Down the offie: a brave new world

Another trusty off-licence name has bitten the dust, with the sale of Fuller, Smith & Turner to Unwins. But don't fret, you'll still be able to pick up a bottle of Caballo Loco No 4 on your way home
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Indy Lifestyle Online

So farewell then, Fuller Smith & Turner, sic transit glorious offie. By the end of the month, the last of Fuller's 60-odd off-licence shop-fronts will have been replaced by the green and yellow Unwins sign. Another familiar off-licence name will have disappeared, as Unwins adds the small but perfectly formed London chain, with its plethora of gems from the New World, to form a 452-strong group poised for promotion to the premier league of off-licences serious about wine.

So farewell then, Fuller Smith & Turner, sic transit glorious offie. By the end of the month, the last of Fuller's 60-odd off-licence shop-fronts will have been replaced by the green and yellow Unwins sign. Another familiar off-licence name will have disappeared, as Unwins adds the small but perfectly formed London chain, with its plethora of gems from the New World, to form a 452-strong group poised for promotion to the premier league of off-licences serious about wine.

Fuller's has gone the way of Peter Dominic, Augustus Barnett, Hunter & Oliver, Ashe and Nephew and many others. I'll miss it, as I missed Davisons, another respected high street name. My own local Unwins used to be a Davisons before that Croydon-based family chain, which specialised in good-value clarets, was swallowed whole by Unwins in 1997. While traces of Davisons' claret list remain, the fine selection of petit château clarets Davisons offered is a shadow of its former self.

Unwins' spanking new range of over 900 wines - Fuller's list of 619 "rationalised" and hitched it to its own 814 - is at least some consolation for the loss. Starrier wines to have survived the cull include Kumeu River Chardonnay from New Zealand, Spice Route Pinotage from South Africa, E & E Black Pepper Shiraz from Australia and Caballo Loco No.4 from Chile. And with a much better New World selection in particular, it gives the new Unwins an altogether more adventurous and better balanced feel than before.

There are still gaps, as Unwins is the first to admit, but it is doing its best to plug them, with, for example, 50 new Italian wines due to go on sale between now and Christmas.

Even if it doesn't acknowledge its debt to Fuller's, Unwins' new list represents a significant improvement for any thirsty commuter returning home after a tough day at the office to the leafy fringes of East Wittering, Thundersley or Stansted Mountfitchet. If you don't need to pick up a bottle on the way home, equip yourself with the new expanded list and order what you fancy off it.

Otherwise, you're at the mercy of the size and manager of your local branch, where the bottle you want may not be in stock. After all, wine only accounts for 30 per cent of sales, with plenty of spirits, beer, sweets, crisps and cigarettes to keep the till ringing.

At least Unwins is bucking the trend of off-licences being squeezed out by the supermarkets. Its chief wine buyer, Bill Rolfe, believes that even if the shops could do with a style makeover, the new range will put Unwins in a position to compete with Oddbins and Bottoms Up.

That may, however, depend on what happens to Bottoms Up - one of the style leaders - and just one of First Quench's booze-selling brands.

When the two biggest guns in the high street, Thresher and Victoria Wine, merged two years ago to tackle the increasing power of the supermarkets, they created First Quench - theoretically, with a drinks turnover close to that of Sainsbury's, the only off-licence chain capable of tackling the supermarkets. But only in the past few months, after a difficult year digesting Victoria Wine by combining lists and spitting out the bones of 300-odd stores, has the leviathan struggled to its feet.

While expanding its home-shopping site, Enjoyment, its Bottoms Up and Wine Rack stores will provide serious wine-drinkers with an increasing number of exclusive wines, while Thresher Wine Shops and Drinks Cabins will continue to be drop-ins for booze and fags. One slight problem: its owner, Punch Taverns, have put the whole caboodle up for sale, so it remains to be seen whether the new slimline model will be parading the catwalk or walking the gangplank.

While Unwins could do with some investment to update its image, another off-licence magnate is putting money into the future of off and on-licensing. You may not know the name, but Parisa, with shops called Wine Cellar, Booze Buster and Right Choice, is similar in size to Unwins. After abandoning an attempt to take over Thresher and Victoria Wine, its owner, Nader Haghighi, is about to spend a cool £20m doubling the number of his Parisa café/bars to 35 by next spring, and to 50 in a year.

But if you need to grab a bottle of something special to drink at home, Unwins could be a serious contender for the wine-drinker's money.

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