Published in The Daily Telegraph- Winter 2007
Peter Grogan journeys to the Herts of darkness to find the wisest buyers of wine
The first bottle of wine that really did it for me was a Sancerre from the Wine Society. A girlfriend and I pinched it from her father and I’ll always be grateful to him for that eureka moment of discovering that wine could provide a lot more pleasure than just the effects of the alcohol. I cursed him, though, the other day, as I trudged around Stevenage in the wind and rain trying to find the headquarters of this cooperatively owned wine merchant, founded 133 years ago.
The Society, in which each member owns a single share, fits somewhere between Waitrose – which in itself is unusual in being an arm of the John Lewis Partnership, owned by its 64,000 staff – and grand old wine merchants such as Berry Bros & Rudd and Corney and Barrow. At the station, I was told that “the wine place” was “across the footbridge and round the back of Tesco”.
Standing in front of Majestic Wine Warehouse, I damply reflect that it and, for that matter, Tesco wouldn’t be the forces they are today if the Society hadn’t blazed a trail in cutting out the middlemen. “I don’t think many people in Stevenage know we’re here, really, but that’s OK,” says Pierre Mansour, the Australasia and America buyer, after coming to rescue me in his car.
When it comes to wine warehouses, you have to hand it to the Society. Standing in the middle of its 175,000 sq ft facility – that’s two and a half football pitches – Ewan Murray, who’s in charge of tastings, enumerates: four million bottles, 90,000 active members who together spend more than £1 million a week, and a list made up of 1,000 wines from 20 countries.
But no one will be showing off, because the Wine Society has that very British mix of competence and reticence that makes it seem like a sort of Bletchley Park of the wine trade. “No one here earns a bonus, including me,” says chief executive Oliver Johnson. “So everyone’s focused on quality rather than margin.” It also means that the Society is seldom beaten on price.
Those 1,000 wines include some I’ve never heard of and I’m feeling a little nervous as I prepare to meet the six buyers. They are some of the best “noses” in the business but I soon discover they’re also an easy-going lot who wear their learning lightly.
Everyone makes mistakes, however, and Master of Wine Sebastian Payne, the Society’s long-serving chief buyer, tells of a mix-up on his predecessor’s watch. After a long day’s tasting, the cellar master calamitously ran wines from casks of three different classed-growth Bordeaux châteaux into the same vat for bottling. Rather than a disaster, the resulting blend was an immediate success. “It was baptised ‘The Society’s Centenary Claret’ and it went down very well with the members,” says Payne.
Talking to members a few days later at a Society tasting in London, it seems less surprising that we British – already the most sophisticated wine consumers in the world – look set to overtake France as the biggest spenders. Members, who come from all walks of life, spend on average £6.75 a bottle.
It isn’t a fortune, but it’s two-thirds as much again as the UK average. Joining is easy. That share costs £40 for lifetime membership (bequeathable to a promising Godchild) and you don’t need connections to join. The Secretary “proposes” those who don’t know an obliging member.
The big numbers, which are small compared with the supermarkets, give the Society the clout to buy what it likes and focus on many smaller, family-run wineries. The list is particularly strong on France with, for example, a lavish 16 wines from the stunning 2005 Beaujolais vintage.
But Chile and New Zealand shine, too. Some members prefer the Society’s Choice, a pre-mixed case of wines costing £6-£8. Others pick and choose from the more expensive “Exhibition” range, made up of perennial favourites such as New Zealand Pinot Noirs and Chilean Merlots.
As it is essentially a mail-order business, browsers will miss out unless they’re within reach of the showroom. The good news is that there’s no minimum purchase and mixed cases start at under £5 a bottle.
For subscription customers, wines are chosen to suit a budget and sent out each month. It’s called “Wine Without Fuss”, a phrase that neatly sums up this old-fashioned yet forward-looking wine merchant.
# The Wine Society: 01438 740222; www.thewinesociety.com.
WINES OF THE WEEK
2005 Dourthe Barrel Select St Emilion, 13% vol (£10.49; Waitrose).
Richly fruit-cakey, with the subtle hints of violets and tobacco that usually cost more than this.
The much-hyped 2005 Bordeaux vintage seems to be walking the walk. A fillet steak would be the perfect accompaniment.
2006 Co-op Fairtrade Cape Chenin Colombard, 12.5% vol (£3.99; Co-op).
Co-op leads the way in Fairtrade wines and this is from the biggest project in the world. An attractively perfumed nose and perky melon and apricot fruit.
The price will comfort those who’ve opened their post-Christmas credit card statements.
2004 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, 14% vol (£7.50; Wine Society).
A century of experience with Californian Zinfandels means the Wine Society knows a thing or two.
This is intense stuff, meaty and spicy with a big slice of blackberry-pie fruit and a hint of liquorice. Terrific value.
2005 Bonterra Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc, 13.5% vol (Majestic; £5.59 for two or more to February 5).
Feeling out of touch? Try this – it’s from California, it’s organic, it’s got a unique new screw-top and it’s a blend of grapes to make French blood run cold.
It’s also very crisp, fragrant and very more-ish.