Has a high-street giant lost its bottle?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Less is not necessarily more interesting. Nor is more. Not when there are fewer off-licences in the Thresher group, nor even when they try introducing new, branded wines. Three years ago, Thresher, Whitbread's loss-making off-licence chain, changed hands. Since then, its ranks of off-licences have shrunk by 400, leaving 1,400 Threshers and 100 Wine Racks in England, the rest in Scotland. Bottoms Ups and Victoria Wines are being ditched along with the silly First Quench name and the wine range has been culled from 650 to 450 wines. Following this David Blaine-style illusion of significant happenings behind the window, Thresher launched a new range of wines called Origin last March. These were followed more recently by another range under the Radcliffe's Regional Classics banner.

With a (not exclusively) New World feel, the 14 Origin wines are based on grape varieties, designed to make them easy for people to understand. Oddly enough, despite the name of the range, the wines' producers aren't mentioned. To complement Origin, the 26 Radcliffe's wines, ranging in price from £4.99 to £13.99, aim to appeal to "the more traditional" wine drinker and "capture the essence" of the classic wine regions of Europe.

With three million bottles sold since the launch, Thresher considers Origin a success. Given the shop windows to promote them in, it would be surprising if it didn't. What, though, is in the bottles? Basically, a crowd-pleasing range of wines which partly fulfils the grape-expectations criteria. The zingy 2003 Origin Chenin Chardonnay at £3.99 hits the spot, while the 2002 Origin Garnacha at £4.99 is a flavoursome, peppery mouthful of spicy, Spanish fruitfulness. Most of the wines, the lookalike reds especially, seem to conform to the current fashion for sexing up with sweetness to seduce new wine drinkers.

The Radcliffe's range is not without its bright spots. Some of the whites are really good, like the 2002 Muscadet sur Lie, £4.99, the refreshingly characterful 2002 Frascati, £4.99, and the authentically nettley 2002 Haut-Poitou Sauvignon Blanc, £5.99. More expensively, the rose-petalish 2002 Alsace Gewürztraminer, £7.99, is a genuine expression of the scented Alsace grape and the 2002 Pouilly Fumé, £10.99, has richness and depth.

Apart from a handful of accessible exceptions like the jaunty 2002 Radcliffe's Corbières, £4.99, and the classically aromatic 1999 Barolo, £13.99, the reds are disappointing. Compared with their counterparts elsewhere on the same shelf, not enough are value for money. My hunch is that to achieve the right price, many are sourced from middle-of-the-road négociant companies or co-operatives. As the engaging buyer, Jonathan Butt, is at pains to point out: "We have to earn better margins than we used to, to survive."

It may make sense for Thresher to source its own brands if taking a 30-50 per cent profit margin allows it to survive in the gladiatorial arena dominated by the supermarket heavyweights. But creating reliable new brands from traditional regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy will always be an uphill struggle. And what happens when consumers tire of Origin and Radcliffe's? Thresher is hoping its customers will keep coming back for more, but if so, the new brands need to offer better value. If not, all the consumer research in the world won't keep customers away from the supermarket - for their everyday grape varieties - and independent wine merchants for their voyages of discovery.