I’ll just put this out there: I like the Wine Society a lot. I liked them even before they invited me over, let me try some wine and then fed me roast beef and really very good gratin dauphinois. They provided the wines for my wedding, and their mountainous delivery man, who is capable of carrying a full case of wine under each arm apparently without serious exertion, has been a fairly regular visitor chez CF ever since. Their prices are good, their range is excellent and the quality pretty reliable. And I like that they are a mutual, that they don’t seek to make profit for some faceless white-cat-stroking imaginary Dr Evil.
But they have an ageing customer base, steadfastly refuse to advertise and have only one shop in Britain, and that’s in Stevenage, and you can’t buy anything unless you’re a member (though anyone can join, for a one-off fee of £40). They are worried enough about their future to have invited a handful of bloggers to their Hertfordshire home, where they tried to impress us with their wines and to see if we had any clever ideas about how they can get bigger. So let’s run through the wines, quickly: they showed only a handful of their two own ranges, the basic Wine Society label, and the top-end Exhibition brand. All were pretty good representations of what they were (though the Chilean sauvignon blanc was a bit of a charicature), and the Exhibition range contains some absolute gems. They normally say who produced the wines (Craggy Range, say, makes two of their three Kiwi pinot noirs), but emboldened by this positive tasting I would buy anything bearing an Exhibition label with confidence. As we were told, “members count on us to never give them the chance to step in something nasty”.
So on to the future. I walked around, puzzled as to why they’re so keen to expand. The thing is, they’re already enormous. I kind of knew this already, but didn’t really appreciate it before getting the chance to look round their Stevenage warehouses. The quantities of wine they hold, and the amount that leaves them daily, are pretty awesome. Here’s some evidence:
The warehouse above is just one of four, albeit the biggest of them. The forklift trucks are so enormous that the only way of getting them inside was to bring them in in bits and build them right there. The scale of this place is basically incredible. They could be bigger, and there are probably quite a few wine lovers who’ve never heard of them, but this lack of ubiquity is also part of their appeal. They should be wary of becoming overly pushy, because they may find it counter-productive. The gentle, mannered Britishness of the whole enterprise might not be very 21st century, but it’s also, somehow, right. And the contentment of their existing members has to be the very greatest priority, given that their recommendation is the Society’s only form of advertising.
But, since they’re asking, this is what I’d like them to do: Open a Wine Society House in central London. A wine shop and relaxed eaterie (no tablecloths) on the ground floor,; a big, comfortable sitting area upstairs, where people can sit in small groups, chat, drink wine, play cards, whatever; some kind of large-ish area for public tastings in the basement and a couple of private meeting/drinking rooms somewhere. Members only, though they can bring a few guests. Ideally a late license. Orders can also be made for collection from the House, or be made there for home delivery. And if it works, smaller versions in other cities. That’s all. I’d come, often.