Where to Buy Wine
It may seem an unusual topic for discussion, but where you buy your wine can have a significant influence on the enjoyment it will give you. The majority of wine purchased today is sold by supermarkets, although this has not always been the case. This method of buying wine does have its advantages, but there are naturally disadvantages too.
Now completely dominating the market, the big supermarket chains have a strangle hold on both the consumer and also on many of their winemakers. Yet, in the UK in paticular, we do have something to thank the supermarket chains for. It was only a few decades ago that wine first appeared on their shelves, causing a revolution in the way wine was sold in the UK. Hitherto wine was sold by specialist merchants, and was the preserve of the professional or middle classes.
The presence of wine next to the teabags and baked beans made it accessible to millions of consumers who were previously entirely unfamiliar with it. Even today, it is probably through the supermarket that many of us purchase our first few bottles of wine. And many of us continue to use supermarkets as our main source, attracted by low prices, special offers, and familiar labels. For this reason wine remains any important part of any supermarket business. This department will usually have a large team of dedicated buyers, often including several highly-qualified Masters of Wine, ready to taste, select and develop new products. A supermarket tasting in the UK, such as the Sainsbury's trade tasting illistrated right, will feature hundreds of different lines, including everything from own-brand Champagne to classed growth claret.
I have several concerns with supermarket wine. Firstly, a regular wine drinker looking for interest in his or her glass will soon tire of the relentless onslaught of international varieties such as Chardonnay and Shiraz. The country of origin may be different, the labels may be different, the vintages may be different, even the prices may be slightly different, but the wines rapidly begin to all taste the same. This is because they are the result not of small scale agriculture or viticulture, but rather they are industrial products, made in the winery, not the vineyard, to a recipe. This is the main reason I gave up using my local supermarket as a regular source of wine so many years ago. Not because of absolute quality - there are almost always one or two good bottles to be found. Rather, I just got bored. In addition, I have concerns about the massive buying power these giants have. They hold a carrot to the winemaker, with a promise of massive sales should they produce a satisfactory wine, to a certain recipe, at a certain price. It is this last point that galls the most. It's not enough that here we have yet another wine that tastes just the same, but it is bought at a cost which sees the winemaker scratching to make a living, whilst the supermarket ensures it has a healthy profit. In a few years the supermarket moves on, leaving the vigneron with debts from the new equipment that the supermarket buyers insisted upon him installing, and no customers, having lost all his old buyers when the supermarket bought up his entire production.
A significant step-up from the supermarkets are the merchants, whether these are national or regional chains or small, local independents. Relying on these for the supply of some of your wine will result in a great deal more pleasure than shopping only at the supermarket.
The big chains have considerable buying power, and can therefore source interesting parcels of wine often at keen prices. They usually also carry smaller parcels of fine wine, of the sort rarely found in the supermarket. The same can be said for the small independent merchants. In this type of outlet you will usually receive excellent and knowledgeable service and advice. The staff will often have tasted the wines that they sell, almost certainly so in the smaller businesses, and will be able to give guidance accordingly. None of this happens in your local supermarket.
Developing a relationship with a local wine merchant can be extremely rewarding. Once the proprietor understands your preferences he may source and keep back wines that he feels may interest you. You may find wines open in store for you to taste. There will be other services available – glass loan, for instance. There may be wine storage facilities, newsletters, special offers and the opportunity to buy small parcels of fine wine, possibly en primeur.
Mail Order and the Internet
Looking beyond your local merchant, many businesses keep in contact with their customers across the country by means of regular mailings of their latest wine list. Getting your name on one of these lists will make available to you buying opportunities that beggar belief. After all, there are tens of thousands of different wines on sale today, why limit yourself to the paltry, familiar range encountered on the weekly shopping trip? How else will you be able to locate the rare and esoteric, such as the Hungarian wines pictured below? Only a specialist merchant will carry wines such as these. These same merchants may also maintain websites, which contain details of their current list and special offers. Many also support e-commerce, so you can order your wine online - email and the internet is an excellent medium for keeping in touch with your favourite merchants as well as a wonderful source of wine information. Delivery charges are usually quite fair, and the wine arrives on your doorstep within a few days. This is a perfect way to buy wine!
One of the most highly respected and reliable mail order businesses is the UK-based International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society, usually referred to more simply as The Wine Society. This co-operative society was created by a group of professionals in order to purchase barrels of wine that remained unsold following the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The society is still going strong, with over 200 000 members at the time of writing, although obviously the founders and early members have now long passed away. It publishes its well chosen list, which contains hundreds of wines ranging in price from just a few quid to several hundred pounds, three times a year. It runs a ‘Wine Without Fuss’ scheme, whereby customers can make direct debit payments and the Society mails out preselected cases of wine – a bit like a lucky dip in my opinion, although it appeals to many. There are storage facilities available to members, as well as frequent en primeur offers. The society has managed to keep abreast of new developments in technology, and now has a functional, user-friendly website - for members only, of course.
Many merchants, not just The Wine Society, make en primeur offers. These are opportunities to buy wine whilst still in barrel at the domaine, before it hits the market and the prices rise. Once you’re buying wine in this way it’s clear that you’re in deep, but it’s the best way to ensure your allocation of certain highly sought after wines. Wines are purchased (exclusive of duty and VAT) within one or two years of the vintage, depending on which region the offer concerns. Bordeaux vintages appear within a year of the harvest, whereas Burgundy and Rhône offers occur six months later than this. Once the wines are bottled they are shipped to the destination country, and once local taxes have been paid the wine can be delivered to your door, or to another storage facility should you have one available. Otherwise they may be held in a bonded warehouse, from where they may be sold on or exported, with no tax payments liable. See my feature on the en primeur system for more detail.
At the Domaine
Of course, there is no better way to get a feel for a wine than to actually visit the domaine where it is made, to feel the soil from which it sprang, and to shake the hand of the winemaker. Most wine producers, be they in France, Germany, California, Australia or anywhere else, will usually have some facilities to put on a small tasting, often with the hope of selling some wine. This may be in a well equipped and impressive tasting room, such as at many of the top Californian estates, or a small and functional cellar which is the more common scenario throughout much of France. As well as the advantage of tasting a number of cuvées and vintages before choosing whether or not to buy, there is also a financial advantage – the wines will often be for sale for considerably less than is asked by retailers in your home country. (Updated 26/11/11)