At the dawn of the swinging Sixties, Ahmed Pochee, an anti-establishment maverick who delighted in getting up the nose of the stuffy wine trade, set up a new kind of off-licence. It was called Oddbins and it suffered from neither the dead hand of the breweries nor the pin-striped pomposity of the St James's wine merchants of the era. With his extensive contacts, Pochee was able to sell top Bordeaux châteaux, like Beychevelle and Cos d'Estournel, for 19 shillings and 11 pence (99p) a bottle. The new spirit of irreverence that changed the high street for good lasted till Oddbins was put into receivership in 1973. In stepped a young man called Nick Baile who maintained the tradition until Oddbins was taken over, first by Seagram, who surprisingly gave its buyers carte blanche, and then by Castel Frères, parent of the Nicolas chain, who just didn't get Oddbins.
With an ironic twist, the new man in charge of Oddbins is Nick's son, Simon. With Oddbins in freefall, its French owners had decided to put it up for sale and Baile Jnr, who already runs the successful Ex Cellar mini-chain, realised it was an offer he couldn't refuse. "Though it's lost direction and quality, Oddbins is still the best brand on the high street," he says. Details of the deal are not revealed but what we do know is that after cherry-picking a few of the more successful stores, Castel unloaded 158 shops and a lot of stock on Baile. With his brother-in-law Henry Young, he then set about getting rid of the worst performers to hang on to a core of 131 stores nationwide. Despite the implosion of wine chains on the high street, Baile believes he can succeed where others have failed by bringing Oddbins "back to its rightful place at the heart of the UK wine trade".
Judging by the autumn tasting put on for the press, Baile is well aware that "new life needs to be breathed into Oddbins". It's certainly the case that Oddbins doesn't have much further to fall. As an important first step on the route back to consumer confidence and staff morale, the past few months have been spent on axeing a third of the French range and maintaining flavoursome wines like the 2006 Frédéric Magnien Bourgogne Chardonnay, £12.99. Improved listings introduced by the new French buyer Richard Verney this month include a fresh gooseberry and grapefuity 2007 Sauvignon Côtes de Duras, £6.99, a vivid, spicy Gaillac blend, the 2007 Château Lions Lamartine Rouge, £6.99, and a juicy syrah- grenache blend from Costières de Nîmes, the 2007 Château Saint Cyrgues, Cuvée Anna, £7.99.
While he naturally wants to see the return of the Oddbins ethos that's about quirky, small producers, Simon Baile is keen to stabilise the ship with a core of mainstream products too, combined with "the key virtues of product, price and people". That's still a work-in-progress. If the new parcels he showed at the tasting are anything to go by, that, along with fine wines, is the area most likely to excite the Oddbins diehards. Interesting wines suchas the rose-petal-scented 2008 Peswey Vale Eden Valley, Gewurztraminer, £11.99, the pungently assertive, passion-fruit laden 2008 Blind River Sauvignon Blanc, £11.99, and the 2007 Rongopai Gimblett Gravels Syrah from New Zealand, £9.99, along with Argentina's 2006 Mendel Malbec, £13.99, should have once loyal followers champing at the bit. He may be no anti-establishment maverick but Mr Baile is perhaps a man who can restore a little much-needed sanity, which is just what Oddbins could do with right now.Reuse content