6 ways to shop for wine: wine shops, wine merchants, online wine shopping

How do we shop for wine in the UK? Brick and mortar wine shop vs online

6 Ways to shop for wine in the UK

Where would we be without wine? Toasting a celebration, cheering up and commiserating, giving thanks, dinner parties and get-togethers; they all involve wine, and we’ve all no doubt purchased it from a variety of retailers, depending on the circumstances.
On our way to an impromptu party, we’ll pop into the closest off-licence wine shop for a bottle of fizz, doing the weekly shop we might be tempted to try a special offer in the supermarket, we’ll spend time choosing something really special when going to dinner made by good friends and can search out an incredible bottle we had in a restaurant or on holiday when we get online. Each way of wine shopping has its merits, and perhaps even some drawbacks, so we explore our favourite ways to shop for wine in the UK.
What are the issues, problems, but also benefits of different ways to do your regular wine shopping?

Shopping for wine online

Sitting on your sofa, wearing pyjamas if you wish, you’ll have the world’s unlimited wine selection at your fingerprints. Should you be looking for a special offer on a dozen bottles for a party, or seeking out a special 2009 Haiku you remember sharing with friends on a summer’s evening in Tuscany, it’s all to be found just a click away. The big, well-known wine clubs such as Laithwaite’s and Virgin Wines certainly have their place, but it’s the smaller independents that deserve all the credit we can throw at them.
Some sites are good but conservative, such as Berry Bros. & Rudd which offers an excellent selection from the almost affordable to the truly aspirational, and Lea & Sandeman, whose online presence also supports their 4 London shops. They list wines that are currently in stock with clear product information and separate their choices into helpful sections including organic, biodynamic, lower alcohol wines and names of the producers.
Honest Grapes is a relative newcomer, but their website sets them apart with its fun features. Asking it what to team with slow-roasted duck, it gave 50 choices starting at £10 for a Cabernet-Sauvignon from Chile’s oldest wine producer, Cousiño-Macul; although for a very special occasion I’d be more than tempted by their suggestion of the Henri Giraud Argonne Champagne at £170. They hold noteworthy events such as a ‘Truffle and Wine pairing dinner’ and an upcoming Christmas Market. We’ve asked Sophie, the member services manager at Honest Grapes what sets them apart and she said, “We try and maintain personal contact with our clients, which is often difficult with an online business. By hosting events we can put faces to names, and it’s been really interesting to get to know our clients over the last year”. Another notable online wine club example is Organic Wine Club, which is solely dedicated to organic wines and wine education.
It seems good old-fashioned customer service and ‘remembering a face’ definitely has a place in a wine shop, and is valued more than price, even for online sellers; so it’s somewhat surprising that only 10% of all wine purchases are made online, especially with such premium wine merchants having a strong presence.

The downside of online wine shopping:

Delivery charges can be the sting in the tail, especially when you only want one or two bottles of a well-priced wine, so unless it’s something special that you can’t find locally, think about what you could get by adding that £8 postage fee onto your in-store wine budget. If you’re willing to spend around £80-100 most online wine shops will offer free delivery, but this makes for a more considered spend than just popping a bottle into your online basket. Check out which online wine merchants offer free delivery in our comprehensive guide to all things free wine!
Also, it can also be hard to stay focused when shopping for wine online unless you have something specific in mind. You’ll add to basket, remove, choose another bottle, add another 11 to get a special discount, find out the delivery costs are too high or you’re spending more than you’d like then start all over again on another website. Reading reviews mean you’re taking opinions on board from people you know nothing of. 12 reviewers love the wine you’ve singled out, but the two that hated it stick in your mind, and you decide to forget it in favour of another. Somehow, four hours has passed and you still haven’t made a purchase. Is shopping for wine online still a good idea? Well, yes, it certainly is. If you stick to a website with an ethos you value and a stock line you can trust, it’s a good start. Remember to consider your time, though. It’s pointless spending three hours trawling websites to save a pound or two – if you find the wine at a price that suits, head to checkout and get on with your day.

