Laithwaites, the UK’s biggest home-delivery wine business, has always reminded me of Dan Brown: loved by the general public, but dismissed as a bit of a joke by us critics. The parallel doesn’t stop there: in the week that the best-selling author published The Lost Symbol, his equally preposterous follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, Laithwaites held its first press tasting for more than a decade.
I’ve no idea how Dan Brown feels about bad reviews — having more cash in the bank than George Soros probably softens the opprobrium — but Laithwaites has a thin corporate skin. Its last tasting was panned so badly that it gave up showing its wines to the fourth estate, relying instead on brilliant marketing, cheap £49.99 for 15-bottle “recruitment offers” and insistent telephone salespeople to shift an estimated 4.5m cases a year. Good press? Pah.
Three things have brought about a change of heart at the company. First, Laithwaites, the original one-man-and-a-van operation, is 40 years old this year and has something to celebrate. Secondly, it wants the press (and you, dear readers) to be aware of the improvements it has made to its range. And thirdly, the man who took over as global wine director last year, Dan Snook, wants to move the business upmarket. In short, Laithwaites wants to be taken seriously as a direct wine merchant.
To be fair to Laithwaites, it has always sold some good wines, especially from France and Spain. The problem was the prices, which tended to be £1-2 higher than everyone else’s. Not that you knew it. Laithwaites cleverly used its own labels so that punters couldn’t make direct comparisons with the same wines on other people’s websites. That, too, is changing, with Snook favouring a more transparent approach.
I’ve tasted the new Laithwaites range twice this year: once at its Reading HQ and then again at the recent press bash in London. On both occasions, I’ve been impressed by what the team of buyers has sourced from around the world. Prices are cheaper and quality is generally good to very good.
Three wines that typify the new approach are the limey, intense, bone-dry 2008 The Loom Riesling, Clare Valley (£7.99, 13%, www.laithwaites.co.uk), the elegant, peppery, Rhône-like 2007 Ascención Malbec, Salta, Argentina (£7.99, 14.5%) and from New Zealand, the sexy, voluptuous 2008 Gunboat Point Pinot Noir, Central Otago (£14.99, 14.5%), sourced by Nigel Greening of Felton Road.
Another coincidence (this is beginning to look like a conspiracy, Professor Langdon) was that Laithwaites put on its tasting five days after The Wine Society, its upmarket but (in commercial terms at least) less successful by-the-case rival. Normally, the contrast would have underlined the gulf between them: if Laithwaites is Dan Brown, then The Wine Society is JM Coetzee or Hilary Mantel.
Not any more. The Wine Society still has the edge on fine wines and is more likely to choose quirky, off-the-wall bottles, so I would still rather buy from this Stevenage-based co-operative (even though you have to pay £40 to join). But Laithwaites has narrowed the gap in the past year, with an increasingly impressive list. If you want to make the comparison for yourself, try the waxy, herbal 2008 Château de la Grave Grains Fins, Côtes de Bourg Blanc (£6.25, 13%, www.thewinesociety.com), the brambly, deeply coloured 2007 Vigna Corvino, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (£6.95, 13%) and, best of all, the rich, complex, honey and pineapple fruity Chenin Blanc-based 2007 Sequillo White, Sadie Family, Swartland (£15.50, 14%) and put them up against the three Laithwaites wines I’ve recommended. While you’re at it, ignore Dan Brown and read the Booker Prize winner instead.
Originally published in The Observer