Monday, 20 April 2009

State of independence - Surrey's wine merchants

They may not have been demonstrating in the streets during the G20 summit, but independent wine merchants in Surrey are on a mission to free wine drinkers from the dead hand of the supermarket and multiple chain. With their help, we wine drinkers can cast off the shackles of the BOGOF and 3for2 offer and dare to explore new wine horizons in search of true wine value.

I have just spent an enjoyable day talking to a small cross-section of Surrey’s independent wine merchants, finding out what makes them tick and what keeps them going, despite the onslaught of the deep discounting behemoths. What struck me most, talking to these people, is their passion for wine and their desire to share it with as many people as possible. And, while they show no lack of ambition, it’s probably also true that few of them are going to grow hugely rich by selling wine. In fact there’s a well-worn saying that the way to make a small fortune in the wine trade, is to start with a large one.

Supermarkets lure customers with 3 wines for £10; and research has shown that the number one deciding factor on which wine to buy is a price promotion, above grape variety or personal recommendation. So how can the independents hope to compete?

The answer seems to be that there is a loyal band of wine drinkers who are prepared to look beyond the BOGOF. These people value the effort a wine merchant has put into choosing their range and trust them to offer advice, service and “real value” wines, as well as a genuine interest in their customers.

Do you have to spend more at an independent wine merchant? If you’re looking for 3 for £10 wines then the answer is generally yes. But from around £5 a bottle, the choice for a curious and interested wine shopper is far more inspiring than the supermarket wall of wine. And, interestingly, though all the merchants I spoke to offer wines from around £5 and up, the average amount people spend on a bottle ranges from around £7, up to £12 or so.

This statistic seems to back up what I heard the merchants saying to me today: people come back to them again and again. So customers might start off looking for the bargain bottles, but as they build up trust with the merchant, they’re willing to trade up and spend a little more.

Should we be spending more on each bottle of wine? On average we are loath to pay more than £4 a bottle in this country. Of the average price of £4.18, £1.57 and 55p are duty and VAT respectively, leaving just over £2 for the wine itself – including the bottle it comes in, shipping costs and any marketing overheads. The actual amount that could realistically be spent on what’s actually in the bottle is, therefore, closer to £1 at best. As the £4 is an average amount, there are plenty of people spending even less. How anyone makes wine that sells for £3 or under is something of a mystery to me and is clearly not sustainable. Someone has to be losing out – not least the wine drinker, I would argue.

Independent merchants, on the whole, fully understand that they cannot, and would not wish to, try and compete at the bottom end of the market. Their customers are probably already interested in wine and value the input of someone who can help them discover new ones, often with bottles on tasting at the shop. Or they could even track down something they wouldn’t normally stock. We’ve come to expect services like free delivery and glass loan, but independents frequently also offer tastings of their wines and/or special events. Last but not least, the actual shopping experience is enjoyable, a world away from throwing a couple of bottles in along with your weekly supermarket shop.

What do we want? An inspiring and interesting selection of wines that represent true value for money and which help support our local economy! Well I don’t think anyone will be chanting that any time soon on the streets of London, but it’s a start.

Who is your local wine merchant?
Les Caves de Pyrène, Artington, Guildford – eclectic selection of “real wines”, including many organic and biodynamic producers.
Guildford Wine Company, Shalford – friendly and knowledgeable local merchant with a broad range to appeal to a wide local customer base.
Ranmore Wines – a new venture expanding its smallish, hand-picked range, with a good selection of fizz from a former Champagne-only specialist.
Taurus Wines, Bramley – a broad but carefully-chosen range from around the world and plenty of expertise in wines for weddings and parties.
The Vineyard, Dorking – broad range of wines and prices in a welcoming, smart shop and the biggest selection of Amarones I’ve ever seen.
The Vineking, Reigate and Weybridge – a huge range (especially in the larger, newly-opened Weybridge shop) of anything but dull wines, chosen by a Viking (I kid you not).

There are many more, including: A&A in Cranleigh, Arthur Rackham in Burpham, Imbibros in Godalming and Farnham, Haslemere Cellars, Vicki’s in Chobham...the list goes on. Find your nearest merchant by Googling “independent wine merchant Surrey”.

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