Drinks Retailing News: evolution of a trade champion

19 May, 2017

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln was in the White House abolishing slavery, Queen Victoria was at the height of her power and William Ewart Gladstone was chancellor of the exchequer. The Football Association had just been founded, the very first London Underground tube was embarking upon its maiden voyage and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was born.

In London’s Bow Lane the printing presses were whirring to ink another historical first as our fine publication was born. The Wine Trade Review hit booksellers’ shelves as a monthly supplement to The Grocer, which had just turned a year old, published by William Reed to serve the wine trade in all its forms, from merchants to shippers and auction houses, covering the commercial nuances affecting their businesses. 

Gladstone may not enjoy the same exalted place in history as Lincoln and Queen Victoria, but at the time his tariff reforms were the talk of the world. The British Empire stretched from Canada to New Zealand and Gladstone – who served four terms as chancellor and four as prime minister – set about simplifying Britain’s tariff of duties and customs, ushering in a new era of globalisation. 

The British economy was flourishing, driven by the rise of steam engines, and Gladstone’s reforms helped make Brits wealthier and gave them a dazzling array of goods on which to spend their hard-earned. For the first time in 150 years they gained a thirst for wine – so much so that the editorial bigwigs of the era decided to create our magazine.

The six-page supplement began life on July 18, 1863, and declared: “We are of the opinion that in matters of business, men of business should be allowed to think pretty much for themselves. But in order that this principle may be carried into effect, one preliminary condition is absolutely necessary – the materials to be supplied for thinking, from which a competent judge may deduce a competent judgement. That is precisely the function proposed by The Wine Trade Review.” 

Quite. The first issue went on to explain that its editorial team had been speaking to many “purveyors of tea, coffee and sugar” and had come to the realisation that “the sale of wine by grocers has increased”. 

It credited Gladstone with being the driving force for this change, claiming that, for the century and a half that preceded his reforms, the British population had been “debarred, save on extraordinary and exceptional occasions, the healthful luxury of wine-drinking”. 

It discussed the prices of claret from such famous houses as Lafite, Latour and Margaux, waxed lyrical about port and sherry and offered a recipe for making rhubarb wine. 

It noted that Spain accounted for 43% of the UK wine market due to sherry and Portugal made up 24.5% through port. Eighteen per cent came from France and the remaining 14.5% from
the Cape, Madeira and others. 

While Australia has long since become the dominant player in the market, it barely registered in 1863. 

We did note, however, that “each mail brings us fresh news of the successful culture of the vine in various parts of Australia, and the accounts are so encouraging that we may fairly hope to see that the country will in a few years produce sufficient, not only for its own consumption but for general exportation”. 

The Wine Trade Review was such a hit that within a year it came out of The Grocer and, by July 16, 1864,had grown to a 20-page trade paper. In August 1864 we reported that wine imports grew 19% on the previous year, from 11.9 million gallons to 14.2 million gallons (about 72,000 cases in today’s measures). 

Meanwhile, spirits sales rose 3% from 10.2 million gallons to 10.5 million gallons. An annual subscription to The Wine Trade Review cost 10 shillings, for which readers were offered trade reports, duty lists, viticultural musings, bankruptcy claims and details of recent will readings, along with the usual blend of news and insight. 

In the days before high-speed broadband, tablets and email, we gratefully received scraps of news from a strong base of foreign subscribers. The main challenges in the 19th century were exchange rates, over-trading, stagnation of business and excessive stock. 

But optimism abounded and our forebears quite rightly looked forward to 150 years of “purveying wines to thirsty Britons”. 

Remarkable Development

By the end of the 19th century more than four-fifths of the wine sold in the UK came from three countries: France, Spain and Portugal. 

We reported: “From year to year we have had to call attention to the remarkable development of the trade in Spanish red, but the increase in 1899 was even more noticeable than usual.” 

The trade was preoccupied with the Boer War and, as we went to press on December 15, 1899, the industry’s war fund stood at £6,600. 

The first issue of the 20th century began: “The year which has just closed amidst the most gloomy surroundings opened with a perception which was encouraging for all branches of commerce. An end had been put to the war between the United States and Spain and to that on the North-west frontier of India, the political outlook was peaceful, and the trade of our country was undoubtedly in a buoyant condition.” 

But that had all changed when the Boers launched a coup “to make them virtual masters of South Africa” and alcohol sales started to slow as the nation prepared for war. By the end of 1899 volume sales were up just 45,345 gallons on the previous year – a fraction of the increase predicted before the war began. 

