Wine society logo with devil hornsIt’s no surprise that wine writers and journalists almost unanimously sing the Wine Society‘s praises. After all, here is a retailer which does not have profit as its primary motive, is entirely owned by its members and exists purely “to make available to members the highest possible quality of wines and services at the best possible prices.” But just how widespread is support amongst the critics, and is the wine press in danger of losing its objectivity?

From Jancis Robinson, this April: “The UK-based Wine Society continued its biannual tradition of showing off the great value it offers its members”.

From Jamie Goode’s site over the past few months: “Two cracking Marlborough Sauvignons”, “the remarkable tenerife wines of suertes del marques” or “A lovely Kalecic Karasi from Turkey” – all wines from the society’s list but not all exclusive to it, something not made clear on the site.

Here’s Oz Clarke in Jan 2012: “The quality of their Sherries alone would be an excellent reason to join the Wine Society.” (Quoted on the WS site itself).

Victoria Moore in 2010: “The Wine Society strikes it rich. Again. – Membership of the Wine Society may cost £40, but for the wines it has on offer that’s something of a bargain” – although an earlier piece from 2008 expressed slight unease: “its mutual status means it trumps other people’s prices so often I find it embarrassing. Embarrassing, because I hate to recommend a wine as being good value at £12 only to have the society’s Ewan Murray email me to point out they have it at £10.50”

Tim Atkin’s site also regularly features wines from the society in the tasting notes section:

Then there are the awards – the soc regularly scoops up a clutch of prizes from prestigious bodies like the International Wine Challenge or the Decanter World Wine Awards. So far, so very good. Why not reward excellence where reward is due? But not everyone is won over so easily. David Simpson, owner of Market Row Wines in Brixton, posed a question on twitter recently – wasn’t there a conflict of interest with so many wine critics and writers being members of said organsiation, and continually bigging it up and only quoting its prices?

If most if not all Uk 'wine journalists' are members of the Wine Soc. are they able to then report and write about the Soc impartially?

Reactions ranged from the defensive to the bemused. I was in the latter camp, but a few days later, after I’d talked it through with Dave and another independent wine merchant, I was beginning to see that this wasn’t straightforward.

The Wine Society can be pretty aggressive on pricing when it wants to – and this is invariably at the lower end of its lines. That’s not a problem when the wines are own labels, or exclusives like Christian Moueix’s budget Bordeaux (£8.95, and very drinkable with it). But more recently, eclectic small-production wines more commonly found on boutique retailers shelves seem to be creeping into the Wine Soc list.

Take 7 Fuentes, a fantastically obscure red from Tenerife, made from the indigenous Listan Negro, and selling well at between £13.50 – £15 incl. VAT. Or now a mere £10.95 if you buy from the Wine Soc. A huge difference, maybe attributable to their buying power, or is this being priced to shift?

Or what about the delicious Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Pais (Marcillac)? A smart buy at its widely available £11-£12 price point. An almost insulting £7.95 from the wine society.

I can understand the frustration of wine merchants who have been hand-selling these wines, only to find the Wine Society steaming in and listing them at a price which makes them all look like crooks. And it rubs salt into the wounds, when critics only quote the society’s bottom line. Let’s not forget, that’s a price which

a) is only available if you have paid your £40 membership (yes it’s one time only, but nevertheless it’s not free)

b) is by the society’s own admission, effectively subsidised by profits made in former years

c) attracts a delivery charge unless you are ordering 12 bottles or more than £75 worth of wine

Surely this isn’t doing readers, or the trade, any favours – quoting a price which is impossible for any wine merchant buying by the case rather than the palate, and not available to the consumer unless they choose to become a paid-up member.

The question is, are journalists merely being lazy when they omit to mention other retailers, or is this part of some insidious campaign where members of the club promote its wares? I think most of us would agree it’s the former – but that doesn’t necessarily make it any better.

There are double standards here. If any of the afore mentioned high profile critics were to be as continually non-critical of major supermarkets, and as celebratory of their “good value” pricing, they would probably be hauled over the coal by their peers. But how different is the Wine Society? They tower above independents, in terms of buying power and volume – last year’s turnover was an impressive £92m.

Does this sound familiar:

  • Supplier-financed discounting
  • Effectively loss leading at the lower end (by subsidising price from former years profits)
  • Massively undercutting all other retailers selling the same product
  • Attractive budget offers, but not particularly competitive prices for luxury items
  • Managed to reduce its tax bill not just to nothing, but actually got a tax credit of £4,000 for 2012/13.

These are all practices which the society uses to boost its sales and tempt new members. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – it is, after all a business – not a charity. There may be no offshore bank accounts or shady corporate shareholders, but growth and profit are still important for survival.

The issue is less whether the society has questionable practices – I don’t think they do, particularly – but more the consistent whitelisting by wine writers, bloggers and journalists, who reserve their critical pens for more conventional retailers. This is dangerous, when a medium-to-large distance-selling operation like the WS can steal considerable business from physical retailers – especially if it starts to take an interest in niche wines which were previously the preserve of specialists.

The UK wine trade is experiencing something of a new dawn, with highly specialised importers and retailers introducing us to wines which are challenging, fascinating and enlivening. The society has its place in this ecosystem, but let’s not spoil it by favouritism (intentional or not) which does neither the writer nor their intended audience any favours.