With well over 100 tastings across the UK each year (there's 155 this year - 30 more than in 2014!) many members will be familiar with the friendly faces of The Society's Tastings team. But what goes on behind the scenes to ensure every event runs like clockwork? Laura Vickers investigates.
A tasting is born
Despite the large number and variety of events, the tastings team is surprisingly small, with just four full-time staff - Emma Briffett, Jon Granger, Matthew Horsley and team leader Simon Mason - alongside the team's longest serving (and now part-time) member, Stephanie Searle.
The whole team holds a quarterly planning meeting to discuss the next three months' events. First, they consider which of the most popular past events they could repeat - there are certain staple themes that are always a hit, such as Bordeaux, Australia and the Masterwined quiz - and then it's time to suggest new ideas.
The team thoroughly enjoys coming up with creative new tastings; for instance, this year there's a new, Eurovision-themed event that they're very excited about! It makes sense to organise events based on their own areas of expertise and interest, so if their idea gets the green light then they are also assigned to host that tasting.
A whole host of responsibilities
'The host spends about 90% of the tasting talking to members,' Matthew tells me - but it quickly becomes clear that all the host's real work happens long before the event itself.
HMS Warrior: one of the more
unusual tasting venues
This starts with booking the venue six months beforehand. In the case of grower tastings, the host also liaises with the wine producers who kindly agree to fly in from around the world, confirming who can attend and booking hotels and restaurants for them.
In more remote venues, such as the Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire, the host also compiles a handy travel guide and list of local hotels to send to attending members.
Then it's time to tackle the balancing act of selecting the wine list. Matthew explains:
'Our members' expectations differ depending on their tastes and wine knowledge. We want there to be something for everyone, whether a novice or more experienced, a fan of established wine regions or looking for something off the beaten track.'
The list is only finalised one month before the tasting to make sure there will be plenty of stock available if members wish to order some of the wines they've tasted.
It might surprise some readers to discover just how much writing is involved in this job.
It starts with the tastings catalogue sent out to members: everyone writes their own copy for the events that they are hosting. Getting all the relevant information across in just one or two paragraphs is tricky, but they enjoy the challenge, using quotations, puns and wordplay to liven things up.
If you've been to a tasting, you'll have received a tasting booklet to guide you through the wines on offer, and this is also the host's work. They create tailor-made wine notes that are relevant to that particular tasting's theme and context. All of the notes are sent for proofreading by various Wine Society staff - checking not only for spelling and grammar, of course, but also ensuring the information is accurate and in line with The Society's rigorous style guide.
Over to Jon
As well as hosting his own tastings, Jon is the venues and logistics co-ordinator. He is responsible for ordering the wines, getting them to the venue, managing the team's equipment storage area in the warehouse and loading and unloading the trusty tastings van.
He often hires glasses for more distant venues (transporting them from Stevenage results in too many breakages!) but there's still plenty to load up along with the wine, from ice buckets and spittoons to water, crackers and literature. There's a place for everything - both in the van and in the storage area - and Jon runs a tight ship so loading and unloading happens quickly and efficiently.
Jon also hires the additional staff needed to help set up and pour wines at each tasting, using tried and tested temping agencies.
'They're generally a good bunch and always seem keen. Before the event starts, we have a chat with them about The Society to make sure they know the high levels of service we expect, and then we tell them about the wines they're pouring. It gets them enthusiastic about the event and that rubs off on their interactions with Members.'
Set-up & let-downs
Depending on the type of tasting, setting up the venue can take three people between two and four hours - which includes the time needed to sample every bottle of wine to make sure it's not corked or faulty (a more taxing task than you might imagine!)
Everything went smoothly on the day I observed Matthew and Jon setting up for a wine and pudding workshop at Stevenage (one of Emma's favourite events to host), but things do inevitably go wrong sometimes.
Notable horror stories include a mad dash to local supermarkets when the ice delivery failed to arrive, securing swift medical attention after a member fell and cracked their head open, and the unpleasant combination of a heatwave and an old venue with no air-conditioning.
Matthew's first experience hosting a tasting was also eventful: 'All of the pouring staff were due to arrive together, but their transport didn't turn up so they were stranded miles away. It left just three of us to pour 25 wines for 170 thirsty members! Thankfully, the venue was a hotel, and they donated a few of their staff.'
Location, location, location
Festive dinner at London's
Merchant Taylor's Hall
Deciding where to hold the tastings is almost as important as deciding what to taste!
'We do our best to appeal to where the demand is,' Matthew tells me. Excellent transport links and a high concentration of Society membership makes London the obvious choice for many, but there are also various UK towns and cities that the team aims to visit each year.
Although popular, the tastings outside London don't always sell as many tickets. In worst-case scenarios, events have to be cancelled, but the team goes to great lengths to avoid this, even sending fewer staff or tweaking the format of the tasting so it can still go ahead.
At the other end of the scale, many tastings sell out quickly, and run up long waiting lists. It's always worth signing up to these, as sometimes the team can secure a second date or an additional room at a venue.
The future is bright
Not ones to get stuck in a rut, the team is always eager to listen to members' feedback, and adapt the tastings accordingly.
One such recent development has been to serve cheeses at every tasting (many members wanted more than just crackers to nibble on between sips!) and there is also a large project underway to revamp the Tastings section of the website.
'Technology is constantly evolving, and we want to incorporate more videos, better imagery and more engaging social media,' Matthew explains. He is also the youngest team member, and has been working hard to attract more of The Society's growing number of younger members to tastings. 'We're looking to try e-tickets, more modern, interesting venues and potentially using iPads to make tastings more interactive.'
Of course, the aim is to please as many members as possible, and the team works brilliantly together to make this happen. The taster I got of what this team does was very sweet indeed.
Laura Vickers previously worked as a wine adviser in our Member Services' team and is now a freelance writer and active blogger
> Find out about a day in the life of a Society buyer
> Find out about a day in the life of a Member Services Adviser
> Find out about a day in the life of The Cellar Showroom
> Find out more about The Society's tastings & events