So the Brother-in-Law has gone to France for a day and come back with a whole year's worth (he says) of wine. Since I can't even imagine what a year's worth of wine would look like, let alone buy that amount and bring it home in a VW Golf and save hundreds of pounds into the bargain - yes, allowing for travel expenses - all I can do is whistle reverently while swivelling my eyeballs up and down while he tells me what he's achieved.
More than that, though: I have to thank him for rising to the challenge ofbuying me something sight unseen and hoping that I'll like what he's chosen. The result being six bottles of Rawson's Retreat 2013 Shiraz Cabernet - a New World crowd-pleaser, not my usual tipple, but let's spurn convention for once, and indulge in, yes, a firm and fruity, supple yet structured, big Australian red. And just a whisker under £5 a bottle! Life is good, as if it's unexpectedly passed its MOT.
Next thing, of course, is to look this apparent gift horse in the mouth. A fiver a bottle from the Calais Wine Superstore is only good if it's so markedly less than the price of the same wine in the UK that even the most wretched UK-based tightwad will find something to cheer. Blanched with apprehension, I check out the offers. Thank God, it's on sale for anything between £6.48 and £7.99 a bottle. This chimes in fairly nicely with an Argentinian Malbec the Bro-in-Law produced (with a flourish) at supper, noting that Tesco were asking a tenner a bottle for it; whereas he got it on a superspecial deal at £3.
Is it reasonable to infer, then, that the price the Calais Wine Superstore charges for a wine is closer to its real value (whatever that is)? That Calais prices reflect some kind of Platonic ideal, denied us in the UK? Duty on a bottle of still wine in the UK is seriously over £2; in France, it's a few pence. At the bargain-to-mid-range-industrial end, this is all the justification you need to gas up the car and go south. But what if we strip out the difference in duty - which is, after all, not Tesco's or Asda's or Waitrose's to determine - and see how the supermarkets rate? Can we use Calais as a baseline from which to determine UK value or lack of it?
Well, a Chilean Casillero Del Diablo Chardonnay currently goes for £4.49 in Calais; £7.99 at Tesco. Take away the £2+ duty, and you still find a price difference of over a quid. A Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon is £9.99 at Tesco; £5.99 in Calais. Discrepancy: £2. A Prestige de Calvet Merlot blend, on the other hand, is currently £5.99 in Tesco, down from £8.99; and £3.99 in Calais. At this point, the price discrepancy disappears - but only for as long as Tesco favours the wine with a special offer. Once the £5.99 Tesco deal ends, the adjusted price gap zooms up to £3.
Tesco, of course, aren't the only ones. The Wolf Blass, for instance, is going for £10 a bottle at Sainsbury's - effectively the same price as Tesco. Morrisons want £7.99 - same as Tesco - for the Casillero Del Diablo Chardonnay. Ocado are asking a whopping £8.99 for the Prestige de Calvet - although now I look at it, the Calais version appears to be a 2009, while Ocado's is a 2011. Is the 2011 seriously that much better than the 2009? That aside, how do we account for these two and three pound per bottle price differences that keep cropping up? Additional UK distribution costs? Warehousing? Point of sale materials? Swankier online presence?
You can go on in this vein for as long as your sanity holds out, sizing up the domestic pricings against the Calais Wine Superstore's notionally ideal price points. A Beaujolais-Villages in Calais goes for £6.99; Waitrose, £10.99 (both on offer). A Heidsieck Champagne in Calais? £11.99. Asda? £18. And so on. If a theme emerges, it is either that the Calais Wine Superstore has the shrewdest and most tenacious buyers in the whole of the Pas de Calais, possibly in the whole of Northern Europe; or that British wine buyers are routinely being stiffed by those very supermarket chains who promise us the lowest of low prices.
Or have I missed something in my initial assumptions? Is my arithmetic basically, crap (always a possibility)? Or does it just re-emphasise (and indeed, re-re-emphasise) the maxim that the only time to buy wine from a supermarket is when it's being touted as a special deal? Only then - allowing for the duty gap - do you start to achieve parity. Straight off the internet: a Spanish Merlot is going for £6 at Sainsbury's; same thing in Calais, at £3.99. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, £7.99 at Morrisons (down from £10.99); Calais? £5.99. So it can be done. I mean, by to-morrow, all these deals will have vanished, to be replaced by other deals buried somewhere else in a succession of indistinguishable websites, requiring only patience, supreme cunning, and a remorseless fixity of purpose on the part of the buyer, in order to secure a drink at a fair price. But the rule still holds, for those with the time and energy to put it into practice.
The alternative, evidently, is to be like my Brother-in-Law, work out your annual drink requirements, and get on a ferry. But no, I have no plans to head across the Channel and sort it out properly for myself. Why not? Well, it's not so much that I can't do it; I'm just too damn lazy, if you must know.