wine rack on wall

Which national independent wine merchant should you buy from in the UK?

After over 20 years in the wine business I felt the time was ripe to let you know which independent UK wine merchant I think you should buy from, if you could only buy from one.
I’m doing this in part as I don’t cover this subject in any depth in my first book (Hosting Wine Tastings: How to Run Fun, Engaging Wine Tastings that Work Every Time), and it’s a question I am asked in wine tastings regularly.

After starting out on the shop floor in wine (lugging a fair few boxes around), moving through to wine e-commerce, and subsequently starting my own wine events company (still lugging boxes around), I’ve seen and dealt with all aspects of wine retail on both sides of the coin (as a supplier and customer).

I’m not focusing on supermarket wines for the purposes of this blog post, or independent local wine merchants, but rather the national offerings available in the UK today, as these are the merchants I’m asked about most often.

I should stress that I’m not saying my recommendations are that you only purchase from the independent merchant I’m recommending. I hope after you read this article you’ll have the best understanding of what is happening in independent wine retailing now. It’s my firm and true belief that if you understand how wine retail works you are best placed to get the best value and service.

Exclusives and non exclusives

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s key to understand that two principal offers exist in the UK wine retail market today. These are wine merchants that focus principally on exclusives, and those that focus on non-exclusives.

Exclusives are wines that are simply not available anywhere else. The wine merchant agrees a distribution deal with the winery or brand to sell their wine in the UK on the basis they are the only retailer of that wine or label.

Non exclusives are the opposite – the wine merchant agrees a distribution deal for supply but doesn’t insist on exclusivity, and sells the wine at the same time as other merchants.

In both cases these wines of course can be sold online, on a shop floor, over the phone (whatever selling routes the wine retailer has at their disposal).

For wine consumers, in the end we always recommend national wine retailers who focus principally on non exclusive pricing. Why? Because this approach to wine retail leads to honest, fair and more transparent pricing.

Exclusive wine retailing at its worst has become a breeding ground for highly questionable claims about price, designed to manipulate consumers into thinking they are getting a better deal than they actually are.

Classic examples of such claims, which I’ve seen past and present are below:

  • Listing wines at a regular retail price with a special wholesale or discount price for membership (when essentially no one buys or has ever bought at the regular retail price).
  • Offering to refund money if you find the wine cheaper anywhere else (you won’t find it anywhere else, it’s an exclusive but hasn’t been clearly marked as such).
  • Offering an introductory voucher or discount on an initial case, which is contingent on signing up to a monthly subscription service featuring wines which are subsequently at a higher cost.

This last point in particular is important. Some merchants funnel monthly subscriptions to you as the only offer, with others making it clear this is their preferred way for you to buy. Think about it – from the merchant’s perspective, hooking you up to monthly payments is great for their cashflow. Are these services good for your cashflow or needs though?

What if you drink more or less than the wine delivered? What if you don’t want the wines in the subscription package? What if you want to spend a little more on your wines in a certain month, and a little less in others? The merchants that focus on such subscription packages will stress that these are flexible and that their packages will ‘adapt’ with your requirements, but I’d beg the question, with the variables I’ve just described (which I know apply to all wine drinkers and not just me), do these packages really work?

I should say now for the record that I get the convenience of wine subscription services for a number of wine drinkers. People enjoy the convenience of not having to choose, and they trust (or hope to trust) that the merchants they have signed up to will focus on good value, good wines for their palate, and a great service. Wouldn’t it be great if such a wine merchant existed?

Subscription services should be a choice, not the de facto option, and this, in combination with other factors, really can make the difference between a richer, more fulfilling wine buying life.

So in addition to the above, what is it that wine consumers have told me that they’ve wanted over the years from their wine retailer?

In no particular order:

  • They want straight, honest pricing, from affordable to fine wines, with no hidden fees or commitments.
  • They want to buy in the volume that works for them, whether this is 1 bottle, 6, 12 or more.
  • They want to buy online, or speak to and buy from someone on the phone, or order via direct mail, or from time to time pop into a shop.
  • They want to mix the case as they like (when they are choosing bottles themselves).
  • They want fair delivery prices, and quick delivery.
  • They want a decent guarantee (a credit, refund or replacement for replacement for wines with a fault etc.).
  • They want a big, broad list with wines for all occasions, including the classics and more esoteric offerings.
  • They want helpful, committed staff.

Now there is one national wine merchant that essentially offers all of the above, and it’s the one that the other national wine merchants don’t want you to know about, principally as it’s a non profit mutual.
It’s called The Wine Society. For our money, it ticks all the boxes above, with the only caveat that it has one physical shop, in Stevenage, so you have to make a pilgrimage for those times where nothing but a physical location will do.

At the time of writing The Society (the world’s oldest wine club, established in 1874) has over 140,000+ members. To benefit from its services and offer all you do is join, and this couldn’t be easier or quicker. Just £40 (with £20 off your first order) gives you membership for life. You can sign up on the internet or over the phone on https://www.thewinesociety.com

Are the prices on The Wine Society’s website or in their brochure always the cheapest? No, not on every single occasion – other merchants may run promotions, have bin ends or have short term support from promotional or marketing bodies. For overall best value and service however (and in the round), we truly think it’s the number one.