The Wine Society - raising a glass to the world’s oldest wine club

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 April 2020

Wine 'sleeping' in the 'museum bin' (c) Richard Washbrooke

Wine 'sleeping' in the 'museum bin' (c) Richard Washbrooke

Richard Washbrooke Photography

Stevenage may not sit among vineyards, but it is home to the world’s oldest wine club with a unique approach

Members' reserves in storage at Stevenage. The site currnently holds 7.5 million bottles (c) Richard WashbrookeMembers' reserves in storage at Stevenage. The site currnently holds 7.5 million bottles (c) Richard Washbrooke

Sometimes in life, good things can come out of disaster. Just take The Wine Society. Today, the Stevenage-based organisation has more than 145,000 active members across the UK, all part of a unique co-operative that offers quality international wines at sensible prices. But the organisation may never have started at all if it hadn’t been for a forgotten shipment.

In 1874, Portuguese wine producers shipped vintages to London for an International Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall, but an oversight led to the bottles languishing deep in cellars beneath the venue. With Portuguese anger at not being showcased, a diplomatic incident looked inevitable. That was until Royal Albert Hall architect, Major-General Henry Scott and a renowned ophthalmic surgeon R. Brudenell Carter came up with a solution.

Together they set up a series of prestigious lunches with tastings of the Portuguese vintages. So successful were they, that the pair founded an organisation so wine lovers could try the best international wines at the fairest prices. Now, 146 years later, The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society still believes that good wine from around the world shouldn’t cost the earth.

‘Passion before profit’ is the society’s mantra. There are no external shareholders making demands and buyers are free to buy wines they believe in. And there are no fake discounts. Margins are low and profits put back into both lower prices and improved service for members.

Buyers Freddy Bulmer and Joanna Locke discuss new products (c) Richard WashbrookeBuyers Freddy Bulmer and Joanna Locke discuss new products (c) Richard Washbrooke

‘Even back in the 1880s, we were selling wines from countries as diverse as Argentina and Syria,’ reveals public relations manager Ewan Murray. ‘One of the original objectives of The Wine Society was to introduce “wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country”. And we’re still at it, with wines from Morocco, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay.’

The Wine Society moved from London to Stevenage in 1965, enticed by tax breaks and grants offered to companies wishing to move to the new town. Stevenage was ideally located for the society to spread from its then heartland of London and the south east. Today, it employs 220 staff including drivers based in Stevenage and around the country. It has delivery hubs as far apart as Crawley and Edinburgh, Newcastle and Bristol.

Membership has grown steadily, much of it coming from members’ recommendations. You must be a member to buy from the society, but just £40 signs you up for a lifetime.

Giovanni Manetti, owner, grower and winemaker at Fontodi Chianti Classico in Italy (c) Richard WashbrookeGiovanni Manetti, owner, grower and winemaker at Fontodi Chianti Classico in Italy (c) Richard Washbrooke

‘We’re now looking to grow a little more quickly in order to invest in the infrastructure we need to future-proof the society,’ says Ewan. ‘We’re re-investing in our website and also expanding our cellars for the first time since 2009.’

Work begins this year on Warehouse No 5 which will almost double capacity from the 7.5 million bottles currently held at the Gunnels Wood Road site. More than 400 solar panels were also installed in 2012, and the society is looking to adopt other eco-friendly measures to reduce its carbon footprint.

How does Ewan think Brexit will affect wine purchasing?

‘There’s no way to tell yet what impact Brexit will have on wine prices and consumer spending, but we’re an agile company and will do the right thing by our members, whatever is thrown at us. After the 2007 crash, there was a very gloomy outlook, but the society performed well through a mix of loyalty from our members and transparency from us in our actions.’

The Cellar Showroom - members can drop in to sample new vintages (c) Richard WashbrookeThe Cellar Showroom - members can drop in to sample new vintages (c) Richard Washbrooke

In January 1993 when the European Single Market was created, The Wine Society was the first UK wine merchant to set up shop across the Channel, first in Hesdin in Pas de Calais before moving to Montreuil-sur-Mer in 2005. But by 2016, the economies simply didn’t add up and the decision was taken to close its French operation. Online sales however, launched in 1999, have continued to grow and today account for around 80 per cent of sales.

A browse through the website is an absorbing and addictive experience. Not just for the wealth of liquid temptation on offer, but for the articles on grape varieties and growers, the regional guides and recipes. Members can also sign up to a wealth of events that include lunches and dinners, wine workshops, tutored tastings and informal tastings, not just in Stevenage but around the country.

‘Historically we have held around 150 wine events each year, but this is going to rise to almost 300,’ says Ewan. ‘As a distance-selling organisation, it’s important to us to meet our members face-to-face as well as online and over the phone.’

Wine Society tasting event at Stationer's Hall, London (c) Richard WashbrookeWine Society tasting event at Stationer's Hall, London (c) Richard Washbrooke

Many members love to drop by the attractive Cellar Showroom at the Steveange site to browse for favourite or new vintages, and to discuss their requirements with the expert team. Showroom manager Lisa Fletcher has worked for the society for 31 years and helped set up the French shop in Hesdin.

Ask about her favourite wine moment and she dreamily recalls tasting the society’s Exhibition Sauternes ‘and eating foie gras at 9am on a bright sunny morning amongst the very vines that produced the wine.’

Tastes and trends change of course. ‘Prosecco and pinot grigio always seem to grab the headlines, but you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before finding your prince,’ laughs Ewan. ‘The Wine Society goes to where the value lies. Spain is our fastest growing country – not just Rioja but exciting regions like Galicia, Catalonia and Valencia. Society members like to explore, so we have found great value too in lesser-known wine countries such as Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

‘Fortified wine still sells well at the society, though appears to be on the decline elsewhere. But sherry remains, to our mind, one of the most versatile and value-for-money wines there is. We stock 22 of them, from bone-dry fino and Manzanilla to sticky sweet PX.’

So as The Wine Society approaches its 150th birthday in 2024, what do they predict for the coming decade?

‘The mantra of “drink less but drink better” will almost certainly continue to spread,’ says Ewan. ‘People are increasingly health conscious, but they also enjoy good wine. We can see already that while consumers may be reducing the amount of wine they are drinking, they are trading up in order to get a more pleasurable experience.’

With quality produce, margins low, suppliers well looked after and partnerships long-term, it’s a business model that has worked for 146 years. We can raise a glass to that.

For a lifetime membership for a one-off fee of £40, including £20 off your first order, visit thewinesociety.com or the Cellar Showroom in Gunnels Wood Road, Stevenage.

NOTE: Deliveries are currently suspended due to the issues caused by the coronvirus, visit the website for the latest updates.

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