Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
25 Jul 2003

One of the biggest problems for a consumer writer such as me is giving accurate information on prices and stockists. Although good old WineSearcher can help worldwide and WineAccess and WineAlert are very helpful within the US (a nightmare market in terms of the complexity of distribution), it is only within the UK that I, resident in London if relatively peripatetic, can hope to give any sort of detail.

In theory it should be much easier in Britain where the lion's share of all wine is sold by just four retailers, the big supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Safeway. But of course the wines I think you would be most interested in tend to be sold by the army of small independent wine merchants who toil away on the interesting fringes of the wine trade all round the country.

The big companies are pretty good at keeping us wine writers up to scratch with their range and prices, sending out a printed price list every month. These lists have an air of officialdom about them but I'm afraid they are only a rough approximation of reality.

In the article I wrote a week ago on 2001 reds from the southern Rhône, the most obvious bargain was a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2001 from the Visan coop via Marks & Spencer at £4.99, as cited on the July price list published by M&S. Some of you who tried to buy this wine found that it had already been re-priced, to £5.50 - 'to take account of currency movements' according to the company. This makes me look stupid and/or careless, although some of you wondered whether M&S had deliberately moved the price up knowing the wine was going to be recommended.

In another instance, there was some confusion over the regular price of the Tesco 'Finest' Gigondas 2001 I mentioned in a rather lukewarm fashion as being a reasonable buy at the reduced price of £6.99. According to Tesco's current price list the regular price is £7.99 but the company's (generally very efficient) link person with wine writers assures me that this should be £8.99. (It is a common ploy among retailers, incidentally, to precede a price hike with a brief price promotion.)

I would like to make it clear that my policy is not to tell big retailers in advance what I am about to recommend. (If I go overboard about a wine available only from one or two small retailers on the other hand, I do try to ensure there are sufficient stocks available.)

I tend to write only just over a week before publication which would hardly allow the big companies time to make any stock adjustments anyway, and I just have to rely on them giving me accurate information. It could make things easier for you if writer and retailer combined to plan things so as to ensure you could easily find what is recommended but I am instinctively wary of such a close and cosy relationship.

There are other twists to this awkward business of trying to give information that is both accurate and impartial. The other day I was sent a range of unusual wines by their UK importer and asked for feedback, which I gave. I told the importer I thought the wines were well made but overpriced. He then asked me at what price I would consider them worth recommending as he was prepared to reduce prices. I withdrew from this unseemly negotiation.

Any purple pager reading this is invited to send feedback on this tricky and potentially tawdry aspect of wine writing. Would that I could just wave a wand and send everyone a bottle of everything delicious.