Further woes came in the form of a general election that interfered with business and the April Budget statement, when chancellor Sir Michael Hicks-Beach shocked the trade by “quite unexpectedly” raising the duty on wine imported in wood from 1s to 1s 6d. 

But the first year of the 20th century ended on a high, with an abundant vintage in France, Champagne of exceptional quality and a growing appreciation of spirits in northern towns driving a healthy rise in volume sales, while the anti-alcohol lobby was thwarted at every turn. 

War Crisis

“May the war be speedily over!” cried the front page of The Wine Trade Review on August 15, 1914, two weeks after World War I broke out in Europe following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. 

Buoyant optimism fuelled the magazine the following month as it began: “Great events will in all probability speedily crowd one upon the other, and we hope and believe they will be so strongly in favour of the Allies that the end of this evil thing will soon be in sight.” 

Writing from Paris, the title’s special correspondent said: “It seems tolerably certain that, as regards the French wine trade in general the effects of the war will not be disastrous. It is even possible that it may have a favourable influence, since from the point of the merchant the 1914 vintage will have the additional prestige of being the ‘war year’.” 

That optimism drained as the war dragged on for four long years – wine regions were decimated, the public purse shrank and gloom washed over the nation. 

France was by far Britain’s largest wine supplier and concern for stock grew as the Kaiser’s forces swept through the country. 

A few months into the conflict we reported: “When the state of the vines was first discussed this season, no one thought that already a large area of the fair country of France, which produces so much good wine, would have been occupied by a foe. That is now the case, but, so far, we believe no mischief has been done.” It added that “the enemy knows well the value of good wine”. 

A year later we reported widespread despair and consternation after the French government decided to ban wine exports. “The trade surely had difficulties and anxieties enough without such a disaster,” we said. 

A regular section of the magazine was devoted to the Trading with the Enemy Act, which had been put together during the Crimean War in 1853-1856 but had not been amended subsequently and was considered “archaic and nebulous”. 

A great sense of community among the trade prevailed, evidenced nowhere more than in the poignant obituaries devoted to members of the industry who lost their lives on battlefields across Europe. 

They ran for several pages and included such epitaphs as: “Lieutenant John O Calvet, eldest son of Monsieur Jean A Calvet, of Messrs J Calvet & Co, Bordeaux, died in hospital in Paris.” The 24-year-old was seriously wounded in the lower jaw by a grenade explosion, and received the order of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his bravery in saving the regiment’s machine guns. It was noted that his brothers, Gerard and Daniel, were so far unscathed and fighting on the front in Champagne. 

Private Robert Gordon Campbell, a member of Glasgow wine merchant John Campbell, was “shot in the brain” while acting as a bomb thrower in France. “A striking coincidence was that Private Campbell had given his pocket book to his comrade on the morning of the fight and that that pocket book has probably been the means of saving that comrade’s life, as it was found afterwards to be pierced with a shrapnel bullet, which, however, did no further damage beyond winding the soldier for a moment,” we reported. 

On a lighter note, soldiers in camp wrote a spirited reply to a Dr Saleeby, who wanted the troops to be stripped of their rum rations. The soldiers said they wanted rum supplies to continue because it quickened the heartbeat, promoted circulation and helped keep them warm on the frozen Flemish battlefields. 

And, while in 2017 the chancellor increased tax on all alcoholic drinks, the brewers were the whipping boys in World War I as the chancellor kept duty flat on wine and spirits but raised it by 17s 3d per barrel of beer to help fund the war effort. We noted the rise in tax was “very severe” and that spirits, along with port, sherry, claret and other wine, would benefit tremendously.

Name Change

After World War I the magazine was renamed the Wine & Spirit Trade Review to account for the popularity of gin and whisky, and it continued to report on troubling times across Europe.  

The Nazis began the Blitz in 1940 and, while the nation suffered under the rain of Hitler’s bombs, the trade had to come to terms with a whole set of new pressures – damage to buildings, loss of stock, a population shift away from the south and east to north and west, rationed or curtailed supplies, demands from temperance leaders for restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and a tangle of war-time red tape. 

“The ordinary rules of the business game are for the moment set aside,” we reported. “Supplies are secured where it is possible to secure them, and generally only small parcels are available. This is particularly the case in regard to French wines, some varieties of which are virtually unprocurable, for the military and economic collapse of France had not been foreseen and most of the agency houses were caught with only short supplies.” 

HE Laffer of the Australian Wine Board adopted a stronger tone in prophesying the months ahead: “Germany will strip [France] bare of anything moveable, with especial regard to food and drink. Priceless stocks of wine and brandy will disappear, stocks which any lover of wine would prefer to see go down the gutter than down the gullet of the murdering Hun.” 

