150th anniversary

1974 – 2024: Charting The Society’s transformation over the past 50 years

From a sticky start in the seventies to celebrating 150 years of growing together, The Wine Society is transformed into an award-winning leader in the wine world.

1974 – 2024: Charting The Society’s transformation over the past 50 years

The first ten years in its new home in Stevenage were not all plain sailing for The Wine Society. Almost as soon as the new cellars were built, it was clear that more space was needed, but money was tight and inflation rampant. Our mutual model and shrewd management meant that we were able to hold fast and start building again for the future. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the much-needed cellar extension was constructed. Then in 1983, thanks to the generosity of members, we were able to buy the freehold of the site at Stevenage (for £1,025,000). The following year the land behind the existing site became available and we were able to purchase a further five acres.

Members were of course reimbursed, and this crucial crowdfunding effort was commemorated by a glass engraving by Bryant Fedden which is still on the walls of the offices in Stevenage.

Photo of the engraving printed in the List at the time

Shrewd buying and innovative marketing

Though our buyers never have and still don’t ‘buy to a price’, under John McLusky (head buyer 1974-1985), they began to look harder at inexpensive wines, introducing a range of litre carafes, a good French Country wine section, a serious Rhône list and a well-chosen extended range from the Loire and Alsace.

Minuccio Cappelli, an old supplier of Society's Chianti
Minuccio Cappelli, an old supplier of Society's Chianti

In 1982 our buyers made their first visit to Italy. Soon after we shipped our first Society’s Chianti Classico from Minuccio Cappelli’s Montagliari estate, a story Sebastian Payne MW retells with passion.

We were among the first to offer clarets en primeur with the 1975 vintage. It was a canny way of ensuring members had first access to top-notch wines and was vital for bolstering cash flow. En primeur remains a core part of our business and the relationships our buyers have built up with producers over several generations, have stood us in good stead when it comes to having access to sought-after wines.

See the first ‘opening’ (en primeur) offer of 1975 clarets.

In 1975 too we offered private storage facilities for the first time in the shape of Members’ Reserves giving members competitively priced, perfect conditions to cellar their wines.

By the late eighties, business was brisk. Wine was no longer a minority sport, thanks in part to supermarkets stocking better selections, more people taking foreign holidays and the advent of varietal labelling of wines.

Wine Without Fuss

To help smooth out peaks and troughs in the warehouse and in-keeping with our founding objective ‘to introduce wines hitherto unknown', in 1988 we introduced Wine Without Fuss. We took inspiration from the subscription model of Australian wine clubs, who had visited us on a knowledge-sharing mission. It’s a great way for members to explore wines they might not have chosen themselves and has proved highly popular with more than 7,000 members now receiving regular deliveries this way.

A similar scheme for regularly laying wines down to mature – Vintage Cellar Plan, was introduced in 2001 and in the same year Wine Champions, our most popular wine promotion launched. Based on internal blind tastings of hundreds of wines, it was initially called The Wine Open and was the brainchild of then head buyer Sebastian Payne MW. He candidly admitted it was a great way for him and his team to see (and smell and taste!) what their colleagues were up to.

Wine Champions blind tasting
Blind tasting for Wine Champions – still going strong more than 20 years later

More buyers needed to scour an ever-expanding wine world

There has been huge change in the wine world over the past 50 years with quality and variety at an all-time high. From the now legendary ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting in 1976 which upended preconceptions about the hierarchy of French wines, to the era of the ‘flying winemaker’ and the more recent resurgence of rediscovered old vines and traditional, sustainable practices, we’ve witnessed exciting changes.

An expanding wine world required an expanded team of buyers – particularly given our commitment to spending more time than most out in the field with our growers. In 1986 Sebastian Payne MW recruited Marcel Orford-Williams, followed by Toby Morrhall in 1992. Marcel was quick to capitalise on the less-highly regulated southern French regions to bring members great-value French Country wines. We were the first to ship the innovative Grassa family’s fresh dry white – their solution to a diminishing market for Armagnac, the wine that paved the way for establishing the now highly popular Côtes de Gascogne appellation.

