It's a measure of how far the company has come since Tony Laithwaite hawked his wares in a Ford van that Laithwaites felt bold enough to put a selection of fine wines into its autumn wine tasting. Starting out as Bordeaux Direct, Laithwaites is part of the Direct Wines empire that includes the Sunday Times Wine Club, Avery's and virginwines.com. It must have been a tricky decision because 'fine wine' can be a no-no for value seekers. And along with exclusive labels, Laithwaites prides itself on value for money.
Though the value of St Emilion's 2009 Château l'Angélus has been bloated by a recent leg-up to first growth status, I doubt customers will be forming a queue to snap it up at £255 a pop, as fabulous as this wine unquestionably is. By comparison, the cedar-scented, dark berry flavoured 2009 L'Epiphanie à Tertre Daugay, £30, is a relative snip. Back on terra firma, the 2010 Le Grand Chai Haut-Médoc, £12.99, made by the group's experienced winemaker, Jean-Marc Saboua, is a claret of distinction.
The Rhône selection includes a seductively perfumed 2010 Domaine Yann Chave Le Rouvre, £19.99, all pepper and svelte blackberry. From Italy, there's a succulent mouthful of intense raspberryish fruit in the 2008 Vigna Pedale Riserva, Castel del Monte, £18.99, and a mouthwateringly savoury, sweet-and-sour cherryish 2007 Castello di Bossi 'Berardo' Chianti Classico Riserva, £25. If it's all too much for you, the 2010 Château Millegrand Mourral Grande Reserve, Minervois, £8.99, brings respite in the form of spicy red-fruited autumnal solace.
With its temperature-controlled Stevenage warehouses chock full of member's reserves, you'd expect The Wine Society to ooze fine wine through the pores. Yet by investing profit into margins, the non-profit making club has cut prices on 400 wines. Value really is its stock in trade and it showed at its autumn tasting with offers like six for the price of five, so £22.50, on its own tongue-tingling Society's Champagne. Similarly for its fragrantly limey and mineral-dry 2009 Society's Exhibition Riesling, £11.95, from Josmeyer, and the succulently exuberant and cherry-laden 2010 Society's Exhibition Morgon Côte du Puy, £8.95.
The 2009 Château de Camarsac, £8.95, is a juicy modern claret, while the ripe, fresh, berry fruit of the north Italian 2011 Hofstätter Joseph Lagrein, £11.50, makes it an affordable rosso. The Society's 2006 Exhibition Gigondas, Saint-Cosme, £12.50, is a model of richly-spiced liquid plum cake. You might even push the boat out with a hauntingly Margaux-esque Bordeaux blend from Western Australia, in the 2010 Night Harvest 'John George' Cabernet Sauvignon, £25. It goes without saying that the one-off £40 share cost is money more than well spent.