150th anniversary

List retrospective: 150 years of good drinking at The Wine Society

Looking back at 150 years of The Society’s Lists with some surprising finds alongside consistent favourites.

List covers

Our wine List is a constant throughout our 150-year history and we have an unbroken archive going back to 1880, earlier copies having been destroyed in the last war. They make for fascinating reading and are a window into the world of our predecessors, charting changes in taste and fashion and times lived through. 

Our wine buyers looked back through our old wine Lists to research the wines being enjoyed by members over the past 150-years to draw inspiration for our ground-breaking Generation Series range of wines. They tell us about some of the surprises they came across below. 

The Generation Series wines

All Generation Series wines

We know the first wine bought by The Society was Bucellas or ‘Portuguese Hock’ followed up by a second order of different Spanish wines. By 1876 there were 63 items on the List, including six Ports, 13 sherries, 17 clarets, nine Burgundies, eight German wines, six Champagnes and four spirits, with whisky and brandy listed for the first time. By 1880 the List had grown to 124 items.

Take a look through the pages of our oldest List.

Portugal took pride of place and featured at the start of the List with the first vintage Port listed in 1879 being Quinta do Noval 1873. Bordeaux of course was important though not all clarets bore château names or vintages. Even famous names like Lafite or Haut-Brion were listed without the château prefix and at commune-level prices, maybe they were the second wines of these properties? Even more surprising was the appearance of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou listed as a sparkling white Médoc, which was listed until the 1930s and a sparkling rosé from St. Emilion was regularly listed too. 

I was struck by the sparkling Ducru-Beaucaillou – that’s not something we thought of reproducing!
Marcel Orford-Williams

View the 1914 Sparkling Ducru Beaucaillou

Many Bordeaux châteaux were bankrupt in the early 20th century, vines were dying off due to the phylloxera louse and they were hit by the WWI. It’s possible sparkling wine was produced to help with cash flow and because this was the wine style everyone wanted at the time 

The early Lists were more far-reaching than we may have presumed: A Mount Lebanon wine was highly recommended and 1885 saw the first listing of wines from Asia Minor and the Cape of Good Hope. In 1890 a zinfandel and chasselas from California appeared on the List.

It was amazing to see a Santorini red in the 1888 List and an 1885 California zinfandel.
Matthew Horsley

Perhaps more surprising was the inclusion of other drinks – cider was offered from 1905 and from 1912 lime juice from the island of Montserrat appeared with an enthusiastic write up.

1914 List Cider and Lime Juice Cordial
1914 List. Cider and Lime Juice Cordial

The majority of wine would have been shipped in bulk in the early days and members often had the choice of buying by the whickered jar, cask or bottle with instructions on how to place orders and return empties, as well as paraphernalia to help preserve the wine, like this 1902 List advert for a bottle stopper. 

>> Read more about the first 50 years of Society Lists 

The look of the Lists

The first Lists were simple affairs and saw little variation. In 1903 there was a change of cover designed by GM Ellwood, an artist, designer and interior decorator whose furniture had won gold at a national competition in South Kensington. It wouldn’t be until 1930 when the cover would be redesigned, this time it carried the company seal or emblem on the cover and was done internally by Mr T Neighbour (later to become General Manager) who was awarded two guineas by the Committee for his work! It would be another 20 years before the cover was changed again, this time to a rather conservative look but with a change of colour with each iteration. It wasn’t until Edmund Penning-Rowsell became Chairman in 1964 that a new era of experimental cover designs took off. 

Heading into the Roaring Twenties and our Lists saw an awful lot of liqueurs and fortified wines with cocktails being very much in fashion. Champagne was still the drink of choice for celebrating success and the post-war joie de vivre. Our oldest partners Alfred Gratien, who have been supplying bubbles to Wine Society members since 1906 tell of how, at the end of the WWI, the head of the company would meet Wine Society buyers in the Folies Bergères on the first Wednesday of the month. After WWII, our buyers made the trip to Epernay, where apparently the station buffet put on a rather good lunch. 

Wartime Lists saw some new introductions to compensate for supply troubles and wines created in different styles recognisable to British drinkers, such as Algerian claret. You can see this and some of the more unusual List entries in the image below:

It wasn’t until after WWII that Society buyers started to venture out to the 'principal wine fields' – expanding our offering of wines from outside the traditional French regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux to include, Alsace, the Loire, Rhône and southern France. Despite our first Chianti being listed as early as 1898, Italy hardly featured and although Spain had been an important source in our early days, it wasn’t yet visited by our buyers.

Wine Society firsts

But The Wine Society was still achieving firsts in our industry, importing Hungarian furmint in the 1940s when nobody else did and we were the first to import Lebanon’s Chateau Musar in 1971. Our list of vintage clarets, much depleted during the war years, saw a significant increase from 1953 onwards, spurred on by a rather critical report by the newly formed Wine Society Dining Club.

From the late 1960s our Lists certainly looked brighter and started to show innovations in content as well as style. We expanded our range of own-label products, all shipped in bulk and bottled in Stevenage. Cash was tight and the buying team made even more efforts to secure wines of excellent quality from lesser-known areas. Australia was taken more seriously and bag in box was introduced in the early eighties, something we have only recently reprised, with better quality assurances and sustainability imperatives making this format once again a viable option. In the 1971 List we also stocked a cabernet from Romania, ‘ideal for spicy food’, which seemed to be the default wine note for anything a little out of the ordinary at the time!