Many retailers were worried by the issue of their legal liability for injuries or loss of life if they allowed customers to shelter on their premises during an air raid. The Wine & Spirit Trade Review spelled out that there was none but that “it would be wise for the shopkeeper to keep the public away from any part of the premises which is specially dangerous, or to warn them of the danger”. 

VE Day brought peace to Europe but left the wine trade counting the cost of six years of war. Three days later, The Wine & Spirit Trade Review reported that “an examination of Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden has disclosed thousands of tons of food of all sorts and a vast stock of the best wines in Europe”. 

The same issue focused on a French wine trade ravaged by the effects of occupation, a series of poor harvests and the grubbing up of vineyards to grow food crops for a population with more essential needs. A 40% drop in grape production was recorded in some southern regions and we detailed a Nazi injunction proclaiming: “Thou shalt transform thy vineyards into minefields and thy peaceful wheat-fields into bloody battle grounds.” 

A number of directors of Moët & Chandon had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, among them Count Paul Chandon-Moët, who wrote to the Review’s Paris correspondent from Epernay two days after his liberation on May 10. 

An extract read: “After a sojourn in the prison at Châlons-sur-Marne and in the camp at Compiègne, I was sent to Auschwitz in Poland, then to the labour camps at Buchenwald and to the camp at Dora, where I worked in an underground factory. 

“Arrested again by the Gestapo on a charge of resistance, I spent another five months in prison with a group of Frenchmen, all of whom had been condemned to death. We owed our salvation from this fate only to the enforced evacuation of the camp which was effected a few days before the arrival of the American troops. We were then sent to Belsen from which the British Army released us, took care of us and repatriated us in France.” A footnote by the correspondent added: “What an odyssey of mental and physical suffering is conveyed in those few so modest lines from a great Frenchman and a great gentleman.” 

Coronation Cheer

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 brought some respite for a wine and spirit trade hit by rising prices and all-round austerity in the post-war years. 

Our issue of June 5 – three days after the ceremony at Westminster Abbey – described it as a “matter for congratulation” that the previous 12 months had seen the trade avoid the “crisis dimensions” of other industries, including textiles and footwear. 

Even so, wine sales were about a third down on the figure for 1938, attributed to “a disproportionate increase in prices of wines as compared with other classes of food and drink, the duties on wines being as much as 10 times the pre-war levels”. 

The assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 passed without remark by The Wine & Spirit Trade Review as the trade attempted to come to terms with Britain’s own big story of the week – Beatlemania. Our diarist, Bacchus, reported that the phenomena had “reared its four mop-like heads” at the start of a new term of the trade’s Pimm’s Academy training body. 

“The guitars, the Merseyside beat, the rhythm were all there – yea, yea, yea,” reported Bacchus, as a quartet of trade luminaries entertained fellow academicians by miming to the group’s records. While all this was going on, one of the Beatles themselves was in a less revelrous mood. A note to the publication from Mr S Sklar of Capital Wine Agencies reported: “A bottle of 98 proof Russian vodka was sent urgently to Paul McCartney, the Beatle suffering from flu.”

The eve of the 1966 World Cup Final between England and West Germany saw a party of wine and spirit wholesalers from Osnabrück in Saxony entertained to lunch at the offices of King George IV whisky in London. 

While the German party was making the most of the event, some off-licences were underwhelmed by the impact that England hosting the football tournament had on sales. 

These days we’re used to spikes in sales caused by consumers stocking up to sit in front of the telly for a month, but the July 29 issue of The Wine & Spirit Trade Review reported quite a different dynamic at work in 1966. Sales were up “slightly” because “wives had visited their shops due to the games being shown on television”. 

Today, suppliers and retailers talk about the “big night in” as a sales opportunity, but then it was viewed as a menace. “Films televised early on Tuesday nights are hitting some off-licence sales,” the same article bemoaned. 

Mr P Ackroyd of the Bradford & District Off-licence Holders’ Association expanded: “Since films have shown on television between 6pm and 7.30pm, my trade has dropped. I used to have a steady stream of customers early Tuesday evenings but now trade is absolutely flat. Sometimes we don’t even get a dozen customers.”

The trade picked up on the euphoria of the 1969 moon landing with Johnnie Walker adopting a space-age theme for its float in the Kilmarnock Week parade. One supermarket was taking a small step of its own when we reported, in the week Apollo 11 completed its mission, that “the idea of Tesco Stores introducing its own brand of beer moved one step nearer fruition last Friday”. 

