"If you see someone passing by your empty shop, try staring at them and mentally inviting them in," says Ron Dale, manager of Unwins, at Ware in Hertfordshire. "If your thought is strong enough, it will reach them telepathically and they will respond by coming into the shop." Trouble is, says Ron, "Often when it works, their first words are 'I don't know what I've come in here for'."

It might be unfair to suggest that that's the normal reaction of the Unwins customer. But what exactly do you go into an Unwins for? Or a Davisons or a Fuller's, for that matter. Now that Oddbins, Bottoms Up and Augustus Barnett have been swallowed by spirits and beer giants, Unwins, Davisons and Fuller's are the last to fly the independent flag for the family-owned off-licence in the south east.

All three go back to when Queen Victoria was sipping her beloved Hock. With shops dotted about commuter-belt parades, Unwins and Davisons, owned by the Wetz and Davies families respectively, have relied on the old-fashioned virtues of a traditional wine list and a loyal staff prepared to work long hours.

Fuller's, best known for the London Pride, Chiswick Bitter and ESB produced at its Griffin Brewery, only started to take wine seriously from the mid- 1980s. Cushioned by the brewery side of the business and its 200 London and home counties pubs, its 72 off-licences fan out from west and north- west London into leafy suburbia.

All three, in different ways, recognise that it's no longer enough just to sit on your range and hope that customers will keep coming back for more. The growing power of the supermarkets and the bigger brewery-owned high street chains has caught them in a pincer movement, while Cross-Channel shopping has applied the thumbscrews.

Most of Unwins' 310 shops punctuate the south east in places such as East Wittering and Godmanchester. The wine list is still too knee-deep in the ethos of old-style bordeaux and safe-but-dull negociant burgundy for Unwins to be a hydrangea-belt Oddbins.

Somewhat belatedly, Unwins, which sees itself as "a comfortable retailer for nice people", has discovered the new world, and prices have been brought closer into line with reality. With plans to open a Bottoms-Up-sized store in Sawbridgeworth in the autumn, Unwins is almost threatening to become a dynamic force.

After a partially successful flirtation with Australia and the new world, Davisons has returned to its traditional roots. Michael Davies, Davisons managing director, is honest enough to admit that trade in its 77 branches is static. But last year Davisons joined forces with the city mail order firm Mayor Sworder.

The message hasn't yet filtered through to the public that the newly dovetailed wine list combines the best of both operations, particularly in the traditional wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and the Loire. But while the list may be chockfull of inviting goodies and surprises, the shops badly need an overhaul, since too many look too depressingly dreary to advertise the fact properly.

Of the three chains, Fuller's, with its 72 attractive shops and modern approach to the wine list, is the best-equipped to tackle Wine Rack and Oddbins. Two years ago, Fuller's had the foresight to take on former Oddbins' wine buyer, Roger "Higgsy" Higgs, as he's known to readers of the The Griffin, Fuller's in-house magazine.

Over that period, Higgs has single-handedly transformed the range, blending top-flight traditional stuff from France, Spain and Italy with one of the best-chosen new world ranges in the high street. With renewed confidence in its range, Fuller's has opened four new branches in central London this year with two more in the pipeline.

As custodian of the family silver, as it were, Michael Davies says he expects Davisons to be around in 100 years time. Doubtless the Wetz and the Fuller family have a similar millenarian vision. They'd probably all settle, though, for knowing where they'll be in 10 years time, let alone 100. Maybe they should consult Mystic Ron

Wines of the Week

1994 Maglieri Riesling, McLaren Vale, pounds 5.49, Unwins. Refreshingly lime- like Aussie riesling with typical Mosel-like petrol scents and a crisp, citrusy bite. 1995 Terras de Xisto, Vinho Regional Alentejo, pounds 3.99, Unwins. A ripe, soft, damsony Portuguese red with an attractive veneer of cedary oakiness. 1994 Macon Uchizy, Domaine Talmard, pounds 7.49, Davisons. Spicy, complex, richly honeyed southern white Burgundy with excellent length of flavour. 1991 Valserrano Crianz Rioja Alavesa, pounds 6.25, Davisons. Sumptuously fruity Rioja with silky-textured vanilla undertones. 1995 Lonsdale Ridge Victoria Colombard, pounds 3.99, Fuller's. Refreshing grapefruit and passion fruit dry white from Mildura with clean, zesty acidity. 1994 Chateau Saint Agnes, Coteaux du Languedoc, pounds 6.99, Fuller's. Spicy, richly concentrated, melt-in-the-mouth southern French blend of mainly syrah with grenache, which puts the Rhone to shame.