Wine Society whitewash – evil plot or careless journalism?

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.

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    • andrew

      I fail to see the issue? The wine society is a merchant like any other. It may have a different setup but this allows it to charge differently from others. A post today by another independent clearly stated it managed to sell wines listed by the ws at higher prices and these were still that merchants top selling wines. Is the issue with writers not mentioning independents? An impossible task I think seeing how many there are, how difficult researching every single one would be and seeing how few words print wine writers have to play with. Annoying for the independent indeed but impractical in the actual world.

      • Andrew, I don’t agree. A casual look at Decanter shows the best example – list all the merchants selling the wine, and list a price range. Wine-searcher allows us to put this information together in 1-2 minutes.

        • Ewan Murray

          As The Society’s PR Manager, I can say that Decanter is the most thorough of publications/blogs/articles in this respect. They send a monthly email to every (?) merchant in their files highlighting wines to be featured in the forthcoming edition.
          I’m not sure how practical this would be for every writer. Wine-searcher is an option, but some merchants play the game by saying something is listed when it’s not simply to get traffic to their site. So I know several writers who have given up using it.
          I spend a lot of my time checking press mentions and highlighting to writers when we are stockists of the wine and yet not mentioned. (I tend not to do this, however, when we are not the lowest price – yes, we too are undercut, sometimes by Majestic, sometimes by supermarkets and sometimes by independent merchants.)

          • JC

            Interestingly, a London wine merchant recently told me that having their shop mentioned as a stockist in Decanter brings them almost no new business. There isn’t a perceptible increase in sales when their name appears in print.

      • Absolutely and as anyone under 80 is going to make a Google to find a wine, it maybe an incentive to get those Indys whose website (if they even have one) is still in 1990 to join the 21st century.

    • Interesting.

      You almost made me feel guilt at the devotion I feel towards the Soc!

      Two things for me:

      1) I don’t really buy by the bottle any more — it’s always a couple of cases or more at a time, and pretty much exclusively from the Soc
      2) As I’ve learned more about wine, and become prepared to spend more on a bottle (or seek out the off-the-beaten-path stuff) this has coincided with the Soc brilliantly sharpening up its communication. They produced a mini-list a few months back, full of obscurities and curiosities — and of course they were all brilliant, unusual wines.

      I love being a Soc member, and I love the experience of being a punter as well — the same friendly bloke has delivered every single order to me over the past 4 years.

      Perhaps I should dip into the local outlets a bit more.

      And yes, I do agree that the journalists should quote standard retail prices, rather than the Soc’s.

      • …also: I’m enlightened enough, and have a basic enough grasp of the economic realities, to see the per-single-bottle price in an independent merchant as always being a fair ask.

      • I’m *not* having a go at the Wine Society perse. They do what they do very well. But my point is that they and their business model should be judged fairly and objectively along with any other retailer – and the wine press does tend to forget that.

    • In a rare bit of syncronicity, I’ve just found this post, by another independent wine merchant. I think they’ve expressed what I was trying to say with more clarity – and much more from the horse’s mouth:

    • Geo issues aside really thrilled to see you call out 7 Fuentes, a long-term favorite of mine from the Canary Islands.

      Question does translate into ‘American’ to some extent.

      I believe that if possible bloggers should make it easy for readers to find the wines written about but honestly there is no resource that makes it simple to do so. Wine searcher is indeed a mess in my opinion.

      I have a tendency to buy at 2-3 shops and tend to link to them in the posts. With the small exception of direct imports, most wines are available cross NY and that means shippable most anywhere. I am showing some prejudice in that respect although most posts are attributable to the inspiration of a particular buyer at a particular shop and they are part of the story.

      What I’m doing more to mollify this and be more fair is to refer to the importer sites as well. The best of them are showing where the wines can be bought across the country.

      (Noticed that you have a new plug in for a mobile version of the site? If so, which one please.)

      • The joke of it is, I haven’t actually tasted 7 Fuentes yet! But I’m going to put that right ASAP.

        Btw the mobile plugin is just the WordPress mobile pack. But I’m not 100% happy with it – sometimes the switcher doesn’t seem to accurately detect whether you’re on a mobile browser or not. And I need a more attractive mobile theme I think . . .

        Still, better get the content right first 😉

        • Right that wrong and try 7 Fuentes and let me know what you think.

          My personal blogging rules are simple–only post on what I think not what I know and never bother to be negative unless I have a direction for a solution.

          See you in a few weeks.

    • @Jamie Goode (via facebook): Simon, your article is ill conceived. My job as a journalist is to point readers to wines that I like, and it makes sense for me to tell them where they can find these wines. To do otherwise would be perverse. With the fuentes, I tried it, googled it, and the stockist I found was the wine society, at a v good price. If I listed an independent £4 more expensive, that independent would be horrified. Instead, they start persecuting me on twitter for showing ‘favouritism’. That’s utterly nuts. Does that mean not telling my readers where they can find a certain wine at a good price? I’m utterly perplexed as to what I have done wrong.

      • JC

        As someone who has worked as a staff journalist and is now a part-time freelance journalist, I have to say it’s slightly poor form for Jamie to say he wouldn’t want to list another retailer’s price because it would be embarrassingly high. That’s not the journalist’s fault. And it isn’t the journalist’s job to make that call. The right thing to do is list several retailers, regardless of the price they charge, so readers can decide where they want to buy it. You’d be surprised how many people will pay a higher price if it’s more convenient (if I can walk to the end of my street to buy a wine I really want to try rather than wait for a Wine Society delivery, I’ll pay the extra few pounds).

        I think far too many journalists these days spend too much time second-guessing their readers’ intelligence levels.

