Are you a bargain hunter, a new-experience seeker, a drinker-in as well as taker-out, someone with thirsty friends or friends to impress?
Whoever you are – we can help you buy wine better.
Buying wine isn’t easy. So much choice, so little time – but getting the right bottle, and the right experience, makes a big difference.
To help inform, guide and hopefully inspire you, we draw not only on our personal experience (confession: we buy too much wine) but also Peter’s experience of chairing the Decanter Retailer Awards, a major UK competition whose 2021 results have just been announced.
We ask Pierpaolo Petrassi MW of UK supermarket Waitrose and Paola Tich of small independent merchant Vindinista for their go-to ‘bang-for-buck’ wines. Susie goes large in Wilding, a new hybrid wine venture.
Plus we discuss discounts, wine in cans, subscription plans, diversity in wine, own labels, sustainability, virtual events and POTENTIAL WINE SHORTAGES.
Somehow, lampshades and frozé also get a mention. To correct the karma, we recommend two great value wines (as below). Enjoy!
NB: To see the Running Order/Chapter Headings, simply click on the ‘bullet list’ icon on the green embedded player above.
Les Routes Côtes Catalanes Rouge 2019, 14%
Tons of character, an ideal wine for hearty stews or for raising the spirits when the weather starts to close in… Peppery, plummy, dried flowers in the glass, with a delicious savoury spicy flavour profile. Great value.
Croatica Graševina 2020, Slavonia
Something a bit different but still excellent value. Juicy and moreish, with tons of green apple fruit flavour, really easy going.
Peter Richards MW (PR): What top tips would you give people looking to get the best wines and best prices at an independent wine merchant?
Paola Tich (PT): I would say an open mind is always a great start. If you go in thinking you only want to buy French or Spanish, in a shop like ours which is fairly small, we only have about 150 lines, sometimes we can’t offer exactly what you’re looking for. But what we can do is offer an alternative. And that’s where independents come into their own.
PR: That assumes a conversation, advice?
PT: It does but also on our tasting notes every bottle has a tag. And if we do say: if you like a Malbec, try this. If you like Rioja, try that. Because not everyone wants to have a long deep conversation in an independent. Some people do feel they don’t want to engage because they’re a bit nervous and that’s fine.
PR: You make a big point of organising your wines by style and occasion, rather than by region or country. Don’t people get lost? How does it work?
PT: Buying wine on countries is quite an old school way of doing things, given winemakers are doing so many things in places like Argentina – what if you’ve got criolla, pais, which is really light but you don’t know that? If you’re buying white Rioja – you may get a nice old-school Viura but you may get a Sauvignon one and have a bit of a surprise. So I think it’s a way of putting it into occasion and taste, is a better way for us because most people when they come in, we ask: what do you like to drink? And normally people might say Malbec or Rioja (that’s code for: I like something rich and smooth). That’s where we play well. It’s harder in a large supermarket because you don’t have people to explain it. And it’s a good shorthand and it makes sense. Because that’s what most people ask us for: I’m having chicken tonight, I’m going round to a friend’s, we’re having friends round tonight…we do say: how much do you want to spend? And they might say: well not much because these friends don’t care about wine. And that’s fine by us because we’ve got some good bankers for ‘thirsty friends’, open pour enjoy, nothing special or complex, just hugely enjoyable, and you’ll enjoy them as well as your friends.
PR: Thirsty and friends to impress. We all have friends like that I’m sure. But why should people shop in a small indie like you, rather than go to the supermarket or place a big online order? Sometimes people fear going to a small indie is going to cost them more, or take them loads more time?
PT: And I think we made a clear point never to compete with supermarkets. We can’t. We don’t just look for rock-bottom wines we can put on the shelf to hit a price point. That’s not where an independent like us plays. We look for really good value wines. The hardest part of my job is choosing the under-£12 wines, because they’ve all got to be wines that we drink and we enjoy. It’s not going to be there on shelf because that’s a good price and we just don’t care. We take a lot of care selecting the more value wines. But also it’s about the experience, the service: we know people, we get to know their tastes, we can make recommendations on what they like, we can steer them away from wines they absolutely won’t like. I think it’s personal service in an independent, we’re a single independent, that’s where our strength is as well. We know people. When people turn up and they’ve forgotten their card, we’ll say: we know you, you can pay later. If we don’t know them, we won’t say that!
PR: I’ll be popping round soon. Wonderful terms! You also do refill options, with wines on tap. How does that work: sounds great from a sustainability point of view, but what about shelf life, quality?
