ONE of the perks of being someone who writes about wine is the chance to whizz off to exotic places, often at someone else’s expense.
ONE of the perks of being someone who writes about wine is the chance to whizz off to exotic places, often at someone else’s expense. Next week it’s Verona; last week it was Stevenage.
I arrived early to discover that Stevenage has all the charm of a multi-storey car park; but a short walk away, in the middle of an industrial park, are the warehouses and offices of The Wine Society. Stevenage is truly blessed.
The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited, to give it its full and proper name, was founded in 1874 and moved to Stevenage in 1965. As a mutual society it ploughs any profits back into the business to the benefit of its members.
Membership is inexpensive, just £40 for life, and may be inherited. A few have been lovingly handed down through five generations. More and more people are joining, especially since 2001 when the society established a website (www.thewinesociety.com) and 2005 when it decided to let non-members surf it freely to discover what they were missing.
There are now reckoned to be around 117,000 active members who have ordered wine over the last 12 months.
The Wine Society may project an image of dependable, old-world personal service, but it is a slick, well-oiled operation, which, in my experience, offers unrivalled value for money.
The run-up to Christmas was especially successful, with an admirable increase in sales, year on year, of around 10%, the fourth year running when sales rose. Not bad in these straitened times.
Those warehouses are impressive too. The newest was opened three years ago and won an award for sustainability. Custom-built forklift trucks glide around almost silently and reach up to improbable heights.
The more personal side of the society is a modern office, where a bank of telephonists takes orders. Monday is the busiest day, not what I might have expected, but even on a quiet January midweek morning, over 300 calls had already been processed in the first three hours of trading.
The success of The Wine Society, however, is not primarily its tradition, nor even its personal service and keenly competitive pricing. It is the sheer quality of the wines it offers. Its buying team is the envy of the wine trade.
Events manager Ewan Murray and, until recently, head of buying Sebastian Payne, treated me to a tasting of 20 of the society’s own-label wines and then a few more for fun.
Full notes are on my blog (www.helensavage.com) but the bottom line is that every single line, without exception, was true to type. Some suppliers such as Gratien and Meyer in the Loire Valley and Alfred Gratien in Champagne have been selling wines to the society for more than a century, but only those who adhere to stringent quality standards can look forward to repeat orders.
And yet, as typical as these wines are, they are all packed full of character, and almost always are highly food-friendly.
Take just one example, The Society’s South African Chenin Blanc 2012, which has a lovely, fresh smell of ripe green apples, a creamy, mineral texture and aftertaste, but has the concentration to be the perfect partner for a huge range of fish, cheese or white meat dishes. And it costs just £6.50.
There are other benefits of joining The Wine Society. Around 12,000 or 13,000 people, members and guests take advantage every year of the hundred or more events and tastings it runs around the country, many of which are also opportunities for members to meet the people who make the wine sold by the society.
And as well as its own events, wine lovers can catch up with the Wine Society at other popular consumer shows too, such as those put on by The Wine Gang and The Three Wine Men. The Wine Society is not stuffy.
The traditional side is probably most apparent in what people buy. France still dominates, with over half of all sales and the single best-selling line is the society’s White Burgundy. The society’s Claret and Rioja run it close. Chile is the most successful “New World” option. Spain is probably the country with fastest-growing sales, but still lags a little behind Italy. Ewan feels that there has been a steady move back toward the classics in recent years.
The society’s London origins may mean that there are still more members crowded into the South East than any other part of the country, but the North East is now sufficiently well-represented that the society is able to maintain a depot in Durham, which processes several pallets of wine orders every week and delivers them courtesy of its own van. Orders of a case or more or over the value of £75 are delivered free.
I have to declare an interest in that I often turn to The Wine Society when I need supplies for the tastings and courses I offer in our region. It helps that they offer a substantial discount to members of the Association of Wine Educators of which I’m a member.
My children will buy their own membership if they have any sense. I have no intention of popping my clogs a while yet. And I might even be tempted to find an excuse to break another journey in Stevenage. The Society’s shop is superb. All 1,500 lines in the catalogue are available, plus a range of bin ends.
WINE OF THE WEEK
But one of the other great things about The Wine Society is that without the need to pay profit to investors, their prices are very competitive, as shown by other Marlborough Sauvignon, Stoneburn 2012, made by top producer Jane Hunter from grapes picked early to make a wine as crisp and zippy as possible.
Creamier than the society’s own label wine, but also with more mouth-watering citrus and gooseberry freshness, it costs a mere £7.25.
All that fine Beaujolais should be and more – lovely juicy red wine, with just enough tannin to support the generously perfumed, spicy, savoury, cherry fruit. Enjoy it with a really good pork pie.
It’s a lovely, heady dry white with all the tangy, passion fruit, gooseberry and green tomato flavours typical of Marlborough Sauvignon.