The supermarkets and multiples (or what’s left of them) all sell some potable wine but making friends with a well-established, enthusiastic wine merchant who can advise, cajole, celebrate and comiserate is a natural progression and I’m always banging on about it. Most people buy a couple of bottles at a time and the step of buying that first whole case seems to be a big one (and does require a little organisation – carrying a 12-bottle case more than a few yards is something to avoid).
Some of the advantages of buying wine by the mixed case are:
that they do all the work of weeding out the dull stuff – their reputations rest on the quality of the wines they choose and as a result, they get more interesting wines, often from small, individual producers who care about what they’re making;
that many sell pre-selected mixed cases at many price-levels so you don’t have to know anything about wine to make a start; that they sell wine at (nearly) all price levels and for mid-range wines they can be cheaper than the supermarkets and multiples;
that there really isn’t much snobbery involved unless you want there to be;
that you don’t have to schlep the stuff about. Having a case on hand gives you the luxury of choice – “Sweetie, do you think this Chilean Merlot or the Lalande de Pomerol would go better with these bangers?”
The objection that you have to shell out for 12 bottles at a time doesn’t hold water since that money was going to be spent on wine sooner or later anyway. The proof of the pudding is that:
nobody who ever started buying by the case from good merchants ever stopped without a good reason (which, basically, means penury, liver disease or death – and only the last of these is good enough).
As confidence increases you can begin to have the fun of scouting their lists – they make mistakes and mistakes are better than discounts and “sales” where there is often a good reason for cutting the price – good for them, that is.
I learned much of whatever I know about wine from bottles bought from the top merchants who comprise the loose alliance called The Bunch, i.e. Tanners of Shrewsbury, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Adnams of Southwold, Yapp Brothers, Corney and Barrow and newbies Lea and Sandeman. They’re all good but – with so much dynamic new competition – none can rest on their laurels: while one has newly established itself as the best of the bunch, one has become rather expensive, another has been rather distracted by other projects, one is a bit stuck in the mud and another is quite uneven quality-wise.
Until as recently as the ’70s wine merchants imported wine in cask and bottled it themselves and the tradition lives on in the form of merchants’ “house” wines, although thankfully they are all bottled at source these days. They’re a big part of their business, their “calling cards” almost, and they usually offer exceptional value. There’s some cachet in having the name of an illustrious wine merchant on the label I suppose but it’s what’s in the bottle that really counts and the wines are often made by leading producers and châteaux. Some of the old guard of merchants like Berry’s and Justerini & Brooks (now Diageo-owned since they bought the J&B whisky brand) have relationships with individual châteaux that go back into the 18th century.
Some ranges runs to as many as 60 bottles – including Ports, sherries and Madeira – and the name of a top merchant on the bottle is about as close as wine gets to coming with a guarantee – it’s the consumer-end version of the handshakes on which, refreshingly, a lot of the wine trade is still run. Some people object in principle to the fact that the “everyday” merchants’ wines are often non-vintage – i.e. a blend of wines from different vintages – but that’s the tradition and, in practice, when they actually taste these fruits of the blenders’ art the objections are seldom sustained.