A version of this article about a most unusual wine merchant is published by the Financial Times. See also Tips from The Wine Society's buyers.
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.
Having a lifetime share in The Wine Society (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. The shareholders of this wine-buying co-operative are its members and its reassuring current motto is ‘passion before profit’. Whenever I report on a Wine Society tasting, I find myself liberally sprinkling GVs for ‘good value’ and quite a few VGVs.
Financial Times readers of a certain age will not have read as much as they deserve about The Wine Society. My predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell began his 23-year stint as chairman of the Society in the same year, 1964, as he started writing for the FT. He was scrupulous about not mentioning the Society in his columns. It was founded by a group of wine-loving professional men in 1874 and Edmund did much to modernise it, moving its headquarters out of a cramped central London office into a constantly expanding set of warehouses close to Stevenage rail station, north of the capital.
Members really do feel strongly about their wine. To facilitate social distancing of Society staff last March, they stopped taking and delivering orders for seven days while redesigning the workflow in their four warehouses. As a result, the CEO Steve Finlan was trolled by irate members.
The silver lining though was that the redesign dramatically increased the speed with which they could fulfil orders, hand-picking more than 3,000 of their customised 12-bottle cases (over 40% of which are mixed) a day – which is just as well since, despite doing no proactive membership acquisition for the last year, ‘COVID has gifted us new members so that we now have 170,000 active members [up from 155,000 pre-pandemic], a total we expected to reach in 18 months’ time’, according to head of buying Pierre Mansour.
‘Our wines are just selling out too fast’, according to PR manager Ewan Murray, ‘especially since we’ve been picking up slack from the on-trade. Our forecasters are tearing their hair out …’. Just ask the FT’s Alan Livsey of Lex. He put in his order for two of their less sought-after white burgundies just two days after their Burgundy 2019 offer opened, only to be told they had sold out of both of them.
The key to The Wine Society’s allure is not just the friendly profit margins, but the quality of the buyers. I was able to spend a day in their virtual company last month when the Society substituted consecutive online presentations by all eight of them for their usual spring tasting for wine writers – when they generally concentrate on less expensive wines than those shown in the autumn.
The 1,400-odd wines currently available are hand-picked for sheer quality, not for their producers’ willingness to pay placement fees or subsidise promotions. They have been dealing with some producers for as long as 40 years, but if a vintage of an old favourite comes along that they reckon is disappointing, they’ll skip it.
It was interesting to hear from the buyers about what is doing particularly well. The Society’s members – average age is moving downwards towards 47 – tend to be more traditional than average but the Society is far from irredeemably stuffy, as witness the countries cited below. They recently introduced wine in cans (a Swartland Chenin Blanc from South Africa), for instance, and Mansour bats manfully on their Instagram feed.
The team reported that rosé had been ‘huge’ over the last two years but red bordeaux is still their 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 wines outside the charmed circle of classed growths en primeur. (Another of their assets is their offer of high-quality, fairly-priced storage for members’ reserves – so long as the wine was bought from the Society.)
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 and if we do an enthusiastic email it’s difficult to keep up supply.’
He is also responsible for buying sherry and reports that their sherry sales were up by 24% last year, and the fans are both the decidedly mature and the Society’s younger, more trend-conscious members. ‘The big challenge [for sherry] is to appeal to the middle ground, those in their forties to sixties.’
Their newest, youngest wine buyer, Matthew Horsley – who has been in post for a year and is yet to travel further than his kitchen – reported with glee that their sales of English wine increased more than threefold in the past year.
He’s also responsible for Greece which, he says, ‘has been mad – up 200% in the last 12 months, led by the stunning Thymiopoulos Jeunes Vignes Xinomavro (£11.50) and Society’s Greek white (£8.95)’. They offer about 30 wines rather dully labelled and branded ‘The Society’s…’ and about as many slightly more expensive wines in their ‘Exhibition’ range labelled with a drawing of the Royal Albert Hall, where the Society’s first meeting was held.
Pierre Mansour buys Spanish wine and reported 10 years of growth, again especially of reds under £10, with their Sabina Tempranillo from Navarra at £6.50 one of their best sellers overall.
Being half Lebanese, he also buys their few offerings from the Lebanon. When they put a special Lebanese case together after the terrible fire in Beirut last year, they sold a year’s worth of Lebanese wine in three weeks.
The enthusiastic Freddy Bulmer, who buys wines from Australia, New Zealand and Eastern European wine too, reported that sales of ‘consistent high-quality’ Austrian wine have risen 118% year on year. ‘Grüner Veltliner can offer serious ageability for just £15 to £20 a bottle.’
The Society’s Burgundy and South America buyer, Toby Morrhall, is hugely 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, and whites with modishly extended contact with grape skins (the exciting Obscura Qvevri bottlings), the Society’s South Africa buyer, Master of Wine Joanna Locke, put on a tasting specially for him at Stevenage of orange and amphora wines.
Things are clearly going well for The Wine Society but their business was very nearly brought to its knees last Christmas by the unexpected national shortage of cardboard resulting from all our Amazon orders.
Thanks to the strength of the pound the Society expects to reduce some of their prices in May when they do their next pricing round. It was a blessed relief that, unusually, there was no increase in wine duty in the UK government’s recent Budget.
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 below may be useful wherever you are.
Especially good buys
I thought these 21 out of 48 wines presented recently by The Wine Society were either good value or very good value. Included in the prices is free delivery to most addresses in the UK with any order of more than £75.
Las Lomas, Undurraga Sauvignon Gris 2020 Leyda Chile 13.5%
Alpha Zeta, The Society's Pinot Grigio 2020 IGT Veneto Italy 13%
Familie Mantler Roter Veltliner 2019 Niederösterreich Austria 11.5%
Lubanzi Chenin Blanc 2020 Swartland South Africa 12.5%
£9.95 (or £3.95 per 25-cl can)
La Couronne, Jacques Mouton Madeleine Chardonnay 2020 Franschhoek South Africa 13.5%
Jean-Paul Brun, Terres Dorées Classic Chardonnay 2019 Beaujolais 13%
£12.50 (arriving 13 April)
Birgit Braunstein Pinot Blanc 2019 Burgenland Austria 13%
Undurraga, Candelabro Cinsault 2019 Itata Chile 13.5%
£7.50 (sold out but look out for the 2020)
Félines Jourdan 2019 Languedoc 13.5%
Rui Roboredo Madeira, Altos da Beira 2019 IGP Terras da Beira Portugal 13%
Ch Lary-Tagot 2018 Bordeaux 14%
Ch Ksara, Old Vine Carignan 2018 Bekaa Valley Lebanon 13%
Mancuso Garnacha 2018 Cariñena Spain 14.5%
£12.95 (not yet in stock)
La Rioja Alta, The Society's Exhibition Reserva 2015 Rioja (also sold as Viña Alberdi) 14.5%
Dom Sylvain Pataille, Les Longeroies 2017 Marsannay Burgundy 13%
Tasting notes and recommended drinking dates in Tips from The Wine Society's buyers. International stockists on Wine-searcher.com