Fri 28 Aug 2015

50 Years in Stevenage – A Celebratory Tasting


Sebastian Payne MW started work with The Society in 1973, although he joined as a member along with his brother in 1967. Who better, then, to select a wine from each of The Society’s decades in Stevenage to taste with 60 lucky members at our recent celebration of 50 years in Stevenage?

The wines were almost, but not quite, incidental to the wealth of anecdotes that came forth during 60 fascinating minutes spent in our newly refurbished Members’ Room. Here are just a few of the stories, together with a brief look at each of the wines.


Not a shabby line-up ...

Not a shabby line-up…

Present Day
With a wealth of wine from South America, Eastern Europe and other newer stars elsewhere now available on The Society’s List, there were myriad choices for this decade’s wine. Sebastian kicked things off with a wine from this decade, the multi-IWC-award-winning (but sadly all gone now) The Society’s Exhibition New Zealand Chardonnay 2013, made for us by Paul Brajkovich at Kumeu River. Warming tropical fruit in a Burgundian style – the perfect illustration of what our Exhibition range, launched in 1999, is all about: benchmark examples of their kind offering excellent value for money, made for us by some of the world’s top names.

The committee showed great imagination and courage in deciding to move from our three cellars in London to purpose-built premises in Stevenage, taking advantage of the grants and tax breaks being given to businesses who moved to the new towns. Our cellar and bottling plant (closed in 1991) moved in 1965.

Christopher Tatham, buyer from 1958 to 1972 had a simple rule of thumb: ‘Wine should be delicious. When you put it in your mouth, do you like it? Would you pour another glass?’ Christopher was the first Society buyer to insist that each wine had a comprehensive tasting note.  Albert Cable, general manager at the time, was someone who, according to Sebastian, wrote ‘commendably short’ tasting notes, e.g. ‘A complete wine’.

Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 1969 from Domaine Huet (currently available for £120 per bottle or £65 per half bottle) has aged beautifully because of the high acidity in the wine. There are only 10 grammes of residual sugar, so it’s almost ‘sec’, but it has a lovely structure and lightness of touch with such depth of flavour.


Sebastian Payne in full flow

Sebastian Payne in full flow

Several scandals (including Norwich-bottled Beaujolais that wasn’t Beaujolais!) reared their heads in the 1970s. Thankfully The Society’s impeccable and transparent sourcing, something that has been key throughout our 141-year history, did us a lot of good in the trade and in the eye of the consumer.

The Society has always had a nose for the quirky as well as the classic. Chateau Musar is very much in the first camp and has, overtime, put a foot firmly in the second. The Society was the first UK merchant to regularly import Musar, starting in 1971, and we remain firm friends with the Hochar family. The wine has a cult following. The late Serge Hochar was a charismatic winemaker who possessed vibrancy and passion for his vocation. His approach of seemingly minimum intervention led to a wine that his son Gaston describes as “amazing but disturbing”.

Sebastian presented the 1977 (the year of his first daughter’s birth, and also the year he became a Master of Wine). It’s a blend of cinsaut, carignan and cabernet sauvignon. A nod to the legendary inconsistency of the wine, which of course is a large part of its cult appeal. was given in Sebastian’s comment: “When Musar is good it is mind-blowing, and sometimes it’s not. I don’t know which glass you’ve got …”

The 1980s was the decade in which wine noticeably started to get better, as the weather was generally improving. It all started with 1982 Bordeaux and quality worldwide has, in the main, progressed pleasingly. In this decade we listed over 500 wines at once for the very first time, we started accepting credit cards and our Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme started. Sebastian became head of buying in 1985, hence his next choice of wine.

La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva Rioja 1985 comes from a bodega with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship (La Rioja Alta make The Society’s Exhibition Rioja Reserva). Its silky texture and warming flavours of smoky and spicy strawberries and plum encapsulate what the perfect Rioja should taste like.


A full Members' Room

A full Members’ Room

The 90s began and ended with warehouse expansion at The Society (warehouses 2 and 3 were built), and our Stevenage Cellar Showroom opened its doors just as 1989 ended and 1990 began. Our flagship French wine region, Bordeaux, suffered terribly in 1991, 1992 and 1993 because of the vagaries of the weather , but not before the stellar vintage of 1990, rightly considered to be one of the great vintages of the century.

Our long-term relationships with growers are many, including the Barton family. Sebastian chose Château Langoa Barton 1990 to taste, the estate so well run by Anthony Barton since 1985, his uncle Ronald before him and his daughter Liliane now. The 1990 is very good – velvety in texture with rich flavours of cassis and raspberry overlaid with leather and tobacco. If you had to describe what old claret should taste like, you couldn’t do much better than this.

This was an exciting decade when The Society really flourished. Our website came into being (today over 60% of our business happens via this channel), South America, and Chile in particular, showed us what it can do, assisted greatly by the expert buying of Toby Morrhall, achieved through great relationships with the growers. These relationships epitomise how we go about our business, with honesty, loyalty and integrity. Our ‘Wine Championships’ started in 2001 – an annual blind tasting and benchmarking exercise of our portfolio.

It seemed appropriate to finish off our tasting with celebratory bubbles from The Society’s longest-standing grower. Alfred Gratien has been supplying sparkling wine and Champagne to us since 1906, and Alfred Gratien Brut 2000 (currently available for £42, or £27.50 per half) is a rich, beautifully structured fizz that would grace any occasion.

We raise our glasses to the next 50 years in Stevenage.

Ewan Murray
PR Manager

Categories : Miscellaneous


  1. Nicholas Forth says:

    This was a truly memorable tasting, thank you to everyone involved, and particularly Sebastian, for making it possible. The wines were delicious – even the ‘wrong’ bottle of Musar was fascinating – the surroundings were perfect and Sebastian’s stories and observations gave a real insight into the history of the Society. Here’s to the next 50 years indeed!

Leave a comment