PT: We buy them in kegs. You do get long shelf life in kegs. As we know – we had to shut off our kegs, we stopped doing refills in lockdown, because we also got these kegs for our house wines for people to drink in. So we had a few months gap, and then we went and re-tasted them and they all tasted fabulous. Which was good news. Proved kegs actually have a decent shelf life. Benefits? We don’t go for the cheapest wines, you’re saving maybe 60p on a bottle. Not a massive saving but you’re bringing back the same bottle all the time. So yes a saving but also not using up that glass. It’s about sustainability: people buy their bottles from us. We don’t take any old bottle because we have a measurement in there, want to make sure people have their proper 750ml – or 500ml, we do a smaller format. We do them in Grolsch bottles which have a really tight cap. I’ve tested them out and if you keep the cap on, you can get 2-3 days out of them.
PR: What about bagnums and cans? Are they proving popular?
PT: The bagnums we’ve sold pretty much since we started. Back 8 years ago. There’s premium wine in there, we built up a big fan base for those. The rosé goes really well in the summer, because they’re portable, great for picnics, people take them camping, to concerts, events where glass bottles not allowed. They go well, because they’re portable and people know the product inside is good. Cans are still very embryonic. They haven’t quite caught the imagination of the customer, or our customer. Some other indepdendents feel the same way. It’s a lag – they will take off. At the moment, there’s the: ‘oh my God it’s in a can’ barrier. Also, 250ml in a can looks like a really small pour. So it’s trying to get peoples’ heads round that. We do one brand, AA Badenhorst, seriously good juice in the cans for the price. Once people get their heads round that you can pour it out of a can, you don’t have to drink it from the can, and if you want to share wine with a friend, they’re a good alternative. Two 125ml pours. So not just a sustainability thing, it’s also drink in moderation. If you want a glass of wine or two, to share or by yourself, a really good format for that. I’m not giving up on them, I hope to increase the range, but there’s a lot of money invested in them, there’s a lot of very poor product out there, I’ve just been tasting recently and there are some horrors out there. That’s also a barrier but we will get there. It will be a format that takes off.
PR: Which countries/brands/regions do you look for when it comes to getting the best bang for your buck?
PT: I always like Austria. Always provided really good wines. Austria doesn’t do cheap wines but does really good wines. If you’re spending, we start at £13.95, you can get really good wine. If you like silky reds, Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a really good experience. I also think, looking at less popular regions, you often get good bang for buck, a wine I’m fond of, £10.95, from Navarra, bit of age, seriously good. For those who want Bordeaux or old-school Rioja, I recommend it a lot: label great, old school, tastes good, it’s good value for the money. Or Bulgarian Pinot under £14: you can’t get good Burgundian Pinot for that money. Just looking, being prepared to try things outside a popular area. Or different country: Portugal – people think at the cheap end you get good value from Portugal, and you do, but also at premium end – you can get some really good wines from Portugal where you get some mediocre wines from Burgundy.
PR: Sounds delicious and sound advice. Paola, thank you for your time.
PT: Thank you.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): How to get the best value and quality in a supermarket like Waitrose?
Pierpaolo Petrassi MW (PP): I expect to be able to blindfold any customer in the wine aisle: they simply reach out and anything they touch will be good. Within that, you have to accept there’s value and value for money. We always seek to give the best possible value for money no matter what we’re selling. You have to also accept that customer expectations and taste vary hugely. But as long as they know roughly what they’re buying, I’d expect our Pinot Grigio to be both typical, good value, good quality, consistent and reliable. And the same would go for any other wine we sell.
SB: But people often need advice when it comes to wine buying. How do you get round that in supermarket setting?
PP: It’s difficult because, I mean, you and I are used to looking at that wall of wine and being able to decipher it quite quickly. But for the average consumer out there, it must be like being thrown into the cockpit of a 747 and being told to land it. It must be so confusing. So you use all the tools at your disposal from: publications, online content, we have Beer Wines Spirits specialists, we have about 300 of those, so not quite 1 in each shop but almost. Then you’ve got to try to use signage on the shelf as well. We try to use as many descriptors as we can, fine wine requires more explaining, tends to have bigger shelf barkers to say something about the wine so the customer knows what to expect.
SB: What about the thorny issue of offers, discounts, BOGOFS (buy one get one free)? How far can we trust them? Are they just cynical ploys on the part of retailers where wines are priced artificially high to be then discounted down to their real price. Duping their customers in the process. What’s Waitrose’s policy when it comes to offers and discounts?