Second Rebranding

On April 3, 1970, the magazine was rebranded Off Licence News and the Wine & Spirit Trade Review. The strapline soon went and it was known forthwith as Off Licence News, aimed at the entire off-trade. “We wanted to move The Wine & Spirit Trade Review more into retail,” said Lawrence Reed, who was then managing director at publisher William Reed. “The drinks trade was changing rapidly and the off-licence chains such as Oddbins and Peter Dominic were being built up. Retail outlets were in growth and wine consumption was increasing, so we wanted the title to reflect all the outlets selling it. It was a major revamp and a complete change in format, but it was extremely successful.” 

The front page of the first OLN read: “This is your paper whether you are a tenant, a manager or aproprietor, whether you work for a multiple, a co-op, a supermarket chain or whether you are in business on your own.” The main story of the week focused on rising Scotch whisky prices and how Victoria Wine, Unwin, Peter Dominic, Wineways and more would react. 

The magazine moved with the times and naval puns littered OLN in 1982 as retailers “torpedoed” Argentinian wines in response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands. As Margaret Thatcher sent 127 ships to battle in the South Atlantic Ocean, wine merchants set about stripping their shelves of Malbec. London merchant Mike Lichtman was pictured by OLN looking sombre as he poured his Argentinian stock down the drain, while Irving Stone was among those to follow suit. 

Brian Barnett, owner of the Bottoms Up chain, instead tried to capitalise on the conflict by selling as much Argentinian wine as possible. He told OLN he was “actively dumping” stocks and urged customers to get involved with the slogan: “Sink Argentina – drink it dry!” 

Meanwhile, 92,000 cans of McEwan’s Export headed south with the task force. 

21st-century optimism 

Britain’s biggest off-licence chain was brimming with optimism at the start of the 21st century after emerging the big winner when the off-trade hit the millennium jackpot. First Quench’s drinks sales rose 25% during millennium week as Nielsen results showed the take-home market outperformed the on-trade in every category.

Champagne was up 200% on the previous year and an OLN survey revealed one in 10 independents ran out of bubbly. It was not all joyful though, as off-licence robberies doubled, Gordon Brown hammered the trade in the Budget and retailers paid the penalty for England’s 3-2 defeat by Romania in the last 16 of Euro 2000 with “disappointing” beer sales. 

Later that year First Quench was bought by Nomura for £225 million. It lasted just eight more years. 

Beer and cider grew in importance to OLN and it cemented its status as the only magazine covering these off-trade categories in detail. We now run the International Beer Challenge and International Cider Challenge, and have built up a strong portfolio of industry events, including the Drinks Retailing Awards, Think Gin, Think Rum and Celebrate British Beer. The magazine has long been dedicated to drinks retailing and has continued to evolve with this dynamic market.

Meaningful Title

The decision to rename the magazine for a third time in its 154-year history was not taken lightly as there is a lot of love for the OLN title in the trade, and it comes with a strong heritage. 

But we feel the time is now right to enter a brave new era. Bargain Booze and Wine Rack are going strong under Conviviality and Oddbins is thriving with a scaled-down estate, but off-licence chains are no longer the dominant force. The multiple grocers control a huge chunk of the market, while independent wine merchants, spirits specialists and craft beer shops are thriving. None of them would describe themselves as off-licences, but all are our readers. 

Convenience shopping is a growing trend, and we will never turn our backs on this vital part of the market, but we want to make it clear that we represent the entire off-trade, and that includes the luxury department stores, the discounters and the burgeoning online sector.

To paraphrase Richard Thomas, editor of the publication in 1970, this is your magazine whether you are a franchisee, a shop worker, a manager or a proprietor, whether you work for a multiple specialist, a supermarket, a discounter, a luxury department store, a wholesaler or an online retailer, or whether you own a business of your own, be it an independent c-store, a fine wine merchant, an all-round independent drinks merchant, an off-trade/on-trade hybrid or anything else.

As long as you are an off-trade operator and you are serious about selling BWS, this is the title for you.

We represent each and every one of you and try our best to inform and entertain you.

Many of you are rivals, but you all want a healthy off-trade, as does Drinks Retailing News, and there are common enemies outside the industry that the trade can unite against. 

The last ever Off Licence News ran an in-depth feature about the threat of the anti-alcohol lobby and the tactics it uses and we will continue to challenge such bodies. 

Recent successful campaigns include our battle to halt the spread of Reducing the Strength schemes, whenwe took the fight to Westminster.

Our goal is to continue to provide campaigning, agenda-setting journalism that fights on your behalf and arms you with the key information you need when making buying and merchandising decisions.

If there is anything you feel we should be covering please contact martin.green@agilemedia.co.uk.

We hope you enjoy reading the title going forwards, and ensure it is still going strong 154 years from now. 




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