The Wine Society was founded on the back of leftover barrels of wine following the International Exhibition of 1874, held at the Royal Albert Hall. A large proportion of the wines on display were Portuguese and it had been a huge challenge shipping them to Britain, the scale of which has only recently come to light.
Portuguese wine shipper and Wine Society supplier Raymond Reynolds came across transcripts of a lecture given by Antonio Augusto de Aguiar in 1875 at the Lisbon Conference of Wines. Written in florid Victorian Portuguese, it recounted how AA Aguiar, a professor of chemistry appointed Royal commissioner to the International Exhibition, set about the task. He describes the challenges of selecting, consolidating and shipping the wines and issues around storage and keeping the wines sound in barrel – all in highly technical scientific detail. The event itself was also talked about, including the weather! It also mentioned the disappointment of so many barrels being left full at the end of the exhibition, no wonder there was a lobby to do something about it!.
It's perhaps no surprise then that the very first wine bought by The Society in August of that year was Portuguese. The wine was Bucellas, a wine allegedly made popular by The Duke of Wellington who’d been quartered at Quinta da Romeira during the Peninsular Wars. The wine, described as medium-dry ‘Portuguese Hock’ and sold at 1s. 7d. a bottle, had disappeared from our Lists by the time of our oldest surviving copy (1880 – earlier ones were destroyed by incendiary bombs in WW2). This tiny appellation north of Lisbon slipped into obscurity too, only very recently seeing a revival of fortunes with its on-trend brisk dry whites, which once again feature on Wine Society Lists.
The second order was for 24 dozen of eight different Spanish wines followed by a range of Madeiras, sherries and wines from Valencia and the Algarve. By the following year there were a total of 63 items made up of Ports, sherries, claret and Burgundy, German wine, Champagnes and spirits. The 1880 List also had wines from Australia, Greece and Hungary. They were not particularly cheap, ranking with Bordeaux commune wine, while the ‘very old white from Greece’ was 3s. 8d. a bottle, the same price as an 1870 Saint-Emilion.
The spirit of our founders
Whisky was taken seriously by our predecessors at The Wine Society, with ‘a fine old whisky’ appearing in 1878 and single malts such as Glenlivet, Islay, Talisker and Clynelish coming soon after – and all available by the gallon jar if members so desired! A blended whisky (later to be listed as The Society’s Highland Blend), depicted Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye on the label for many years (though we have no record of when this first appeared). The castle was the ancestral seat of the head of clan MacLeod and was given as the address of The Society’s first Chairman, The MacLeod of MacLeod. In fact, he lived in London and worked at the South Kensington Museum (as his share record tells us), having been forced to come south due to the potato famine. It appears that Norman MacLeod rarely showed up to Committee meetings, but he remained Chairman in name until his death at which point Brudenell Carter, who had been acting Chairman and Treasurer, took over.
Our first cellars
We presume that it’s the connections of Brudenell Carter, a Hunterian Professor of Pathology and Surgery, that led to The Society’s first cellars being ‘nothing grander than the coal cellar of the Medical Society of London in Chandos Street’, the Royal Albert Hall having turned down the application to continue storing our wine in their cellars. It seems that the use of the cellars caused a fair amount of controversy at the time as this correspondence unearthed and reproduced courtesy of the RAH Archive shows:
‘In January 1875 Le Neve (sp.) Foster (Society of Arts) asked and was granted permission for the Wine Society to meet in the cellars of the Hall as long as the wine remained here. In April 1896, James Richards from the Society asked the Hall for permission to keep using a small portion of its cellars for the storage of wine. In December that year the application was withdrawn.’ [From RAH Archives]
Premises were leased in North Row, North Audley Street in Mayfair before moving to Hills Place in 1902 on a 21-year lease at £200 a year. The Committee seemed very pleased with this arrangement and photos started to appear in Lists from 1911 on.
There was great consternation when the Palladium was built over the top of the Hills Place cellars in 1910, raising the average temperature in the vaults below. The Committee sought, and got, compensation with a 10% reduction in the rent and an extension on the lease!
A wine club for wine lovers
To start off with The Wine Society was very much a small club, run by and for wine lovers. The first AGM in February 1875 was attended by only 23 members. The following year, the Committee minutes note that ‘fully a third’ of members hadn’t ordered any wine since joining, prompting the idea of introducing a yearly membership and an annual ticket giving access to our wines. By 1882, membership had reached 1,000.
By 1922, towards the end of this first era in our history, membership hit 5,000, and had been temporarily closed during the war. As we begin our 150th year, we have issued 530,000 shares to date; our 149th AGM in 2023 was attended by 773 members (in person and online).
Looking after wine and members
As early as 1913, the List included an educational piece with notes on the nature of wine, how to look after it and tips on serving wine.
It’s rather heartening to see that the founders cared passionately about members enjoying their wines in good condition. Something that is just as pertinent today. The same List also contained a short history of how The Wine Society came into being by Brudenell Carter, one of the founders. Interestingly, around this time photos started to appear in the Lists too showing the cellars where members wines were being stored and bottled. Including the photo above.
The way in which The Society communicates with its members is part and parcel of who we are. Transparency, a word back in popular use, has always been key. Looking back through our history, it’s fascinating to chart not just changes in wine and wine styles but also how technology has changed how we operate, not least in the area of communication.
While our founders were undoubted pioneers, there was also a degree of caution when it came to spending members’ money on new technology. Our first telephone (No. 2582 MAYFAIR) wasn’t installed until 1905 – some 20 years after first enquiring about being linked to the General Exchange! The secretary was under strict instruction to monitor its use and it was reported that in the first year there were 340 outward calls, 380 inward and 800 to the extension in the cellars. Compare that to over 200k calls and 100k emails per year to Member Services today. The first typewriter was bought around 1910, though the Committee minutes remained handwritten for many years.
Originally the management of The Wine Society was unpaid, but the 1879 AGM voted to introduce an honorarium and by 1881 it seems the staff consisted of a cellarman and two assistants. 30 years later this had grown, modestly, to a manager, foreman, three cellarmen, a boy of 14 and charlady, as reported by Edmund Penning-Rowsell in his brief history of The Society. The offices were run by a retired army officer along with a secretary, cashier and two clerks. In 1918 there was an unusual addition to the staff following a spate of thefts from the van. The ‘carman’ was instructed to get a dog, ‘the cost and keep of the same to be paid for by The Society’.
Testing not tasting – the quest for unadulterated wines
In the early years it was the Committee who tasted the wines for inclusion in the Lists, referred to as ‘testings’ in the minute books. In fact, at one point they looked into having the wines analysed by external chemists and quotes were obtained to show, ‘extraneous colouring in red wine, plastering of sherries and fortification of so-called ‘natural wines.’ Authenticity was an important aspect of wine buying in Victorian times, enshrined in one of the founding objectives of The Society:
‘To endeavour to obtain Wines direct from the growers, in a pure, unadulterated condition, and, as far as possible, free from added spirit.’
Testings’ for the List were held at 5pm meetings, initially at The Royal Albert Hall, then in the offices at Chandos Street. General Scott suggested that mornings were the best time for tasting and proposed moving meetings to the William Morris-designed Refreshment Room in what is now the V&A. Apparently, it was agreed that ‘a luncheon to consist of mutton chops and cheese shall be provided at the expense of the Association’, so as not to ‘derange’ members’ stomachs. But in the end the Committee members preferred to stick to the evening meetings at The Society’s offices and derange their stomachs!
Seeking out authentic wines direct from growers is as important for our buyers today as it was for our founders. The concept of ‘natural wines’, however, is rather more nuanced than it was for Victorian wine lovers.