Taking the fizz out of Oddbins

Anthony Rose laments the possible loss of an innovator in quality high-street wine
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The Independent Online
Oddbins up for sale. Again. Not for the first time, rumours that parent company Seagram have decided to divest themselves of their innovative and popular high street chain have drawn the now predictable tight-lipped response - "it's only speculation" - from Wimbledon head office. This time the rumours are hotter than ever, with names such as Greenalls, Cellars and Tesco among the most favoured front-runners.

With only 211 shops nationwide, Oddbins is a mere sprat compared to the mighty Thresher and Victoria Wine chains with over 1,500 stores apiece. Yet it has become a byword for an unequalled range of quality wines and the enthusiastic service offered by its laid-back staff. An Oddbins-less high street might represent a short-term victory for the bean counters, but a cheerless wake for the modern era of fun and innovation in wine.

Oddbins was founded in 1963 by the eccentric entrepreneur Ahmed Pochee, a now legendary wine trade figure still occasionally sighted wheeler-dealing his way through the cash and carries of Britain. In the days of brewery brands and basic claret, Pochee and his kindred spirit, Brian Barnett of Augustus Barnett, took maximum advantage of the end of Resale Price Maintenance.

Slashing profit margins to the bone, they bounced out the traditional stockholding, high-margin middleman, shipping 100-odd cases of wine from here, there and everywhere straight to store. Ill-assorted jumbles of wines spilling out of barrels onto wooden floors typified a welcome new, customer-friendly approach to wine retailing.

When the old Peter Dominics and Augustus Barnetts were swallowed up by corporate predators, the purchase of Oddbins' 54 stores by the spirits giant Seagram for pounds 3.6m in 1984 seemed to usher in the end of an exciting era of expansion and innovation. In fact it was just the beginning. By having the foresight to give its globetrotting buyers carte blanche, Seagram maintained Oddbins' spirit of independence-cum-fun.

When Australia was poised to make its entrance onto the UK stage, Oddbins took full advantage. So much so that by last year, Australia accounted for 40 per cent of Oddbins' sales - hence the pun "Ozbins" put out by jealous rivals. Oddbins can take credit for leading where others have followed, not just in the Australia-inspired wine revolution, but in Chilean and in Californian wine, the latter a particularly tough nut to crack given its relatively high prices.

Against the general downmarket trend, Oddbins has consistently held out against cutting quality corners. The chain's buyers, led by the indefatigable John Ratcliffe and Steve Daniel, gleefully trod heavily on the toes of the independent wine trade when, three years ago, they took the highly successful gamble of offering customers a range of upper crust 1992 white burgundies. The cachet extends to malt whiskies and a thicket of traditional British and premium imported beers and lagers.

The big brewery-owned chains have followed suit with their own Oddbins- style chains. Thresher's Wine Rack and flagship Bottoms Up stores, Victoria Wine's new upmarket Cellars and Greenalls' Wine Cellar are all responses to the Oddbins culture of innovation. AndOddbins' six Fine Wine Stores, selling parcels of fine, exclusive wines, too small to go into the 211 high street stores, have become well established.

Despite the image of youthful anarchy, Oddbins claims that its customers number "anyone and everyone". The London and the South orientation suggests the relatively well-heeled. Value for money is in fact a major criterion, but unlike the typical supermarket Frascati-purchaser in search of the inoffensive, Oddbins' customers are customers with attitude. If they've bought a bottle and liked it, they are just as likely to go back and look for new and exciting flavours as to stick with it.

Competitors might be expected to be laughing into their designer beers at Oddbins' current discomfort, but the more realistic among them recognise that the loss of Oddbins would make the world of wine a poorer place. With its unstuffy ambience and anarchic Ralph Steadman image, Oddbins has set the tone and standard of the modern off-licence. Its loss would be nobody's gain.

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