Independent wine stores and wine merchants

6 ways to shop for wine: wine shops, wine merchants, online wine shoppingThe best place for anyone with even a passing interest in wine. There’s nothing like supporting a truly good independent business where the staff remember your likes and dislikes and think to put a bottle of something special aside for you because they’ve got your taste down to a tee. Even as a casual browser, you’ll receive the best attention from staff who know their stuff. Often, the guys and girls behind the counter have trained as sommeliers or worked as wine waiters and have been educated in the ways of wine. Tell them what you like and they’ll recommend something to suit – it can even be hard to get them to stop enthusing about something particularly good, and this is a wonderful thing. To have someone so passionate about a subject, willing to give you expert advice for the price of a decent bottle of red? That’s pretty great.
London, as you would expect, has some truly exceptional independent wine merchants and the wine aficionado is spoiled for choice. Hedonism in Mayfair has to be experienced to be believed, from the interior design to the children’s play area with iPads, the room of Sine Non Qua or the blankets to keep you warm when browsing the cellars, this luxurious wine project funded by Russian mobile phone magnate Yevgeny Chichvarkin caters, as you might expect, to the super-rich. However, don’t think there won’t be anything in your price-range – they’re proud to mention they’ve undercut Waitrose on Louis Roederer.
At London’s Lea and Sandeman, Edward Hayward-Broomfield cites personal engagement and dialogue between their staff and customers as the main reasons buyers return to them. He explains, “This applies to both choosing individual wines to suit each customer’s tastes, but also to planning cellars and integrating buying wine for the cellar with the selection of wines for more immediate consumption.” Their shops are aided by clear merchandising and an approachable and amiable team.
You’ll find the independents usually have tasting sessions at weekends and some have wine dispensing machines where you can try several wines not usually in your per-bottle budget. It would be foolish to write them off as automatically being the most expensive place to buy wine, and they are definitely the least risky way to make a purchase of something new.

The downside of indie wine shops and wine merchants:

You’ll be so enticed by your surroundings and so interested in the sales speak you’ll probably go over your self-imposed budget. Have you ever spent exactly as planned on wine when visiting an indie?

Supermarket wines

Fine for anyone who knows what they’re after. Some supermarkets are better than others – and there are some surprises to be found. Morrisons beat Waitrose and Marks & Spencer to be named Best Supermarket for Wine in 2015 winning 80 awards while Tesco has come in with some criticism of late for offering a pedestrian selection of wines.
The discount supermarkets constantly receive rave reviews from the public for their wines, and Ben Hulme, Lidl’s wine buyer explained their popularity. “Customers aren’t presented with an overwhelming wall of wine, they are given a concentrated range which is carefully selected by a handful of experts to ensure that only the best wines go on the shelves”. He goes on, “Working with Master of Wine Richard Bampfield gives Lidl’s wine range a real credibility and a unique edge. Today Lidl’s wine range has expanded to 60 listed wines, available all year round, and 48 premium wines, available four times a year for a total of 252 per year”.
Generally, supermarkets won’t offer sampling sessions or anything out of the ordinary, but Whole Foods Market is different, and hosts wine master classes, has an excellent wine selection and a refillable bottle scheme. The prices, like the food, are slightly higher than some are willing to pay, however. The latter also doesn’t offer an online service as well, regretfully.

The downside of supermarket wine shopping:

With the exception of Waitrose, you won’t find a dedicated member of staff on the shop floor in the big supermarkets to answer any in-depth questions you might have and their discounts aren’t always to be believed. Try to spend at least £8 to get something decent.

Specialised Wine Chains

These chains with shops nationwide are to wine what Waterstones are to books; non-pretentious surroundings, well-stocked shelves and something to suit everyone. At Majestic and Oddbins, and the smaller chain of Nicolas shops and Spirited Wines, you’ll find a pretty fine selection, quite often with little handwritten notes specifying staff favourites and points of note. The generally affable staff have a keen interest in wine and love to share their knowledge with you. Customers like the choice and affordability, and while you won’t find anything unique or eye-wateringly expensive, they’re perfect for finding a very nice bottle of wine for dinner. The chains do regular wine tastings, and you should always come away with something pleasing.

