Membership of The Wine Society is a British rite of passage. My late father-in-law gave my husband a membership when he turned 21. I tried to give a young goddaughter the same, before being told that members had to be at least 18.
Members of The Wine Society are its shareholders and its reassuring motto is “passion before profit”. Having a lifetime share in this wine-buying co-operative (it costs £40, of which £20 is deducted from the first order) opens the door to some of the best wine bargains in the UK. Whenever I report on one of its tastings, I find myself liberally sprinkling GVs for “good value” and quite a few VGVs.
Financial Times readers of a certain age may not have read as much about The Wine Society as it deserves. My predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell began his 23-year stint as chairman of the Society in 1964, the same year he started writing for the FT. He was scrupulous about not mentioning the Society in his columns, yet did much to modernise it, moving its headquarters out of a cramped central London office into warehouses near Stevenage train station, north of the capital.
It was founded by a group of wine-loving professional men in 1874 and its members still feel strongly about their wine. To facilitate social distancing last March, the Society stopped taking and delivering orders for seven days, while redesigning the workflow in its four warehouses. As a result, chief executive Steve Finlan was trolled by irate members.
Yet the redesign dramatically increased the speed with which staff could fulfil orders. Which is just as well. Despite doing no membership push for the past year, “Covid has gifted us new members so that we now have 170,000 active members [up from 155,000 before the pandemic], a total we expected to reach in 18 months’ time,” says head of buying Pierre Mansour. For the first time ever, The Wine Society shipped more than a million 12-bottle cases last year, at least 40 per cent of which were mixed.
Wines are selling out fast. Just ask Alan Livsey of the FT’s Lex column. At the end of February, he put in his order for two of its less sought-after white burgundies two days after the Burgundy 2019 offer opened, only to be told that both had sold out.
Key to The Wine Society’s allure is not just the friendly profit margins, but the quality of the buyers. I spent a day in their virtual company two weeks ago when the Society held online presentations by all eight.
The 1,400-odd wines now available are handpicked for quality, not for their producers’ willingness to pay placement fees or subsidise promotions. The Society has been dealing with some producers for as long as 40 years, but if a vintage of an old favourite comes along that it reckons is disappointing, the Society will skip it.
It was interesting to hear from the buyers what is doing particularly well. Members may tend to be more traditional than average but the Society is far from being irredeemably stuffy. It has introduced wine in cans and has an active Instagram presence. But red bordeaux is still its single biggest category, with the less famous — and less expensive — names especially popular.
The Society is one of far too few UK merchants to offer en primeur wines outside the charmed circle of classed growths. Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes is adamant that “if you know where to look, Bordeaux is still a great place for under-£10 reds. We have an almost insatiable demand for them”. (Another of their assets is their offer of high-quality, fairly priced storage for members’ reserves.)
Sykes is also responsible for buying sherry and reports that sales were up by 24 per cent last year. Sherry fans tend to be either decidedly mature or among the younger, more trend-conscious members. “The big challenge [for sherry] is to appeal to the middle ground, those in their forties to sixties.”
The newest, youngest wine buyer Matthew Horsley — who has been in post for a year and is yet to travel further than his kitchen — reports with glee that Society sales of English wine increased more than threefold in the past year. Horsley is also responsible for Greece, which, he says, “has been mad — up 200 per cent in the past 12 months, led by the stunning Thymiopoulos Jeunes Vignes Xinomavro [£11.50] and The Society’s Greek White [£8.95]”. (The Wine Society itself offers about 30 wines rather dully labelled and branded “The Society’s . . . ” and about as many slightly more expensive wines in its “Exhibition” range.)
Pierre Mansour buys Spanish wine and reports 10 years of growth in sales, especially of reds under £10, with the Sabina Tempranillo from Navarra at £6.50 one of the best sellers. Being half Lebanese, he also buys the Society’s few offerings from Lebanon. When it put a special Lebanese case together after the terrible fire in Beirut last year, it sold a year’s worth of Lebanese wine in three weeks.
The enthusiastic Freddy Bulmer reports that sales of “consistent high quality” Austrian wine have risen 118 per cent year on year. “Grüner Veltliner can offer serious ageability for just £15 to £20 a bottle,” he says.
The Society’s Burgundy and South American buyer Toby Morrhall is respected for his expertise in Chile, where he usually spends at least two weeks a year. He showed us two fine white Chilean Sauvignons and marvelled that New Zealand managed to sell more than eight times as much wine of the same style and price.
It was typical that when innovative South African wine producer Charles Back decided to make wine in clay jars, as well as whites with extended contact with grape skins, the Society’s South African buyer, Joanna Locke, put on a tasting of orange and amphora wines specially for him.
Though business was very nearly brought to its knees last Christmas by the national shortage of cardboard resulting from all our Amazon orders, things are clearly going well for The Wine Society. It was a blessed relief that, unusually, there was no increase in wine duty in the recent Budget. Thanks to the strength of the pound it expects to reduce some prices in May.
I realise this may seem of interest only to those based in the UK but the majority of The Wine Society’s offerings can be found in other countries too — so I hope that some of my recommendations may be useful wherever you are.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com
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