Who’s the daddy?
Susie and I are lucky enough to experience a whole range of wine retailing. Whether it’s filming Saturday Kitchen, sourcing wines for our school or events, attending tastings, doing online research, popping into a local wine bar or independent, or just picking up wines for everyday drinking or putting away, we see a fair bit of the UK wine scene.
And a fascinating place it is, too. It’s a difficult choice to pick a favourite (and of course you can’t get everywhere) but there are definitely stand-out names.
I ask the question not just out of personal interest. This year I’m privileged to be chairing the Decanter retailer of the year awards – and it would be great to hear a broad range of perspectives on your favourite UK wine sellers.
I suppose, when you hear the question, it raises another one: what is the most important thing when it comes to the wine buying experience?
I’d suggest that keen pricing (including attractive discounts) is right up there for most people, with perhaps efficiency a secondary but important factor. This might give the bigger scale supermarkets and merchants the edge.
But buying wine isn’t like other purchases.
It can, if we let it, have an element of luxury and indulgence to it. I think most wine lovers, if they can find the time, like to feel a bit pampered when they’re buying wine – be it an informed chat with staff or surveying delightful bottles (many of which are probably out of our pricing comfort zone). A good range is also a fabulous thing to behold – and makes choosing a delight, albeit often an impossible and costly task.
When I asked this question via twitter recently, responses varied from Asda (‘3 for £10, mainly’) to the Wine Society, Majestic (‘helpful & knowledgeable staff’), Berry Brothers & Rudd to specialists like VineTrail and a host of local independents like Bottle Apostle, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Caviste and T Wright of Norwich (‘been around since 1896 and boy do they know their stuff’).
Is this a sign of a healthy, diverse wine retailing scene in the UK?
On one level, yes. It seems there are most things for most people. Supermarkets remain strong but specialists, independents and online operations can all carve out a sustainable niche, as long as they do a good job and foster loyalty.
But there are worrying signs too.
An ever-increasing tax burden is sending prices up, depressing an already relatively flat wine market and, according to many retailers, sending value-conscious shoppers towards more lightly taxed ciders, beers and alcopops. Such is the ruthless focus on the bottom line by UK importers and retailers, the result of driving prices down to fuel our bargain-conscious market, that many wine suppliers are starting to look elsewhere to sell their wine more profitably.
The result could be that the UK starts to lose its status as one of the pre-eminent wine (and fine wine) markets of the world, and starts to resemble a sad and tawdry bargain bin in a lonely service station forecourt.
There is a solution, though, and it’s in our hands.
We need to be proactive to keep the ‘great’ in Britain’s wine market. Most importantly, that means supporting the people who do a good job by shopping there. But if also helps if we champion our favourite wine retailers once in a while, and help them give suppliers a fair deal as well as deliver decent wine to us at a fair price.
Otherwise we risk the loneliness of the forecourt bargain bin.