The downside of specialised wine chains:

Majestic has a 6 bottle minimum, but many branches do deliver. Don’t expect to find an ultra-rare gem, but chances are that’s not what you’re there for anyway.

Off-License wine shopping

The quality of the off-license usually depends on the area it’s in. While majority cater to a budget audience, stop by one in an upmarket neighbourhood or city centre locale and be treated to shelves of artisan gins and expensive champagnes. Late-night opening and handy locations will save your skin on many occasions en-route to a party or when you’ve forgotten a gift.

The downside of off-license wine shopping:

Wine will have to share shelf space with beers, spirits and soft drinks, meaning the selection isn’t going to be huge. While some dedicated off-licences will have wonderful staff, don’t assume you’ll receive expert attention.

Wine Bars

Yes, wine bars! You can sample and enjoy some glasses, but also take a bottle home with you.
Wine bars have had an image hurdle to overcome since the 80s, many visualising suit-wearing Yuppies shouting into brick-sized mobile phones on chrome stools quaffing Chardonnay. Thankfully, the modern, independent breed of wine bars are sanctuaries of laid-back cool and quality.
Vagabond is an example of a hybrid wine bar and shop and they have 3 London locations. The antithesis of the old-school and stuffy wine merchants, they bring wines from small producers, lesser-known names and organic wines to an audience that loves wine but might not too much about it. Just pop some money onto their ‘Vagabond Card’ and help yourself to some of the 100 wines they have to offer, then buy a bottle of your favourite to take away. It’s appreciated for allowing customers to try wines previously not on their radar from only 60p for tasters, and 125ml glasses starting around £4. Check out our own review to Vagabond bars / wine shops.
Similarly, New Street Wine Shop near Liverpool Street, perfectly situated for City workers is a restaurant, bar and shop with a wide selection from the reasonably priced to the premium. Expert staff are on hand to guide, whether you need a bottle or a case, and they recently launched two own-label wines created by their own sommeliers in collaboration with Christian Voeux, head winemaker at Chateau La Nerthe. Priced at £15, these are Les Gamins, a 14% red Cotes du Rhone Villages – an elegant blend with rich black fruit and spice aromas and a 13.5% white called Les Trois Bises which has distinct aromas of candied fruits, pear and pastry.
Vinoteca is a chain of wine bars throughout London and what’s more, you can take away a bottle of their keg wines. We have been lucky owners of a bottle of Montsant red, which was gloriously good and for only £8.50.

The downside of wine shopping at wine bars:

If you’re just popping out to buy a bottle or two, you could be tempted to sample a few on the wine dispensing machines, then find yourself swayed by platters of charcuterie and cheese passing your nose on the way to other diners. This is all about temptation and how good is their service.

So where to get the most when shopping for wine in the UK?

6 ways to shop for wine: wine shops, wine merchants, online wine shoppingIt seems each type of a wine retailer has its merits, and depending on your budget there will be something to suit in all of them. Supermarkets will not stock so many wines, but it is just so easy to take a few when you do your regular grocery shopping, isn’t it? We find though that they rarely change their range, so it can become rather boring very soon. Online wine retailers provide the most monetary value – just think about Perfect Cellar, at the time of writing they offer a whopping £50 off your first wine club case. You simply need to follow the link and subscribe to their newsletter to reveal a code.
Independent wine shop and wine merchants win out in terms of expertise and ambience, something which can’t easily be replicated.

Some more conservative wine retailers offer a somewhat snobby wine experience that turns some shoppers away whilst supermarket’s approach to wine is more towards a ‘suit everyone’ strategy. However we know that it does not work like that – marketing should be personal and targeting specific audience – we believe a group of adventurous drinkers should be treated differently from money saving families that want more value for their pound.
Share your thoughts with us. Cheers!

About The Author

Dimitri

Dimitri is passionate about wines, food to go with it, happy & healthy lifestyle, digital marketing, start-ups and entrepreneurship. www.IBlameTheWine.com is about new organic wines in the UK, what to buy or avoid on the retailer shelves; tips on healthy and happy wine lifestyle, but also provides reviews and rankings for organic wines. Get in touch please, I am always on a lookout for new ideas and connections! Cheers.

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