Over 176,500 wine drinkers in this country (and counting) do at least part of their shopping at The Wine Society. Unglamorously headquartered in Stevenage (you can see its big warehouses on the left from the windows of trains heading north on the East Coast line), the 147-year-old mutual is an institution: a trusted place from which to buy wines, from a cheap sauvignon-viognier from southern France (at £ 6.75, Duo des Mers is one of its top three white bestsellers) to en primeur claret.
TWS’s list brims with quality, cheap night-in options and exploratory possibilities (lagrein, kadarka or susumaniello, anyone?). Thanks partly to its buying prowess – but mostly to its mutual status – TWS wines are also exceptionally good value. “Other wine merchants must find it very annoying,” as a colleague once muttered.
In short, if you drink wine and you are not a member, you’re making a mistake. (And there’s no Old Boy procedure to go through if you want to join: you simply buy a £ 40 share and get £ 20 back to spend on wine.)
What The Wine Society hasn’t traditionally been very good at – all right, I’ll go further and say it’s been awful – is modernization. Can you imagine a non-banking website that when you forget your password insists on posting one out to you before you can place an order? That’s what TWS’s has been like until now.
Behind-the-scenes logistics and IT were also, I’m told, antiquated. “The warehouse still works on a paper system, which is quite unusual,” says head buyer Pierre Mansour with beautiful understatement.
Over the past two years, however, the society has been through a gritty transformation to haul it into the 21st century. This has been overseen by chief executive Steve Finlan who, on joining TWS in January 2019, found an organization that, having always put good wine at the heart of everything it did, was doing wine superbly well – but in other ways was, in his words, “in danger of hitting the buffers”.
Finlan says its cooperative status had been a big sticking point. “Of course, we’re a not-for-profit organization and that philosophy led to significant underinvestment for quite some time. [I had to] turn that a little bit to say, ‘You know, profit isn’t a dirty word; we need to make enough either to invest in great wine at great prices or to provide the best possible service. ‘”
The pandemic made matters harder and also easier. TWS had an extraordinary year in 2020, processing 951,000 orders (up 40 per cent on the previous year) and invoicing 987,000 dozens of wine (up 30 per cent). This torrent of orders put the very systems in need of updating under pressure – but it also helped to pay for a £ 20 million four-year program of investment in IT, delivery systems, corporate responsibility, green energy, member services reorganization and a new warehouse.
The pace of change has been fast and it has been noticed; Finlan says he was “amused” when, against type, TWS won Dynamic Retailer of the Year at a recent awards ceremony. This process of evolution is allowing TWS to play catch-up with the more 360-degree level of engagement offered by newer companies such as Littlewine and the Sourcing Table.
It will be most visible in a new website – which, if it hasn’t already launched by the time you read this, will be live by the end of the month – and in slicker ordering systems that will allow, for instance, members to withdraw single bottles from cases they may have in long-term storage so they can check how a wine is aging.
Finlan has also dropped the charge for next-day delivery and says he dreams of getting rid of the small-order delivery charge as well (delivery is currently free on orders over £ 75). “I have this vision that with next-day delivery free, whatever the quantity you order, we could be somebody’s virtual wine rack, but my finance director tells me it would be the wrong thing to do.”
More than half the wine sold by The Wine Society comes from France, but members also enjoy ranging further afield. Mansour says that over the past two years South Africa has gained “huge momentum”, with producers such as Kanonkop, Meerlust, Vergelegen and Warwick Estate doing particularly well.
“Greece has gone nuts, with sales up 115 per cent, albeit from a small base,” he adds. “There’s been a high level of interest in Lebanese wine and a big growth in sales of Austrian wine, mostly grüner veltliner, but a couple of reds in the lighter, fresher style that is fashionable at the moment have also done well.”
Those Austrian reds are from TWS’s own Society range: The Society’s Blaufrankisch (£ 9.95) and Familie Mantler Zweigelt (£ 8.50). He says port – all styles, from tawny to vintage to LBV – has also been popular over the pandemic.
Wine Society members have also been getting to know the buyers a little better. There have been pandemic Zoom tastings and a YouTube video series “A Glass with Marce!“(That’s Marcel Orford-Williams, who buys from the Rhône, southern & regional France and Germany), which attracted a cult audience. Other buyers have been recording 50-second videos to go online explaining why they have bought particular wines.
I gather Mansour – quiet, reassuring and gentlemanly; a kind of Gareth Southgate of wine – is particularly popular. Finlan suggests he might have a lot of female fans. “I don’t know where that’s come from,” Mansour says, poker-faced.
In a former position as retail director of M&S, Finlan says he was “mobbed” in stores by women demanding sleeves on dresses. What do the equally vocal and proprietorial Wine Society members ask for? “We get an enormous amount of contact about social responsibility, particularly diversity and social inclusion.”
Innovations here include a commitment to put 10 different candidates through Wine & Spirit Education Trust training courses, taking them from entry level 2 to diploma level. It is also building an eco warehouse and developing its own sustainability scorecard that will help members who wish to use these principles to choose wine.
Part of the overhaul has involved a realization that one day the society may not be able to continue to grow and have to close its membership list. So that’s another reason to join: a TWS share might become the hottest ticket in town.
Wines of the week