Obituary: Ahmed Pochee

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The Independent Culture
AHMED POCHEE was a maverick who injected a fresh spirit of irreverence and fun into the staid world of the wine trade. The fact that he never took himself, or anyone else, too seriously, was the key both to his success and his low profile. He was an anti-hero for whom the trappings of success meant little compared to the job he loved doing.

The founder of Oddbins in the 1960s and the Great Wapping Wine Company in the 1970s, Pochee was the arch wheeler-dealer. Right until his untimely death from mylo-fibrosis, he was in his element sniffing out parcels of bankrupt stock in railway arches of the East End and selling them from the back of his battered blue Mercedes van to the posh wine merchants of Fulham and St James's.

Born, in 1939, and brought up in north London, to an Indian father and English mother, Pochee was an unlikely patrol leader in the East Finchley Boy Scouts, before he contracted meningitis. He studied hotel management and started an economics degree (characteristically failing to finish it) at the Regent Street polytechnic before following in the culinary footsteps of his father, who had opened Edinburgh's first Indian restaurant.

As a sous-chef at Simpson's in the Strand and then a porter at Allnotts, the wine merchants, the world of hotels and restaurants led him to London's subterranean cellars. With his knack of charming cellar and restaurant managers, he was soon tapping into the rich seam of surplus stocks of often undervalued wine. Starting to trade in odd parcels and bins of wine, he set up his own business, Oddbins, when he was 21, with a help of a loan from his best friend, John Benetti.

At this time, high-street off-licences were largely in the hands of the big brewers looking for an outlet for their brands. Pochee's Oddbins, with its breezy anarchic style, its knowledgeable staff and the inevitable music of Miles Davis and Nina Simone, started the process of blowing the cobwebs away from the old-fashioned off-licence. When Thresher launched Wine Rack two decades later as a "revolutionary" new high-street concept, Pochee commented wryly: "That's strange; we did that 20 years ago and we didn't call it revolutionary then."

When the London docks were being closed in the late 1960s, Pochee struck a deal with Customs and Excise whereby, on payment of the excise duty, he was able to lay his hands on large quantities of unclaimed parcels of wine. Despite the fact that 1968 was a dreadful vintage, he cocked a snook at the traditional wine trade by selling classified clarets with grand names such as Beychevelle Cos d'Estournel and Grand Puy Lacoste for 19s 11d (99p). This was the sort of thing which made Oddbins' reputation for extraordinary bargains and appealed to newcomers to wine who were put off by the wine trade's crusty image.

Wheeler-dealing was Pochee's met-ier, based on a profound understanding of the value of wine and the difference between what he could pay for it and what he could get for it. With the Great Wapping Wine Company, started in 1972, he was an early pioneer of the pile-it-high, sell-it- cheap philosophy which led to the likes of the Majestic Wine Warehouse chain. Along with wine, he introduced special imports of virgin olive oils, cheeses and fish considered exotic at the time.

But his capacity for successful retailing was limited. According to his former partner Tony Mason, now with Majestic, "his innovative spirit was not matched by entrepreneurial ability or respect for the rules".

Gleefully antisocial, Pochee went out of his way to ruffle the feathers of the pompous. At the end of one particularly boring black tie dinner, he announced he was going to remove the table cloth, leaving everything on the table intact. In fact, he brought glasses, bottles, cutlery and crockery crashing to the floor.

While his eccentric personality inspired affection in many, his mischievous spirit did not endear him to the wine trade establishment. In fact it is widely believed that, when the big boys put Oddbins into receivership in 1973, it was done out of spite. Oddbins was able to pay all its creditors in full, with plenty left over for the shareholders.

Pochee loved horse-riding and travelling. In the 1970s, Pochee's aeroplane crashed into dense jungle in Kenya. Despite being badly injured, he spent a week following the river downstream with his son and nephew to safety. He ran for Highgate Harriers, competing in several marathons, and achieving a personal best of two hours 40 minutes as a veteran.

In the last two years of his life, when he knew he was terminally ill, he carried on trading in the beloved grimy van from which, on his instructions, the final delivery, his coffin, was lifted.

Ahmed Pochee, wine merchant: born London 23 September 1939; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died London 18 December 1998.