        • Jamie Goode

          In my case, the wine society was the only stockist I could find online, but I do also give the winesearcher link for most wines

      • Jamie, as I said on facebook, this article isn’t trying to single out and have a go at anyone specifically. More just awareness raising.

        I have to counter your points however:

        a) Why ill-conceived? this is a topic that’s prompted much discussion throughout the trade, I’ve made an attempt to summarise the points, along with some facts to support my argument. You’re welcome to disagree with my opinion of course.

        b) If you reviewed Lafite, would you list Tesco as the only source, if they had the cheapest price? I doubt it.

        c) Surely you must have readers who aren’t WS members? So quoting the WS price is worse than useless for them, as they can’t access that price unless they join up.

        Why not go for the Decanter style – list the range of prices, and the retailers separately. That way the consumer can decide where to buy from, and whether to research the price in more detail.

        • Susan Woolf

          I find this subject interesting as we decided not to join the Society many years ago. Certainly, c) above is a point. When I’ve read suggestions by Jancis in the FT, I have been discouraged at so few wines listed for the vaired suppliers we use.

    • Ewan Murray

      On behalf of The Society, I’d like to comment on some of the points made.

      “Supplier-financed discounting”
      This does indeed occasionally happen, and when it does it is for a specific product or campaign, and is highlighted to our members as being the reason why we have such a good price (unlike other larger merchants / supermarkets who are often disingenuous in this respect).

      “Effectively loss leading at the lower end (by subsidising price from former years profits)”
      Shaving a point or two off gross profit margin across all wines is not loss-leading. It is effectively the dividend that members get from being part of a cooperative. This is explained to members when it happens (after all, we want them to feel good about being part of The Society. But don’t forget that it works in reverse too. When the financial world was turned upside down and exchange rates when bonkers 5 years ago, we put our prices up by between 18 & 30% in order to counter the exchange rate. Again, we were transparent, and members repaid that transparency with continued loyalty.

      “Massively undercutting all other retailers selling the same product.”
      Setting a reasonable price for the product based on what we pay, plus our margin, plus the services offered.

      “Attractive budget offers, but not particularly competitive prices for luxury items.”
      Agreed. We set out to have among the lowest prices across the board, but never rush in to be the cheapest.

      “Managed to reduce its tax bill not just to nothing, but actually got a tax credit of £4,000 for 2012/13.”
      Not sure of the implication here?

      “Growth and profit are still important for survival”
      Yes, but possibly less so for The Society than others. We are not only non-profit-maximising, but also non-growth-maximising. We focus purely on value to our customers (which is not the same as price).

      “… an interest in niche wines which were previously the preserve of specialists”

      The Society prides itself in being a pioneer in many areas of the wine world. Indeed we were founded on Portuguese wines back in 1874, an area for which our activity continues to receive accolades. We were the first UK importer of Musar back in the 60s, we have championed Uruguay, etc., etc.

      “… only to find the Wine Society steaming in…”
      It takes a lot of work, both in the field and in the tasting room, to get a wine to market. This makes us sound like we’re out to get independent merchants, which is simply not the case. We are who we are, with our business model. With 120,000 active members out of several million wine drinkers, we do not believe we are a threat to anyone. And with some 90,000 different wines knocking on the doors of the UK, there is enough to go around.

      With regard to writers, we work hard (as do other merchants) to ensure that we give as much up-to-date information as possible about our range, our services and our activities. This includes after an article, as well as before. It’s likely that many, on receiving an e-mail from us regarding the fact that we stock a featured wine and yet weren’t mentioned as stockist, think “Oh God, not them again!”. All writers want to get the facts right, and if merchants can help them do that, then more power to our elbow.

      For info, we get about the same amount of press coverage as BBR, Waitrose, Tesco, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Majestic. Testimony to the work we and all of these esteemed merchants and supermarkets put in to putting wines and services forward in an effort to get them publicised.

      • Ewan, thanks so much for these clarifications, very informative. And apologies for any inaccuracies in my original text.

        The reason for mentioning the tax situation was to draw a parallel with supermarkets (and corporate tax-avoidance schemes) – who *are* pilloried (rightly, in my view) for taking rather than giving, in pretty much every situation.

        As I’ve tried to make clear in the article, I’m not fundamentally having a go at the society. I’m also a big fan, and a member (I should probably declare that in the article!).

        My beef is that the wine press frequently doesn’t extend the same largesse to other large retailers as it does to the WS. And that to me is unfair, inconsistent or possibly even hypocritical.

    • It is mad to Wine Soc. bash (which is how this comes across, even if unintended) and madder to hold any journalist responsible for having to cover all stockists. If a wine is praised, any wine drinker can make a google and find it or go into their Indy and ask if they have/can get it. Buying from your local Indy by the bottle or 3 and the convenience that offers is totally different to buying multiples/cases, via mail order or on-line, then waiting for delivery etc. particularly from a place that requires membership. If over the years journalists hadn’t driven the masses into supermarkets for “value” (cough, ahem) and convenience or we had the wedish model of state control (heaven forbid), the wine biz wouldn’t have the discounting culture it is trying to combat. Horses for courses, different channels for different segments etc etc etc.

      • Hi Daniel,

        It’s not mad at all to question something which appears to be unquestionable.
        No retail channel or organisation should be above occasional criticism or evaluation.

        I’m not suggesting that journalists/critics/writers/bloggers exhaustively list every possible source that a wine is available from. What I *am* suggesting is that it is unhelpful (at best) to list only a price which is not available to non-members. As you’ve effectively said yourself in your comment.

        I agree with you about the supermarket issue, although I fear it is editors rather than journalists that are to blame.


        • Hi Simon – I’ll conclude by saying you could question (quite rightly) without appearing to bash. We are extremely lucky to have the Wine Society in the UK and anyone can join.