PP: We’ve seen a move definitely over the last decade where discounts have become much shallower. You can’t escape the fact that, unlike countries that are larger scale producers of wine, wine isn’t something that the British customer would put naturally into their basket. It’s a discretionary category, a bit like confectionary: it’s not something you need for your weekly shop, it’s a bit of a treat.
SB: Do you think that’s still the case, it’s a treat?
PP: Wine is now the most popular drink in the UK. But it is definitely a discretionary category. And the difference it makes to a retailer is, if it knows it offers good value for money on wine, it can persuade a customer to cross the street and shop at that retailer. But it’s not typically something that every shopper typically puts in their basket. In fact, I’d argue that the majority of baskets in supermarket shops don’t contain wine. So it’s less than 50% penetration in virtually every retailer. So you do need to persuade the customer in some way to pick wine up. You don’t have to discount everything. But it is definitely one of those things that drives what we call footfall traffic in retail. So I think we’ve moved to a position where the discounts are much shallow, and that’s probably been driven by the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, Morrisons, seeking to become closer in price to the discounters. So they’ve adopted more of an ‘EDLP’ (every day low price) position on wine. But if you didn’t discount, you would not sell as much wine. So customers still expect to be tempted by a discount. But I haven’t seen a BOGOF in the industry for a long long time. Those were cynical, they were never worth the full price, but they disappeared a few years ago.
SB: So the BOGOF model won’t give you good value. But lower price generally would offer you value.
PP: Absolutely. What the retailer’s trying to do is tempt you into the shop. And they certainly would be able to tempt you in unless what they’re offering is competitive or even better than the market. So it’s a good place to start. You always want your customers to be a little more courageous than just shopping the aisle ends or offers. The more sophisticated wine customers do a balance of both or seek out value in another way. But for those who are les experienced, and let’s be fair that’s probably the majority still, an offer is a way to start the journey to understand what you’re going to buy.
SB: Forgetting the discounts: which brands, countries, regions do you look to to get the best bang for your buck?
PP: There’s no two ways about it. The really famous regions trade on their fame and the demand for those relatively limited appellations or regions means the prices you pay tend to be a little higher. That’s not to say they’re poor value. But the prices are higher. So aiming for those regions that are becoming better known…at the moment I’m personally excited by Portugal, incredibly exciting wines, South Africa offers great value, specific varieties I’m always excited by New Zealand Pinot Noir. A lot of great value in South America. A lot of areas to look at. As well as newer regions in Europe: Italy’s islands, or Puglia, definitely Spain away from Rioja, and southern France offers brilliant value.
SB: For all the bad things we’ve had from the pandemic and lockdowns, the fact you’ve gone further into events, you had your drinks festival online last year, has that allowed you more so to introduce people to visiting virtually a winery they may ordinarily never have done?
PP: I think so. It really took us by surprise: we decided to do it on a wing and a prayer, with no choice because we couldn’t hold an event in person. It surprised us how many customers were pleased to sign up, buy bottles, tasted with us online. It’s been a surprise, a revelation. It makes me wonder what the future looks like. The future appears almost to be perhaps a blend of the virtual and the actual as we work through the fact that Covid-19 is now endemic within our society. It’s opened our eyes, it’s a bit of a silver lining if I’m honest. The customers who have had access to these events have really enjoyed them. So I hope that despite the challenges we can continue to inspire customers in that way.
SB: The most important question of all: are we going to see wine shortages at Christmas?
PP: The situation is changing all the time. We had the Evergiven, the huge container ship stuck in the Suez canal. We had upwards of 30 containers on different ships that were stuck in the queue behind, trying to get through the canal at the time. We’ve been hit by challenge after challenge since that. The whole industry’s been working incredibly hard trying to resolve all of that in the lead-up to Christmas. And we’ve just been hit by driver shortages and fuel at the moment as well. So a lot to deal with. But I’d also say that, having seen this coming, we’ve accelerated our build-up of stock. And we will definitely not run out of wine at Christmas. The benefit of having, in the case of Waitrose, a very big range in most of our shops, means if there are any exceptional gaps on shelf, if you look slightly to left or right, there’ll probably be a wine that fulfils the requirement you’re looking for. So the industry will not run out of wine. Will there be some gaps? There might be, but we’re definitely trying to mitigate that. The pressure is on. But I don’t think we’ll run out of wine. We’re pulling out all the stops to avoid that.
SB: You heard it here, it’s not gonna be a booze-free Christmas. Thank you Pierpaolo.
PP: MY great pleasure, thank you Susie.