The Value of Independents

POSTED ON 09/02/2009

'Wine merchants are generally considered very troublesome; but it is a necessary part of this disagreeable trade to be constantly seeking for orders, even among intimate friends and relatives'. Thomas Shaw, 1864.

This month we're highlighting no fewer than six independent wine merchants in addition to the usual high street suspects, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. It's our biggest complement since we launched the site and reflects our feeling that independents are going to be increasingly worthy of our attention in the months and years to come.

We are not about to underestimate the importance of the high street. Supermarkets and high street chains account for a good four in five bottles that we take home and many column inches in our publications, not to mention this one. But with a handful of honourable exceptions, the supermarkets have hardly covered themselves with glory lately.

By dragging wine downmarket to a point where their customers have come to expect cheapness at all costs, as it were, false expectations have been created that can't be fulfilled at the best of times, let alone in a time of recession and a floundering pound. Like it or not, wine, cheap wine especially, is getting dearer.

One of the legacies of this folly is that the high street has shown us all that cheapness bears little relationship to value. Given the quick fixes of price and convenience, you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the independents are more likely to score over the high street with broader selections of higher quality wines and better services adapted to meet the needs of their customers. Take a look at what we say about Great Western Wines, John Armit, WoodWinters et al this month and see if you disagree.

Independents operate very differently from the supermarkets and high street chains. They are more localised, but becoming less parochial with the growing popularity of the net. Efficient mail order operations and websites put the previously remote and impersonal within easy grasp. Evidence that the independents are as well equipped and dynamic as the high street to embrace the digital age, if not more so, can be seen in a couple of developments announced this year.

At its most recent trade and press tasting, Bibendum, highlighted this month, posted notes, comments, suggestions and questions to a central Twitter Taste Live page, reaching hundreds of consumers. If you haven't twittered yet, you may well be twittering away very shortly. And Berry Bros & Rudd, the UK's oldest independent wine merchant, has just launched 'Gluggle Earth', a web-based service aimed at helping 'travelling wine-lovers and gastro-tourists explore the world of wine on their stomachs with interactive wine maps on '.

Cynics among gangsters, if we have any, might say these are just marketing techniques. They'd not be wrong but the cynicism would be misplaced. As Thomas Shaw wrote: 'However good a stock may be, there is so much competition that the merchant's sales will be very slow indeed if he imagines that the excellence of his cellar will absolve him from practising solicitations'.

Grubbying your hands in the world of marketing is essential to stay one step ahead in the world of wine, and this is evidence of the independents not just treading water, but using their imaginations and doing something positive and practical. There's welcome news from other independents too, Jeroboams reporting its best-ever year last year, Philglas & Swigott on a high, and Lea & Sandeman talking about opening new stores in London this and next year.

The high street of course remains the core of the UK's wine strength and growth, but we're grateful to the existence of the independent wine merchants for the diversity and quality in depth that they offer. We hope you agree that they bring an extra dimension to our enjoyment of wine, and that for wine gangsters, they will be a growing part of our ongoing adventure of wine discovery. Remember by the way that a number of the wines at independents will be available from other good independent merchants too.

Finally, just to show that we're not as hard-hearted as we appear, we're featuring wines for romantic occasions in our monthly Bunch of Fives slot. So a happy, and romantic, February, to all gangsters, and roll on Spring.

top scoring wines for February 2009
Bruno Giacosa Falletto di Serralunga 2004
The best 2004s from Piedmont are the kind of thing that every wine lover should taste at least once in life, and preferably have a few bottles of in the cellar. This is about as good as Nebbiolo gets: elegant, silky and long, yet with thrillingly austere tannins and sweet, almost Pinot Noir like fruit. A 20 year wine that will give pleasure at every stage of its development. Score: 96/100. £119.21, Armit.

The Giacosa pipped all the others this month picking up its 96 points out of 100. But congratulations also to the three runners up, each of which scored 95 points and which are substantially cheaper wines: Gérard Gauby's Coume Gineste 2006 from the south of France was one, but Angelo Gaja can be doubly proud as both the 2005 and 2006 vintages of his Ca'Marcanda Magari from Tuscany also picked up 95 points.

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