You are about to enter the Mellow Zone

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hold on to your glasses, there's a new offie on the high street. Instead of browsing for wines by country, you can buy by style, choosing from "bright", "smooth" or "rounded" whites, and "fruity", "mellow" and "chunky" reds.

Hold on to your glasses, there's a new offie on the high street. Instead of browsing for wines by country, you can buy by style, choosing from "bright", "smooth" or "rounded" whites, and "fruity", "mellow" and "chunky" reds.

The new shop, Phillips Newman, 142 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (020-7373 6833) is the first of what Unwins hopes will be a chain of 50 to 60 stores. Unwins? That's right, stodgy old Unwins is the company behind this "radical new concept". The name comes from its old Victorian wholesale arm, as the new chain's full title, "Phillips & Newman, importing wines since 1893" suggests.

So there you have it: an old company, dusted down and given a new makeover, and a new vocabulary. According to the mission statement, "If, like us, you're an avid browser, who gets almost as much pleasure from consuming the wine label notes as they do [sic] the wine itself, your Mellow mood will take you to the Mellow Zone". So what's a "chunky" mood, then? Don't ask.

Various other questions spring to mind. Such as, what exactly does "bright" mean? And what's the difference between "smooth" and "rounded"? Well, "bright", apparently, means "crisp and refreshing", while "smooth" means "soft, delicate and medium-bodied" and "rounded" is "succulent and deliciously full-bodied".

For all the radical new concept talk, this is not the first time a wine retailer has experimented with organising wines by style. Waitrose gave it a whirl but found it confused customers and staff, so reverted to selling by country. Asda had a crack at it too, but stopped for similar reasons.

That's not to say it can't be done. In the US, Josh Wesson's Best Cellars categorises whites as "fizzy", "fresh", "soft", "luscious" or "sweet", and reds and rosés as "juicy", "smooth" and "big". But as those stores show, it needs humour, music, a bit of theatre around themed tastings and, above all, good value and enthusiastic service to make it work.

Perhaps I should give credit to Unwins for trying something new. After all, fresh ideas are badly needed in a market where Oddbins and Thresher are both running on empty and the only response to date has been to raise profit margins to over 40 per cent.

The 388-strong Unwins group itself has been feeling the pinch, just like everyone else, and incurred a loss of £779,000 last year. Indeed only recently it emerged that the potentially hottest item for sale around Unwins is Unwins itself.

The high street, increasingly squeezed between supermarkets and a thriving independent wine merchants and mail-order companies, has been short of ideas, so a broader commitment to consumer-friendly shopping is welcome. The trouble is, I can't help recalling the marketing wheezes that have foundered on the altar of window dressing. Remember Gare du Vin, Booze Barn, Drinks Cabin, Huttons, Firkin, Martha's Vineyard?

There's no substitute for a good-quality, value-for-money wine range backed up by excellent service. The small but perfectly formed companies of Davisons and Fuller, Smith & Turner had these in abundance - until they were swallowed up by Unwins and dismembered. Since then, the old family firm has persisted with the same lacklustre range, although the last press tasting offered a glimmer of hope. So if Phillips Newman turns out to be a panacea after all, I'll happily drink my words.

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