by Tim Atkin

Off licences in a recession

One of my favourite websites is Whenever friends moan about their lot, I show them what others have to do to earn a stale crust: worm taster, porn theatre janitor, sub-editor on the Daily Mail. Sad people even post details of their own line of employment, hoping to win the Worst Job Trophy for 2009.

I’ve been scanning the entries for months and, as far as I know, we’ve yet to hear from someone who works in an off-licence. Think about it: even if you don’t have to deal with Champagne shoplifters or, worse, thugs bent on snatching the contents of your till, the job is dirty, tiring and badly paid. It’s also boring most of the time. You sit there for hours waiting for a customer and when one finally turns up, all he wants is a tub of Pringles.

Things don’t look good for high street wine specialists at the moment. The current downturn merely continues a trend that’s been on-going for more than a decade. A combination of high rents, disappearing customers and low margins has seen business after business taken over or just fold. We are now left with only five national players: Oddbins, Thresher, Wine Rack, Nicolas and Majestic, all of whom are struggling in different ways.

Will they survive the recession? I sincerely hope so because, at their best, they offer things you’ll never get from a supermarket: home delivery, knowledgeable staff, unusual wines and a relaxed environment in which to choose your booze. Their prices might be slightly higher than the supermarkets’ on some lines, but they offer competitive deals if you buy in bulk (three for two at Wine Rack and by the case at Oddbins). Talking of by the case, Majestic is thinking of relaxing its minimum 12-bottle order to attract new punters. When the most profitable high street chain is reconsidering a business model that has worked well for decades, you know things are serious.

Now is the time to support wine in the high street. Four bottles I’ve enjoyed recently are the crisp, nettly 2008 Dourthe La Grande Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux (£7.99, or £5.99 each for two, 12%, Majestic), the ginger, spicy 2008 Carletti Malvasia, Abruzzo (£5.99, or £4.79 by the mixed dozen, 12%, Oddbins), the savoury, supple 2007 Scotchman’s Hill Swan Bay Pinot Noir, Victoria (£8.99, or £7.49 each for two, 13.5%, Majestic) and, best of all, the smoky, gamey 2006 Château Camplazens Syrah, Vin de Pays d’Oc (£10.99, or £7.33 each for three, 13%, Wine Rack). And make sure you talk to the person who sells it. It might just make his day.

Originally published in The Observer

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