Fri 25 Jan 2013

Pioneering Spirit: 20 Years of The Society in France


20 years ago The Wine Society was a pioneer, opening a French collection point for its members on the very day that the EU relaxed its trade barriers.

Raising the flag in France, 1993

We were the first wine merchant to do so. The night before had seen the launch party, a dinner-dance at the Grand Hôtel in Le Touquet. It was attended by 290 members and their guests, along with members of staff and committee, our new French colleagues, some long-standing suppliers and local dignitaries, including the mayor of Hesdin (whose rather lengthy speech in French is still being talked about).

That we opened such a facility and so promptly was down to the drive and vision of the then managing director, Dr Barry Sutton, who had the revolutionary idea to allow members to have access to their wines at lower French duty rates. Barry sadly passed away last summer, but as a lifelong Europhile and one who enjoyed life, he would have delighted in the success of his project. Certainly, he would have thoroughly enjoyed the celebratory dinner held last weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of its launch, and glasses were raised in his honour.

2012 was a record year for our French operation despite a rather uncertain economic backdrop. Many people have played an important part in the success of Hesdin and now Montreuil over the years and some of those key players were present at Saturday’s celebration. In true pioneering spirit, our members, quite a few of whom had been at the inaugural dinner, had to battle against the elements to get there. But one person who deserves special mention for being instrumental in the success of the business is Véronique Chaumetou.

The Montreuil équipe with Véronique Chaumetou far right

Véronique, who now runs the French operation on our behalf was there that first morning after the dinner in 1993. Members told me how impressed they were by the highly organised paperwork and Véronique’s friendliness and efficiency. The story goes that Véronique sat at her desk outside the Ryssen Distillery in Hesdin, our collection point in the early days, with the temperature at a perishing -7?C. She was there from 8am, ready to help members with their wine. By 1pm she could not move and had to be picked up, chair and all, and carried inside to thaw out. It took three hours!

Ewan Murray presents mystery wine winner Mr Evans with ’93 Mouton Rothschild

Over the years, the tastings and events team has played a key role in organising and hosting fun events for members to attend in and around Hesdin and Montreuil. Team Leader Ewan Murray can count no fewer than 80 dinners during his time at the helm. He will soon move to a new role, managing The Society’s public relations full time, and, making one of his last presentations to members, he talked of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that they had often displayed when things ‘hadn’t quite gone to plan.’

Who would have thought that the eruption of a volcano in Iceland would have an effect on a Wine Society dinner? When the coach to take diners to Les Trois Tonneaux didn’t turn up, members rallied, ferrying everyone to the event in their own cars. Nobody had thought to inform us that the government had requisitioned all coaches to go to the airports and help repatriate stranded air travellers.

It is hard to avoid talk of Les Misérables at the moment, but the brave members who endured to the bitter end the live outdoor performance of Les Mis during Montreuil’s annual son et lumière under the biggest downpour on record, may have different reasons to remember it!

Janet Wynne Evans, an early trailblazer, remembers one of the first events, held in Hesdin town hall. ‘We had just uncorked the wines and the room was rather warm, so we opened the windows to let in some air. Instead, a bouquet of rancid oil blew in as Chez Christine, the local chip wagon, set up shop in the street below. In all my days of hosting tastings in Hesdin it never seemed to move.’

High anthocyanin content was not restricted to the red wines!

What has always remained constant, reliable and enjoyable is the wine. Representing two such constants at last Saturday’s event were David Ling of Hugel & Fils in Alsace and Nicolas Jaeger, fourth-generation cellarmaster at Alfred Gratien, suppliers of The Society’s Champagne since 1906. David had been at the launch dinner and noted that he had been given the same room at the hotel! Nicolas, too young to have been there 20 years ago, promised members that he was committed to maintaining the quality of our house Champagne and to supplying us with celebratory bottles for many years to come.

So here’s to the next 20 years…

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : France, Montreuil


  1. Michael Culver says:

    I loved the reference to the Mayor of Hesdin’s speech and living here in Brittany have experienced similar perorations on various occasions. Once you ask an official of any sort to speak or explain anything one is in for the long haul, often gasping for a drink!

  2. Jean and Norman Gooding says:

    Having been at the 1993 inaugural dinner, we felt we could not give this a miss. In spite of the weather we had no problem either getting there or back. It was really great to see those we have known from past dinners and tastings like Pam, Sachelle, Eric etc. and the lads from the shop, Julien and Marc. And, of course, our Veronique who makes it all happen.
    A superb tasting and dinner and a memorable event.

  3. Mr John Bowman says:

    Could not pass up this opportunity to congratulate everyone involved in this fantastic event. Lucky for us we were on the Ewan and Nicolas table which also included the most charming and interesting people to be with for an evening. Hope we do not have to wait another twenty years for such a memorable evening !
    John and Carol Bowman.

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