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.