Obviously, many wine merchants and supermarkets will deliver wine to you – by mail or other means – and, with most retailers having an on-line presence, the definition of “mail order” is very blurred these days. But there are differences in what the purely mail order and online merchants and wine clubs do, chief among them being that often the wines are “pre-selected” and if that sounds alarming it’s because most of the time it is. The sector – with about 5% of the UK market – is bestridden by Direct Wines, set up by Tony Laithwaite in 1969. They run The Sunday Times Wine Club, Telegraph Wines, Averys, British Airways Executive Wine Club, Virgin Wines – which was started by Rowan Gormley, who now runs Naked Wines – and of course Laithwaite’s itself (formerly Bordeaux Direct). I’m relieved that their Barclaycard Wine Service appears to be defunct because even the idea of having a credit card company that charges up to 27.9% interest against a base rate of half of one per cent choosing anybody’s wine gives me the willies. Dunno if the Richard and Judy Wine Club is still going. Don’t care either.
All of them have some good wines but they’re unlikely to send them if you don’t ask for them – why would they? Importantly, there has been a uptick in quality generally from some of their outfits and the fact that – to the astonishment of many in the trade – a couple of years ago Laithwaite’s took a delivery of their own in the form of Justin Howard-Sneyd MW from Waitrose, where as head of wine he took their list from primus inter pares among the grocers to nobody-in-second-place. Hopefully this signalled a seriousness of intent as far as quality is concerned. They don’t generally do anything much under six quid – presumably distribution costs are too high. (From Laithwaite’s, try Alegria Old Vines Cariñena £6.99, Alma Andina Torrontès- Sauvignon Blanc £7.99, Giesta Dão 2010 £6.99 – all by-the-case prices. A few favourites from Virgin: Ca’ di Ponti Grillo Sicily £6.99; Araldica Piemonte Barbera £6.99 Hans Lang Rhengau Riesling Kabinett Trocken £10.99; Juan Gil Monastrell £9.99).
I haven’t tried anything at all from Naked as they don’t seem to have much under 7 quid unless you subscribe as an “Angel” and agree to a regular £20 payment per month. The angel angle is that they “invest in independent winemakers” and the regular payment means you “get better wines for supporting winemakers directly.” Hmmm.
The original mail order merchant, The Wine Society, is a very different kettle of fish. Founded as a co-operative company in 1874 by a “committee of gentlemen” at the Albert Hall with the purpose of purchasing wines in “unadulterated condition” direct from the producers and offering them to the membership at the lowest possible price, it still does the very same. Another of the `Objects of the Society’ was `To introduce foreign wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country’ and they were selling Californian Zinfandels and Australian wines 100 years ago, which is rather impressive. Anyone can join but forget the Groucho Marx line about not wanting to join any club that would have him – the quality of the wines is very high. My own Eureka! moment with wine was a Sancerre from the Wine Soc which had – alongside the usual quality of being a reasonably efficient inebriant – the hitherto unknown one of being completely delicious.
The Society’s White Burgundy is a fine thing for £7.50 and tells you everything you need to know about their standards. Down – but not dirty – at the Grogan’s Heroes price-level their Chilean Merlot (£5.95) is made by Concha y Toro’s charming and dynamic (no, I don’t fancy him – well, not much anyway) Marcelo Papa. He’s one of the most important winemakers on the planet right now – one of a small number of people who are changing everything and I doubt that anybody makes more wine better than he does. It’s a big, fresh, rich, bright, saturated, minerally, fruit-cakey thing but not at all o.t.t. As for his Chilean Chardonnay – from cool-breezy Limarí - I just hope I don’t get given it to taste blind because I might get carried away.
Of the new(ish) wave of internet-only merchants, Swig and Slurp stand out (they’re separate entities, as evidenced by the third person plural, and anyway who would name their business with a tautology?). I felt a little thrill when I clicked on Swig‘s “Best Sellers” list and the first item on it was A.A. Badenhorst’s “Secateurs” Chenin Blanc from South Africa – sad, or what? – but it was one of the most exciting wines I tasted last year. According to their search criteria prices start at £7.95 so they won’t be troubling Grogan’s Heroes at the moment but they do have some very nice wine.
You can tell an awful lot about a wine by the company it keeps (and vice-versa) and although I don’t know much about Slurp I do know quite a few of their (relative) cheapies from some of our Local Hero merchants – Ancora, Alpha Zeta and A Mano among them. Blimey, that’s just the ‘A’s! I’d better get on to them sharpish – see you later!