Restaurants Wine articles

Is the Wine Society evil?

dr-strangelove_00337070Of course it isn’t! For a start they don’t have a Dr Strangelove-style war room in Stevenage with a world map covering in blinking lights. But if I was an independent wine merchant I wouldn’t be too happy with this institution. The Wine Society has an advantage over most other merchants for two reasons: 1) it has massive buying power being the second (or it might be the third) biggest mail order wine company in the country after Direct Wines (Laithwaite’s et al); 2) it’s a mutual society owned by its members so it doesn’t have to make a profit for shareholders. All the money is ploughed back into the society. In the £6-15 bracket, it cannot be beaten on price. Unlike other wine businesses with huge buying power such as supermarkets and Majestic, it does not discount so the price you see is the best price. I lose track of the number of times I’ve spoken to a wine merchant who has sighed wearily when I’ve pointed out how the Wine Society does it for £2 cheaper.

Where the Wine Society differs from other big institutions, Tesco’s, BBC, Amazon, who make it hard for smaller players is its lack of ambition. Whereas one imagines that Amazon does have a war room with each blinking light representing a bookshop to be snuffed out, the Wine Society are not planning to sell every bottle of wine in the UK and then Ireland and then Europe. They’re expanding very slowly. Nevertheless they do undoubtedly take business from smaller merchants and if I was a wine merchant I would avoid stocking anything that the Wine Society also stocks. As a wine writer whose readers are interested in value – I’ve been told off by the editor of the Lady for recommending anything too expensive – it’s often very hard not to write about them. It doesn’t help matters that their PR people are so good, their staff so nice and don’t get me started on the vast sums they pay me to write for their newsletter. Because of this temptation to stick with what I know, I make a conscious effort to sniff out interesting wine from small merchants. Not out of any patronising notion that I should support indies but because it keeps the column interesting. The reason I don’t feature many wines from supermarkets is not because they are big but because they’re not very interesting to write about.

One merchant, Red Squirrel Wines, has gone further and thinks that writers should not feature wines from the Society at all because it is a club. He likens a wine columnist featuring the Wine Society to a restaurant critic writing about Annabel’s. It’s a funny comparison but doesn’t really bear a closer look. To join Annabel’s you need a proposer, a seconder and then your membership application is put before a committee. You also need to pay £1000 to join and £1000 a year thereafter. Anyone can join the Wine Society for £40, you don’t even need a friend to propose you. If you’re interested in wine, then it’s not a big outlay. By Mr Red Squirrel’s logic, a television reviewer shouldn’t write about programs on Sky as you need to subscribe in order to watch them. 

Even if the Wine Society was as exclusive as Annabel’s, I might still like to read about it. I read restaurant reviews of places that my only chance of getting a table would be to sleep with the maitre d’ – and be really good.  I read Jancis Robinson’s vertical tasting of Sassicaia. I watch Jeremy Clarkson driving very expensive cars very very fast. I read about lots of things that I cannot or have no intention of sampling. One of the reasons that wine columns can be dull is that they’re perceived as shopping lists rather than entertainment.

Wine articles

Your prejudice won’t keep you warm tonight

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

“Your prejudice won’t keep you warm tonight.” – Steven Morrissey

Prejudices are wonderful things. You can tell a man by his prejudices.  A prejudice is a one off judgement that you hold onto for the rest of your life. They can be irrational but they can also be based on a good piece of evidence e.g. I went to the White Horse in Parson’s Green and didn’t like the braying twats at the table next door ostentatiously arguing over who would pay the bill: ‘no seriously Jasper, fuck the fuck off, I’ll pay’ one of them said waiving his gold card at the nonplussed waitress. From this you can deduce that all former public schoolboys are wankers. Congratulations, you now have a prejudice. Luckily it’s a socially acceptable one so you won’t get arrested for tweeting about it. I’d like to add that it’s not our fault we speak so loudly. If every day of your life someone had shouted ‘speak up Jeffreys! don’t mumble!’ then you too would have a loud braying voice. Anyway I digress, prejudices!

I used to love my wine prejudices: Australian wine is jammy, English a joke and Pinotage unspeakable. When I became wine writer for the Lady I decided to confront them head on. I would go out of my way to drink wines that I would normal avoid. I take my duties extremely seriously and don’t want readers missing out on the fabulous world of wine because of my bigotry. I wrote last year:

“This year I’m to approach all wines with an open mind including ones that I normally avoid. This means you Pinotage, Australian Shiraz and any still wine from England. I will be become an equal opportunities taster, celebrating the diversity of the wine world rather than taking refuge, little Englander-like, in the comforting flavours of the old world.”

So how have I got on? Well I think I might be up for a Commission for Racial Equality award because I doubt there is anyone doing more to celebrate diversity in wine than me. Australian shiraz? Well not only do I now love Australian wine but I’ve learned to love that big rather malty style of shiraz that I used to think was vulgar. It’s not vulgar – it’s just plain delicious. This year I even fell for the ne plus ultra of Oz shirazes, the Dead Arm from d’Arenberg. Tick!

With English wine I wasn’t doing quite so well, I’d had lots of very good sparklers and some reasonable stills, but then last week I had an English chardonnay, Gusbourne Guinevere 2011, that tasted blind I would have said new wave Australian – very dry, very chic, and expensive – superb stuff. And if you’re a fan of very light German reds, their Pinot Noir isn’t bad either. Tick! Another prejudice down.

And Pinotage, well I have tried. I’ve really tried, I’ve drunk lots and I’ve drunk them with an open mind. I don’t want to dislike it. I like nothing better than being a contrarion. It would be cool to champion this underdog but sadly I haven’t found anything that I would want more than one glass of. Still the Warwick Old Vine Pinotage wasn’t bad – nicely smoky, smooth and with only the smallest whiff of burnt plastic.

The best thing about prejudices is that as soon as you demolish old ones, some new ones spring up. My latest is New Zealand Pinor Noir. I’m just not convinced and I’m really looking forward to being proved wrong.