French Country wine labels
Our colourful French Country wine labels were trend-setting in their day

The southern hemisphere’s wines were going from strength to strength and the practice of putting the grape variety front and centre on labels helped market wine to a new generation. Toby recognised the appeal of the emerging styles, and we were one of the first in the UK to put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentine Malbec under our own label. Toby’s connections with the burgeoning South American wine scene continue to reap rewards for members and his Burgundy connections have even helped shape the style of wine in Chile in particular (find more about that in this interview with Toby).

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentine Malbec labels
We were among the first in the UK to ship Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentine Malbec under our own label

Generation Series Three wines

Shop all series three wines

Our team of buyers has expanded to meet growing demands, drawing on outside experience, with the appointments of Joanna Locke MW in 2004, Tim Sykes in 2012 and Sarah Knowles MW in 2014, as well as nurturing homegrown talent – Matthew Horsley and Freddy Bulmer, who came from our Member Services and Tastings teams. Current Director of Wine, Pierre Mansour, started out in Tastings & Events before moving to Buying in 2003.

>> Read more about our team of buyers

Raising the flag in France

Raising the flag in France

We were the first British wine merchant to open a collection facility in France for our members on the very day the trade barriers were lifted in 1993. Sadly, a decrease in footfall led to the closure of our French operation in 2016.

Expanding our warehousing and service for members

Cellar space has been one of the main leitmotifs of our 150-year history and in 1989 a substantial new warehouse, with offices, Cellar Showroom and Members’ Room was built at the cost of £4.5m. A new ‘Celebration’ range of wines was launched to mark the occasion, alongside special tastings and dinners. The Celebration range was such a hit that it was decided to make it a permanent feature, rechristened for our 125th anniversary and the new millennium as the ‘Exhibition range’.

In 2001 warehouse 3 was built between the new building and the original. Then in 2007 another plot of land was purchased allowing us to build warehouse 4. It was the highest of its kind in Europe and won accolades for its sustainable construction credentials too.

Warehouse 5
Far right – Warehouse 2 constructed in 1989 with our most recently built Warehouse 5 nearest the railway

An even larger warehouse was completed in 2022 increasing our storage capacity by 25% to a total of 18 million bottles. In contrast to the battleship grey of the existing warehouses the new warehouse 5 has a bright red frontage, easily visible to passengers on the East Coast Main Line!

Communication revolution

Arguably, the most dramatic change of the past 50 years has been in the area of communications. While what we do hasn’t changed intrinsically since 1874, how we do it is something else. By the 1980s a computing system for ordering had been introduced, though even by 1990, wine notes and promotions were still largely hand-written and typed up. We've had many system upgrades since, and while the dreaded millennium bug didn’t turn out to be quite the threat many anticipated, it did give us the opportunity to overhaul and upgrade our operations. A new operating and warehouse system was implemented in 2000 and our first website launched early the following year. It was the first in the wine industry to be fully transactional and operating in real-time, something we’re proud of, even if it might not have been the best looking of sites.

Evolution of our logo
Evolution of our logo
Computers come to The Society in the 1980s and have come a long way since!
Computers come to The Society in the 1980s and have come a long way since!

Digital revolution

The Society’s website has undergone several transformations since with a brand-new site launched in 2021 having been built during the Covid-19 lockdowns with teams working remotely. The pandemic also accelerated a move to doing much more online. It’s brought our members closer to our growers and buyers with virtual events, videos and live streams. It’s meant that no matter where you live, you can join in on tastings and even our AGM.

Keeping the conversation going

From notes in early wine Lists to a Newsletter launched in 1983, there’s always been a desire to keep members in touch with news and stories about wine. In 2009 we branched out into the world of social media launching our blog SocietyGrapevine and taking to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at the same time. Instagram came later in 2016 and we launched the Community the following year – a platform for members to chat to each other about wine, and much more.

During the pandemic our buyers take to Instagram with their own accounts
During the pandemic our buyers take to Instagram with their own accounts

A sustainable future

In 2022 The Wine Society launched its first sustainability plan with ambitious goals for the future of our business. Our notoriously resilient winemakers and suppliers have been dealing with the challenges of climate change for some time. The Wine Society wants to ensure that it’s doing all it can to ensure there are excellent-quality wines available for our members to enjoy for another 150 years.


>>Discover our Generation Series wines selected to embody the spirit of this era

>>Read more about The Society’s history

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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