The Decanter Retailer Awards celebrates the best of UK wine retail, championing those who make a pleasure of the business. The judging panel, made up of five wine experts, base decisions on quality, value, range and service, but they also look for innovation, drive, creativity, energy, evangelism – and even hedonism.
With the results of the 2019 awards now determined and announcements made on 26 September, Chairman Peter Richards MW reflects on this year’s judging process and the serious business behind wine retail…
By Peter Richards MW, September 2019
There’s an old toast that runs: ‘May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.’
Being ahead of the game is important – even in the world of wine. For most of us, wine is something we relate primarily to pleasure. But for those whose profession it is to provide us with that pleasure, wine is serious business.
The Decanter Retailer Awards celebrates those who make a pleasure of this business. None of us like to part with our head-earned cash but when the result is a gratifying experience and a delicious bottle at a fair price (ideally also a desire to repeat the exercise) then it’s worth it.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Selling wine. Actually, it’s not.
As wine drinkers, we’re lucky. There’s never been a better time in history to drink wine, given the recent advances in quality and diversity. But for those whose job it is to sell the stuff in the UK, things have seldom been this hard.
How so? For one, consumer confidence is low. Then there’s our weak and fluctuating currency. Brexit-related issues for a globally-facing business are manifold. Add to this ever-greater competition and consolidation on the high street. Then there’s our punitive tax regime (on average, 50p in every pound spent on wine to drink at home is tax). As for the big one: the UK as a nation is steadily drinking ever less.
No wonder so many wine merchants have gone to the wall over the last few decades.
And yet we’re a nation of wine drinkers. Wine is officially the nation’s favourite alcoholic tipple (with 28% of the vote ahead of beer’s 23% and 20% for spirits). Historically, the UK has been the best place in the world to enjoy wine because, as a trading nation with no significant tradition of large-scale domestic production, we’ve been voracious in our thirst to bring the best from around the world to our shores.
That’s why it’s important to champion our finest wine retailers. These are testing times and so the resourcefulness and resilience of the country’s best wine sellers is important to celebrate. If this ever ceases to be a defining feature of our wine landscape then the best wines will simply sell elsewhere and the UK will risk losing its status as a key global wine hub. And that would be a disaster.
We are five judges on the Decanter Retailer Awards panel – myself, Andy Howard MW, Matt Walls, Laura Clay and Peter Ranscombe.
As we steadily plough our way through hundreds of entries, assessing, visiting, tasting, scoring and re-scoring over months before heatedly debating in our intensive judging conclave, we all feel a keen sense of duty, and desire to support the UK wine trade and encourage those doing a brilliant job against the odds.
Making the final decisions on shortlists, runners-up and winners is never easy. It takes a good deal of time, thought and discussion. Sometimes it gets heated, and we have to take a break. But it’s always very democratic – we all need to endorse the final results. We like to champion smaller retailers where we can. We place a lot of emphasis on what has happened over the last year, these being annual awards, so the results are as current and relevant as possible.
We ask retailers to send in mini-videos to make their case and give a sense of personality. A particularly memorable line from one such video this year was delivered by a merchant standing in a top London restaurant: ‘If you can’t enjoy lobster bhaji and Corsican Vermentino, you’re tired of life.’
It’s one way to sell the stuff, I suppose.
I’ve been asked how we judges stay objective. It’s never really been an issue. We’re chosen for our knowledge and impartiality and, ultimately, it’s easy because you simply take the viewpoint of someone who loves and regularly buys wine, which we all are.
Which retailer is doing the best job? Who’s most deserving? Which one would we honestly recommend to our wine-loving friends? That’s the bottom line, and it’s served us very well over the years. The results speak for themselves.
As chair, I’m lucky enough to take centre stage at the awards ceremony and congratulate people in person. The best part of the job is seeing the thrill on winners’ faces – partly because of the prestige but also the satisfaction of hard work validated and recognition that this can boost their teams and business.
Of course, there are always those who are disappointed (the worst part of the job). But there’s always next year, a new set of challenges to overcome, a host of different opportunities to seize.
So here’s to wine, and being ahead of the game. Let’s celebrate the UK’s best wine retailers as best we can. I know I’ll be raising a glass at the awards ceremony on September 26th.