Why don’t off-licence managers look out of the window in the morning? The answer, according to a joke that’s doing the rounds in the booze trade, is that they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon. The news that First Quench Retailing, the company that owns 1,300 branches of Threshers, Wine Rack and The Local, has gone into administration is a potentially terminal blow for high street wine retailing. Many of the shops are now as low on stock as they are on customers.
Just as I was wondering who on earth would buy the 900-odd First Quench stores that are still trading — short of staking it on a single hand of poker, I can’t think of a quicker way to lose a few million quid — Oddbins held its best press tasting for seven years. I’m not suggesting that Oddbins buys the rump of First Quench, but its resurrection is encouraging at a time when the high street is on the skids.
Many of you may have given up on Oddbins. I went along to the tasting feeling much the same way, partly because I remember what the chain was like in its 1990s heyday. Things were particularly bad between 2002 and August 2008, under the ownership of the French company, Castel, which filled the range with its own mostly mediocre products. When the son of a previous owner bought the company last year, it looked as if things might improve, but by and large they haven’t.
Managing director Simon Baile’s excuse was that it would take time to turn Oddbins around. As much as anything, he had to get rid of all those Castel wines. But I wasn’t convinced that the new buying team knew what it was doing. Better than Castel, without a doubt, but not much better. Oddbins just couldn’t reignite the spark that once made it the best wine retailer in Europe, if not the world.
But guess what? This tasting took my expectations and tipped them into the nearest spittoon. Oddbins has cleared out much of the backlog of rubbish and has replaced it with 400 new wines, including some first-rate purchases from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. It was almost like the old days. Instead of a roomful of grumpy hacks tutting into their notebooks, there were smiles of approval.
Two things are particularly encouraging: the return of small parcels of wine (the very thing from which Oddbins takes its name) and a willingness to list more ambitious and unusual bottles. The signs are that Oddbins customers are responding and are once more prepared to spend money on interesting wines. The chain’s average bottle price is now a very respectable £7.67.
What should you buy? At least a third of the 150 wines at the tasting were worth recommending, but six that you should get your hands on sooner rather than later are the dry, slightly peppery Ombra Prosecco, Veneto (£9.99, £7.99 by the mixed case, 11%), the pear and apple fruity 2008 Godello, Alma de Blanco, Moneterrei (£8.99, £7.19, 13%), the fresh, subtle, Burgundian-style 2007 Cono Sur 20 Barrels Chardonnay, Casablanca (£13.99, £11.19, 13.5%), the elegant, grassy, finely structured 2001 Château d’Escurac Médoc (£15.99, £12.79, 13%), the smooth, blackberryish, sumptuous 2007 Les Ollieux, Boutenac, Coteaux du Languedoc (£18.99, £15.19, 14%) and the bold, brambly, flavour-packed 2008 Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz, Barossa Valley (£17.99, £14.39, 15%).
So have a look at the Oddbins’ website (www.oddbins.com) or, better still, visit a branch. My guess is that the staff won’t be staring out of the window.★
Originally published in The Observer