Not long into my first stroll through the implausibly lovely town of Southwold, in Suffolk, I remarked to my wife: "Adnams seems to be everywhere here." And she replied: "You'll probably find that they own the place." Well, I don't think that's true. But they certainly do have a presence as one of the town's largest employers, between their brewery, their tied houses, their two hotels (the Crown and the Swan), and a wine shop that's not just exemplary in its selection but heart-warmingly local in its approach.
Adnams has been around as a wine merchant for some 30 years, the wine business growing out of the 125-year-old brewery which brews a small but outstanding range of cask and bottled ales. Adnams wine has two arms, a retailing business and an importer (Haughton Agencies) which supplies other merchants, as well as their network of tied houses, which now totals 81. This is an enviable position for a wine merchant, the tied houses giving a captive market which accounts for around two thirds of total turnover.
Adnams retail is a relatively low-key operation, even though the name is well known to every wine writer in the land. Even in the age of the internet and telephone shopping, Adnams hasn't made a huge splash in any sense. And they like it that way, according to marketing director Sarah Groves. "We're very quiet and subdued. We don't advertise, so people get to know us from coming here. Our website ( www.adnamswines.co.uk) puts us in people's front rooms, but when they come here they can taste the wines. And that's what we like."
This is not to say that they wouldn't like more business from the home-delivery side of things. "We're worried, to be honest. It isn't growing as fast as it should." Home delivery now accounts for £1.3m in turnover, with just 12 per cent of that coming from online sales, while the shops (there's another one in Holkham, Norfolk) account for £1.8m. The shop is "very strong", according to Groves, and two new outlets are planned; one in nearby Woodbridge, another in Stamford, Lincolnshire.
It certainly was strong on the February Saturday when I went along for a tasting. There were plenty of people milling about, and a family group was tasting wine for an upcoming wedding. The hands-on approach is what Adnams is all about, according to Groves. "We buy wines we're passionate about and have an involvement with", and they communicate that to customers through personal contact. The personal element is there even for customers who can't roll up for a tasting: "There are seven of us, and there's always someone on the end of the phone."
I don't mean to make Adnams sound like a village shop. "We are a leisure brand, and the wine, beer, pubs and hotels make us a complex beast that takes time to get to know", says Groves. "We have to make it as special as we can."
Independent merchants often major in pricey bottles aimed at a well-heeled clientele, and Adnams sells plenty in that sphere. Two that most impressed in my tasting, apart from the one highlighted here, were a Chilean blend, Antiyal 2002 (£19.99) which has come along in leaps and bounds since its first vintage a few years ago, and a stunning Vin de Pays from the Hérault: Mas Laval 2003 (£14.99).
But Adnams' greatest achievement is in the crucial £5-10 range, where an independent should always have an advantage over large chains and supermarkets. Two of the best are highlighted here. Honourable mention also to an organic Spaniard, Casamonfrare Monastrell, Bodegas Los Frailes 2004 (£5.50), a pure, bright expression of an indigenous grape variety. They're reason enough to visit Southwold, if you needed one. Or shop by remote control, if you must.
Three from Southwold
Domaine de la Bongran 2002, Mâcon-Villages (£14.99, Adnams, 01502 727 222, www.adnamswines.co.uk)
Glorious white Burgundy from the idiosyncratic Jean Thevenet, honeyed depths and keen acidity.
Gaba do Xil 2004, Valdeorras (£6.99, Adnams)
From Telmo Rodriguez, one of Spain's greatest winemakers, this 100- per-cent Godello is tangy, refreshing and very unusual. Star buy.
Gougenheim Shiraz 2004, Mendoza (£6.99, Adnams)
A real find, more European than New World in style despite its Argentinean origin. Nicely spicy and pleasantly soft.Reuse content