I was surprised by how early South Africa appeared, albeit under European-sounding wine names and indeed, less of a surprise and more of a reminder, just how many wines from further afield went by now classified European names.
Joanna Locke MW

Older members may remember that Lists at this time contained branded spirits, sold to members at below-market prices and historically a great cash-flow booster for The Society. Changes in the law around fixed pricing for spirits dampened sales at a time when money was tight for the business. Previously, as a club, we were allowed to sell branded spirits at highly competitive prices to our members, selling around 500 cases of Gordon’s Gin annually, alongside our own gin, for example.

Image of branded spirits
Branded spirits were sold to members at below market rate, after the ruling around fixed prices changed at about the same time as the move to Stevenage, which affected sales

The sales of branded spirits dropped off virtually overnight at a time when The Society needed cash most after the move to Stevenage in 1965. But this spurred on our buyers to seek out even better value-for-money wines for members, innovating to meet their wine needs at the time.

See the 1968 carafe of wine infographic

Of course, members still had access to good ranges of vintage Ports, clarets and Burgundies and German wines, which continuued to feature heavily. Perhaps a little more surprising was the number of liqueurs and fortified wines still listed, in fact the List opened with no fewer than 19 from Jerez and nine ‘sherry-style’ wines from South Africa, Australia and Cyprus. At the back of the List was a selection of cigars and even when the Showroom opened in 1989, it was still equipped with a humidor … different times indeed! 

By the late 1970s, changes in labelling laws, partly brought about by our entry into the EEC, followed by tightening up of appellation regulations, led to some creative labelling of some of our most popular wines.

An expanding wine world 

Our buyers continued to scour the wine world expanding our offering increasing in particular the range of Society-labelled bottles. By the end of the eighties, bulk wines became harder to source and there was a greater emphasis in seeking out appellation-quality wines. We had a range of 40 Society wines (up from 13 in 1963), the aim to offer members textbook examples of their type from all the principal wine regions. 

In 1989, to celebrate the opening of our new warehouse, Member Reserves and Showroom, we held several celebratory lunches and also released a range of Celebration wines – click on the images below to see the menu and label designs.

The wines in the Celebration range were such a hit with members and apparently lasted well too (we heard only recently of some of the last bottles being opened and enjoyed by members), that it was decided to make the range a permanent fixture. Eventually, the name ‘Celebration’ was dropped in favour of ‘Exhibition’, which launched with a new look and proposition in time for our 125th anniversary – the Exhibition range has gone from strength to strength ever since. 

With more and more producers wanting to have greater control over quality control, from vineyard to bottle, and appellation regulations increasingly insisting wines be bottled at source, the days of bottling in Stevenage were numbered. The bottling line fell silent in Stevenage in 1992. Sherry was one of the first regions to instigate the new law putting an end to the tradition of sending sherry butts up to distillers in Scotland to be filled with spirit for our house whiskies. The Reserve Cask Whiskies launched in 2020 were Sarah Knowles MW’s innovative way to make the most of the precious inheritance that had built up over many years.

Into the Nineties and Noughties

The 1990s saw some terrific vintages across Europe and increasing interest in wine in general. This was also the era of the so-called ‘flying winemakers’ and international wine consultants which saw oenological experts sharing knowledge with across continents and in both hemispheres. While some would later bemoan the conformity of styles that came about as a result, the improvements in wine quality globally and the culture of sharing knowledge between winemakers can only be a good thing for wine drinkers.

The influx of varietally labelled wines from Bulgaria and Australia, in particular, helped to demystify wine; supermarkets helped further to popularise it. Though our Lists were still 70% French, reflecting our members’ tastes, there was a healthy appetite for exploring wines ‘hitherto unknown’ and Lists continued to expand.

Wine labels for New Zeland and Argentine malbec

Our buyers started to make more regular trips to the southern hemisphere, building on and starting up fruitful relationships with some of the most talented winemakers. We were among the first UK merchants to ship an own-label Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in 1995 and Argentine Malbec in 1997. By the year 2000 we printed our largest List ever with 800 products. More expensive wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône now being offered almost exclusively en primeur. 

The launch of the website in 2001 allowed for us to increase the breadth and depth of wines offered to members further. We started to look more carefully at Eastern and Central European wines as quality improved following the fall of the iron curtain. We now have several under our own Society label. Greece has come back to the List in a big way recently, too and is going from strength to strength. Across the wine world, whether in the uplands of Spain or the Swartland of the Cape, enterprising winemakers are seeking out interesting parcels of old vines and rediscovering their intrinsic quality. Growers and finding innovative ways to combat the challenges of our changing climate, heading for cooler vineyard sites and experimenting with planting more resilient grapes. In well-established wine-growing regions, winemakers are taking increasing interest in grapes that have fallen out of favour. Certain grape varieties fell out of fashion when the grape growers were traditionally paid by the must weight (potential alcohol) of the grapes; now the grapes that historically didn’t ripen as well are being appreciated for the freshness they can bring to wine. 

In 2019 we introduced the Bin Series – a bespoke range of wines designed ‘To introduce ‘wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country’ – a founding objective of The Wine Society. The label design took inspiration from one in our archive

The List released in May of our 150th year is the biggest to date with no fewer than 1,700 wines from 22 countries within its pages and online. Our Society range now numbers 75 lines (and counting) and we have 60 Exhibition-label wines and spirits. Our buyers are as committed today as they were 150 years ago, to ‘introduce wines hitherto unknown’ and at the best possible price for members. With the world of quality wine ever expanding, there is so much more to explore and enjoy. Here’s to the future of many more happy wine discoveries!

>> Discover our Generation Series wines inspired by our history

>> Read more about the history of The Wine Society

>> Find out more about our 150th anniversary celebrations

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.

The Generation Series wines

All Generation Series wines
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