of the fence. They really are there to help. It costs £40 to join the club, a one-off purchase of a single share in the society. Then you buy as much or as little as you want, no pressure, anything from £4.50 to £500 a bottle.
One of the things they promote is that because Wine Soc ‘is owned by, and sells to its members’, the commercial mantra to maximise profits and satisfy shareholders’ demand for an annual dividend is not paramount. Of course the books must balance but the emphasis is on finding interesting wines and charging reasonably for them. Profits are invested back into the society. Expansion of the temperature-controlled storage warehouses at their base in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, is evidence of this. The fourth warehouse went up in 2008.
Wine Soc has six buyers, including two MWs, which would be considered luxurious by most commercial standards. Chief buyer, Sebastian Payne MW, who virtually personifies the Wine Soc, having started out there in the 1970s, moving into the buying team in 1985, said of the society’s ethos: “The aim is to buy good honest wines at the right price for our member/owner wine drinkers. So pleasure, honesty and integrity are our watchwords. You can get an amazing range of delicious wines delivered to your door and can trust us implicitly.”
He also explained there are six buyers “because we each spend a lot of time in the field and a lot of time talking to members in person, by e-mail and in offers about our wines. We do not have ghost writers to write sales guff about the wines. Buyers stand by what they write.”
The Society offers all the usual services that other decent wine merchants provide such as pre-mixed cases and ‘cellar –planning’ services. They have one shop, in Stevenage, but most communication is done via their website and regular offer mailings, both by post and email, and a printed wine list every quarter.
Around 1,500 wines are available at any one time. Wine Soc even comes to you, with around 100 tastings and dinners a year through much of the country.
Nearly all the website information is open to everyone, member or not, which lets potential members do a little research before parting with £40. In their latest mailing, there’s even a ‘staycation’ case, or as Wine Soc have much less-irritatingly called it ‘holiday at home’ case. I’m a regular consumer of the Domaine Félines-Jourdan’s Picpoul de Pinet from the Mediterranean.
Another of the things that make Wine Soc warm and cuddly is that they run their own fleet of liveried vans, which cover 70% of the country. Rob is my regular deliverer of Wine Soc. goodies, and he always phones the day before to check I’ll still be in, or to find an alternative delivery point. I feel like the wine is being cared for.
Two ranges of own label
As with many other retailers, Wine Soc has own label wines, two ranges in fact. ‘The Society’s …’ is of everyday wines that give a passing nod at origin but are designed “to be reliable, good value and a pleasure to drink”. The more exclusive “The Society’s Exhibition … “ has wines that show evidence of place and tend to be produced by highly respected producers. The Society’s Exhibition grüner veltliner from Austria is one such, being made by the iconic, charming and deeply knowledgeable Willi Bründlmayer.
It is the everyday wines that are core to the business. The top ten sellers all come from “The Society’s … “ range, and reflect a more traditional flavour preference, though the new world accounts for a growing third of the range.
- The Society’s Chilean Merlot
- The Society’s Chilean Sauvignon Blanc
- The Society’s Claret
- The Society’s Côtes du Rhône
- The Society’s French Dry White
- The Society’s French Full Red
- The Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
- The Society’s Rioja Crianza
- The Society’s White Burgundy
- The Society’s Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne
These wines also come from well-regarded producers. Chile’s Concha y Toro really knows how to make good, juicy everyday merlot, and Grassa is the undisputed king of fresh, zesty whites from the Côtes de Gascogne, for example.
But the Wine Soc does not just cater for the quotidian. Ewan Murray, head of tastings, events and PR, said “we have a dedicated team of fine wine advisors, and an on-line advice service available to members with a maximum 24 hour turn-around for any enquiries.”
From classic regions where some wines will age, the Wine Soc buys when rare and sought-after wines are first released, which is long before they’re ready to drink. They have a ‘wines for laying down’ list just for this purpose.
For those members without a cellar, the Wine Society will store your cases of gently maturing wine in those temperature-controlled warehouses. This could be useful option for anyone taking up one of the en primeur campaigns they also run, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône and South of France.
The French Connection is worth knowing. About 45 minutes from Calais, at Montreuil-sur-Mer, Wine Soc has a retail outlet. Pre-order your personal imports to pick up on the way home from hols, and, according to their latest literature, save about £17.50 per case of 12. (UK duty is currently running at £19.30 per dozen, with French duty at a couple of pence per bottle, and French VAT higher than in the UK).
How the Wine Society came about
Ewan Murray takes up the story: “The 4th International Exhibition was the last of the Victorian international exhibitions, held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, 1872, 1873 and 1874. It was an Exhibition of the Fine Arts, together with two or three branches of manufacturing, one of which, in 1874, was food and drink.
“The story continues, as printed in a 1913 wine list: ‘A large quantity of wine was sent over from various countries and stored in the cellars of the Royal Albert Hall, where it entirely escaped notice from visitors. The Portuguese growers, who had taken great pains and incurred considerable expense in the preparation of their exhibits, appealed to their Government for assistance in making them better known, and the Portuguese Government entered into communication with the British Foreign Office on the subject. The Government said they could do nothing officially, but that they might be helpful privately; and they arranged with the late General H.Y.D. Scott, R.E., (architect of the Royal Albert Hall (and the secretary of the International Exhibition) that he should give a series of large luncheon parties at South Kensington, and that the wines from the cellars should be placed on the table.’
“Those attending the first luncheon ordered a cask or two of the wines that had appealed to them in the course of their tasting, and formed a small wine club. ‘By the end of the third luncheon, the number of persons desirous of joining the club had so increased that it was decided to constitute it as a Friendly Society, under the law governing such institutions.’
Thus was born The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited.”
Half a dozen, sub-£10 Wine Soc wines on my list.
- Domaine Jaume, Côtes du Rhône, La Friande, 2008, France, £5.95
- Concha y Toro, Winemaker’s Lot 198T Merlot, 2006, Chile £7.25
- Warwick Estate, Three Cape Ladies, 2005, South Africa £9.95
- Quando sauvignon blanc, 2008, South Africa, £7.50
- Gavi, La Battistina, 2008, Italy, £7.95
- Domaine Mallory and Benjamin Talmard, Mâcon-Villages, 2007, France £8.95