Our wine pilgrimages? First Jerez, in sunny southern Spain. Then the Alsace slopes of the Vosges mountains. And now? Stevenage under lowering Hertfordshire skies. Just off junction 7, to be exact. What bathos, I hear you say (Or was it “What’s bathos?” In that case, look it up.) Ah Stevenage. A designated new town in 1946 and the country’s first traffic free shopping area. Birthplace of such luminaries as Jack Wilshere, Ashley Young and Lewis Hamilton. Or, for the more literary, environs of ‘Rook’s Nest’, the house described in E. M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End. But you knew that, anyway. It’s the home of …. The Wine Society. Fronting a busy dual carriage way and proclaiming, in the burgundy colours of the WS, it’s amazing that Richard and I missed it on the first drive up the road. But we did. Just to prolong the anticipation. And we were there. Removing shoes and headgear, lowering our eyes, (there was a slight genuflection from R. or was it a wince, thinking about his ‘investments’?), we shuffled forward and were received, welcomed even, by a lay member who explained the floor-plan. I bit my lip and resisted the question “Do you stock Echo Falls?” So, we were let loose to wander and wonder. Stocks reflect what’s in the printed list (not the on-line list) and there’s plenty of those lists around. Divided into countries, it also featured the WS’ own label, a bin-end section and a Vintage Room. There was also a free enomatic sampling machine and one where you could buy a card (more expensive wines from about 70p a taste). Most of the gazers were male and middle-aged; their wives looking bemused and long-suffering of their husbands’ obsession. They’ll probably ask the question on every wife’s lips “Do you need any more wine?”. Any children there looked bored as they glanced up from the Play Station. One man conducted a business lecture, glass in hand, on his mobile while we danced around him. He was obviously ‘working from home’ that day. Good points? Very obliging and knowledgeable staff (thank you Conrad) was my abiding memory. Suggestion? It might have been better to put all the bin ends on shelves rather than leave them in rows of boxes. Oh, and if you want to visit, check the printed list and if your wines are not on that, pre-order and collect.
[Richard: a fascinating and enjoyable experience, well worth 5 hours in the car (long queue at the A14/M6 junction on the way back), if only because Geoff was driving. Surprisingly busy but if you live in the area it must be the best place to buy wine. Interesting to see all the stock you’ve only read about. However, I wish, as Geoff suggests, that I’d pre-ordered some of the more obscure items, such as a well-reviewed Canadian pinot. I also agree about the bin-ends as, with only 10% off, it’s not worth looking through loads of boxes. The Enomatics (25l sample) offer a good selection, like a 2004 Trevallon and a 2006 Morgon (both very good). They seem to be charged out at cost so a £5 card will enable you to taste most of them. There is also a free coffee machine which was welcome after our drive, where a woman told me ‘coming here is the highlight of my husband’s holiday’. Unlike the French shop there is no handy list of recommended local restaurants so we ended up in an Asda for tolerable toasted paninis and what were, without question, the worst chips we have ever tasted.]