Laithwaites Chateauneuf du Pape
and The Wine Society are, respectively, one of the biggest and the oldest in the online wine-by-the-case business. In 1969, after a holiday job working in the vineyards of Bordeaux, Tony Laithwaite drove a van filled with wine back to the UK, hoping to share his enthusiasm for delicious, authentic, locally bottled wines. Today his company delivers a range of some 1,400 wines to more than 700,000 customers. Founded in 1874, The Wine Society sells over 600,000 cases to its 125,000 members, with a range of 1,500 wines.
Both companies buy direct from growers, so there are no agents’ fees and, as well as their countless special deals and bin-end offers, they typically reward their customers for buying in bulk. Crucially, the close, personal relationships these companies develop with their suppliers gives them access to hand-made wines, produced in such small quantities as to be of no interest to the supermarkets. Indeed, the majority of wines stocked by Laithwaites and The Wine Society are exclusives. Consequently, their wines tend to be more idiosyncratic, tasting of where they come from (terroir), rather than “big-brand bland” and same-y. This exclusivity also makes direct price comparisons with the high street impossible.
The Wine Society describes itself as a non-profit-maximising organization, a wine drinkers’ co-operative whose main function is to offer interesting wines at fair prices to its members. In order to take advantage you have to buy a £40 share, bestowing life membership, transferable upon death. No down-payment is required before dealing with Laithwaites, though it does charge from £7.99 for home delivery,* while The Wine Society’s UK deliveries are free for all cases of 12 bottles.
Both companies offer mixed, or bespoke, cases and themed cases such as Best of Spain or Giants of the New World, packed with tasting notes and suggested food matches, and provide excellent wine advice at the end of the phone. They actively encourage wine exploration – what The Wine Society calls “lateral drinking” – and will replace any bottles you’re not happy with.
“Many of our customers choose to join one of our wine plans because it’s a simple and easy way to order wine,” says a spokesman for Laithwaites. “The idea is that customers join a community of like-minded wine drinkers who love, say, Spain or big reds or fine wines or Australia, where their combined buying power allows the smaller wineries we work closely with to plan ahead and therefore release quality boutique wines at affordable prices. The best thing about our wine plans, especially for new customers, is that they tell us the colour and/or style of wine they like, or don’t like, and we tailor a case to their tastes. We then look at the feedback we receive, their online reviews and which wines they chose to reorder, which all contribute to tailoring their next case on an individual level.”
*Until the end of January 2014 Laithwaites are offering Saga customers free delivery, a free crystal decanter worth £40, £50 off their first order (around £3,49 a bottle!) and further discounts. See www.laithwaites.co.uk/sagaoffer
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