Risk-taking on a Majestic scale: Anthony Rose charts the return to success of a wine-warehouse chain that had lost its way

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Channel 4's Food File ran a programme on corkiness in wine, up popped Tony Mason, trading director of Majestic Wine Warehouses. He led the camera team on a jig around one of his firm's premises, hard-selling a dozen or more wines and, incidentally, their suitability for screwcap or cork.

It was a masterly act from a man with a reputation for sharp deals. Mr Mason smiles at the memory. He and his team smile a lot at the moment.

In 1991, Majestic was on its uppers and was virtually given away for pounds 3.6m to Wizard Wine Warehouses' John Apthorp. Enter Mr Mason, one of Wizard's directors and a former director of Majestic. The combined chain was badly squeezed by the recession and by high street and supermarket competitors, but this year, for the first time since the takeover, Majestic is in profit. Buoyed by its success, it has started adding new sites - in Nottingham, Farnham and Worcester - bringing the total to 47.

An upturn in the general economy has been helpful, particularly since Majestic sells wine only by the case and customers spend an average of pounds 75 on each purchase. Equally important, though, has been Majestic's return to the trading ideals that worked well in the Eighties. The company's marketing director, Debbie Worton, explains: 'We've returned to basics, focusing on buying and trading good- value parcels of wine.'

This is something of an about-turn for Mr Mason. Before Majestic merged with Wizard he rejected the idea of sales by the case because he thought it would frighten off potential customers. Now he has no such inhibitions. 'For someone who wants to buy serious quantities of wine,' he comments, 'it allows us to give a level of service which simply cannot be offered in a retail scenario.' Also, unlike its more cautious high street rivals, Majestic is prepared to take risks and pare down prices in order to offer excitement and value.

Mr Mason explains: 'Wine for our customers isn't a commodity, it's a way of life. I'm convinced that people who drink regularly get bored with the same wines.'

He tickles their fancy by supplementing the list with one-offs and special deals. This year, for instance, he snapped up 5,500 cases of fine wines from an overstocked Jersey company. These will go out during a regular promotion of Majestic 'stonkers' (cut- price promotions even include wines at 'stonky prices').

Given that the typical Majestic customer is a man heading for middle age with money to spare, it is not surprising that nearly two-thirds of Majestic's wines (compared to around one-third generally) are French. The list contains an impressive range of estates from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone, and some good value wines from the south. But Spain, Portugal and Germany are also well represented, as is Australia (with sales of South African wines going well in response to Australian price increases).

Now that Majestic is back in profit, it will be interesting to see if the company can fulfil its ambition to become Britain's first nationwide wine warehouse chain. Offering razor-sharp prices and extra choice to the consumer, it deserves to succeed.

WINES OF THE WEEK

(sold by the case at Majestic)

1993 Domaine Lanine, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, Grassa, pounds 2.99. Refreshingly mouth- watering, grapefruity dry white, available from September.

1993 Muscat, Vin de Pays des Collines de la Moure, pounds 2.99 (half), also at Thresher Wine, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. Unusual, aromatic sweet-grape-and-melon flavoured half-bottle from Hugh Ryman working in the Languedoc.

Santara Dry, White, Hugh Ryman, pounds 2.69 (unmixed-case price). Also Oddbins, M & S. A clean, lemony fresh, 1992 Spanish blend.

Les Jamelles, Marsanne, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.79. Spicy, honeyed, nutty southern French dry white.

1993 Pinot Nero Bianco, Oltrepo' Pavese, Bava. pounds 4.79. Distinctive, strawberry-like Italian dry white made from Burgundy's pinot noir.

1993 Oyster Bay Chardonnay, Marlborough, pounds 7.99. Stylishly oaked, intensely flavoured New Zealand chardonnay with chablis- like steel.

1992 Chablis, Domaine de Chantemerle, Adhemar Boudin, pounds 8.79. Tremendous character, concentration and complexity.

1992 Minervois, Domaine Dougnac, pounds 2.89. Stonker red at a stonky price.

1993 Cheverny Rouge, Oisly et Thesee, pounds 3.99. Light, juicy, unusual Loire blend of pinot noir, gamay and cabernet franc.

1992 Les Jamelles, Mourvedre, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.79. In a designer bottle, this is a robust, peppery mourvedre, the classic Mediterranean variety. 1990 Beaumes-de-Venise, Carte Noire, Cotes du Rhone Villages, pounds 4.99. Scented, spicy Rhone red.

1990 Valpolicella Classico, Tedeschi, pounds 3.99. If there were a campaign for real valpolicella, this cherry-fruity example would be in the forefront.

1991 Hollick Estate Coonawarra Red, pounds 7.99. Rich, elegant, berry- flavoured red with supple fruit.

1992 Coopers Creek Huapai Cabernet Merlot, Marlborough, pounds 7.99. From New Zealand, another stunningly good bordeaux blend with sweet, cassis-like fruit and balanced oak.

1989 Meerendal Pinotage, pounds 5.99. Robust blackcurrant fruitiness from South Africa. From September.

1982 Vina Real Grand Reserva Rioja, pounds 11.99. Not cheap but great value for this gorgeously plump rioja, softened by maturity.

(Photograph omitted)

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