Sainsbury's has led the way in pricking the pomp and circumstance surrounding wine and smoothing out the rough edges of everyday wines. But nine out of 10 supermarket wines still cost under pounds 4. And the Saint James's Street stalwarts, Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks - while not everyone's cup of Earl Grey - both run thriving, modern mail-order wine businesses behind the studied quaintness.
Luckily, no one has to go to Saint James's to scale the exciting peaks of wine quality. Small operators such as burgundy specialist Adam Bancroft, impassioned nutters like Mike Pollard of Chippendale Fine Wines or Ian Brown (and his cat) of Vin du Van, and the more established mail-order wine specialists are all in the business of guiding their customers, like Sherpas, to a world of distinctive, hand-crafted wines with undreamt-of flavours.
The essence of a good mail-order operation lies in the way it can inspire and build its customers' confidence to try new things. But trust has to be built up over time. The Leicester-based International Wine Company went belly-up last year for offering cut-price grand names at suspiciously low prices. Even Adnams - one of Britain's most respected mail-order wine merchants - got short shrift from customers when it offered a handful of rather grandiose and overpriced Gran Reserva Riojas.
Bob Middlemiss, a wine-mad Australian chartered accountant who, three years ago, started Winefinds, based in Bath, says: "Too many retailers represent suppliers' and not the customer's interests. They set up barriers with lists which presuppose you understand the appellation system. But it's confusing for many consumers." Winefinds lists its wines by style, using a panel of experienced tasters and a novel quality and value-for-money rating system. It does not, though, get its hands dirty with wine-buying trips.
"The most important reason people buy from us," says Kathy Thomas of the Wine Society (pounds 20 for lifetime membership), Britain's second-biggest mail-order operation, "is the quality of the wines." This is echoed by Adrian Bentham of Direct Wines, whose two mail-order operations - Bordeaux Direct and the Sunday Times Wine Club - make it Britain's biggest, and the Post Office's favourite, mail-order wine company. Direct Wines sends its five-strong, wine-buying team not just to buy, but on pre- and post-harvest vineyard visits, to ensure quality is up to scratch.
Convenience is the most obvious feature of mail-order wine buying. If you don't have a Bottoms Up or Tesco in spitting distance, or if you're house- or office-bound, mail- order companies offer the simplicity of delivery to your door. Charges vary, but most, with a no-quibble refund if you don't like the wine, deliver in seven to 10 days from the date of your order. Some, such as Lay & Wheeler, claim 48-hour delivery, and the Wine Society is now canvassing members on a possible 48-hour express service. A telephone line is vital too, for dispensing sound advice.
"The information and advice that a mail-order operation can give are also essential," says Adrian Bentham. Like the Wine Society, Bordeaux Direct sends out focused mailings in addition to its 550-strong wine list. "What our customers are after are new things and an exclusive range. We like to build our customers' confidence with information and wine descriptions to help them to make a choice." The language of Direct Wine's regular mailings is designed to add flavour and local colour to the wines on offer.
With opportunities for targeting customers via Reward and Club cards, supermarkets have begun to muscle in on mail-order. Sainsbury's introduced a limited service with Wine Direct in November 1994, and Tesco is thinking about extending Tesco Direct to its entire list. Marks & Spencer has The Wine Cellar, while Waitrose, via the flagging wine merchant Findlater, Mackie Todd, set up Waitrose Direct for John Lewis customers. If they chip away at the expense of the many mail-order merchants plying for our taste buds, wine consumers will be the poorer for it.
Mail-order wines of the week
1995 Hilltop Chardonnay, Cyril and Charles, pounds 6.99 (5 per cent off for a case), Peatlings Direct (01284 755948). Good-value, elegant Cape chardonnay from Fairview Estate with spicy oak undertones, intense citrus fruit flavours and a note of butterscotch. 1995 Te Mata Castle Hill Sauvignon Blanc, Hawkes Bay, pounds 8.35, The Wine Society (01438 7411177). Elegant, almost Pouilly Fume-like North Island sauvignon with added richness and a touch of elderflower. 1992 Cotes du Rhone, La Haie aux Grives, Domaine du Vieux Chene, pounds 4.90, Justerini & Brooks (0171-493 8721). Aromatic, intensely peppery, consistently good-value grower's southern Rhone red. 1995 Le XV du President, Cotes du Roussillon Villages, pounds 6.15 or pounds 68.99 a case, Bordeaux Direct (01734 481711). A plump, ripely juicy, winter-warming Roussillon red with classic Mediterranean rosemary and thyme spiciness. 1993 Chianti Classico, Felsina Berardenga, pounds 9.49, Enotria Winecellars (0181-871 2668). This cedar-oaky, richly concentrated, sangiovese-based Tuscan red from top chianti estate Felsina is a finely textured beauty. 1993 Chapel Hill McLaren Vale/Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 9.49, Australian Wine Club (01753 591369). Pam Dunsford's intensely flavoured, vanilla- scented, textured blend with sumptuous, stylish blackcurranty fruitiness.Reuse content