Heather Dougherty on the Wine Society's French outpost
The withering of the presence of UK supermarkets across the Channel has left The Wine Society and Majestic as the last redoubt of the English wine trade in and around Calais. While Majestic, as a publicly listed company, must show that there is a commercial imperative for the continued presence of its two stores in Calais, The Wine Society, as usual, has a rather different perspective.
Its French outpost is located away from the day tripping, bargain booze hunting hordes, in genteel Montreuil-sur-Mer, around 40 minutes’ drive south from the Channel Tunnel - population 10, apparently, on a damp March weekday. Despite the name, it has not been “sur mer” since the 1300s and is now a picturesque hill town with tourist-friendly ramparts surrounding its old town.
The Wine Society may well turn out to be the last UK wine trade man standing in France and they are proud to have been there at the beginning too, having been the first of the UK companies to have offered an outlet in France, back at the dawn of the EU open market on 1 January 1993 - they are celebrating 20 years of the Society in France this year.
As a co-operative society, whose mission is to maximise value to its members, ie its customers, who must purchase a share, The Wine Society does not have to justify the continued presence of a shop in France in purely profit terms to pesky institutional investors. Instead it views its showroom in Montreuil as part of the service it provides to its members. Here they can buy wines at a guaranteed saving of £18 per dozen bottles, choosing either from the 200-strong list of wines in regular stock; or, which seems to be the norm, picking up pre-arranged orders, which can include wines from practically the entire Wine Society list.
Because of the way the discount works, as a set amount off the list price, the best deals are on wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum. £1.50 off a £7.50 wine looks like a handsome deal; £1.50 off a vintage Champagne at £50 is rather less compelling. Hence, the core list of 200 wines concentrates on the sub-£15 mark, with most below £10 - although, of course, actual wine prices are in Euros.
As you might expect, many of the bulk orders being collected there are destined for parties and weddings back home.
In addition to the shop, the Society runs a program of events throughout the year for its members, focusing on wine tastings and dinners at some of the town’s best restaurants. Like most provincial towns over the Channel, Montreuil seems to have a surprisingly wide range of good and very good eating options, considering its size, including Michelin-starred Le Château de Montreuil. Those 10 locals must eat out A LOT.