At the dawn of the swinging sixties, Ahmed Pochee, an anti-establishment maverick who delighted in getting up the stuffy nose of the traditional 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 network of contacts, reputable and less so, only Pochee could manage to sell top Bordeaux châteaux like Beychevelle and Cos d’Estournel for 19 shillings and eleven 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 a Baile too, Simon Baile to be precise, son of the man who ran Oddbins in the 1970s. With Oddbins in freefall, its French owners had decided to put it up for sale and Mr. Baile, 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 Simon 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’, as he puts it, and soon, if the goodwill behind the brand isn’t to be dissipated once and for all. It’s certainly the case that Oddbins doesn’t have much further to fall. Castel had decimated the French wine range, bringing in some mediocre own-label wines whose very idea would have had Ahmed Pochee turning in his grave. As an important first step on the route back to consumer confidence and staff morale, the last 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 new listings introduced by 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 juicy syrah grenache blend from Costières de Nîmes, the 2007 Château Saint Cyrgues, Cuvée Anna, £7.99.
Making it clear that while he wants to see the return of the part 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 parcels like 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.
Something For the Weekend 8 November 2008.
Under a Fiver
2007 lle La Forge Merlot, Vin de Pays d’Oc, £4.99, Aldi
From the go-ahead Jean-Claude Mas, this is a typically modern young southern French merlot whose vibrant dark cherry and blackcurrant fruitiness is framed with a stylish touch of smoky oak to make this one of the best value sub-£5 claret look-alikes on the market.
Under a Tenner.
2006 Saint Joseph, Cave de Saint Désirat Cuvée Prestige, £7.99, reduced from £10.99, to 2 December, Waitrose
Made entirely from the syrah grape, this is an elegant northern Rhône style with aromatic smoky, tarry fruitiness, peppery undertones and a pure classic black fruits quality underscored by fresh acidity and a refreshing twist of astringency that makes it an attractive proposition for autumn game.
2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cuvée des Antiques, Caves du Fournalet, £13.99, Majestic
A southern Rhône blend of grenache and syrah with touches of mourvèdre and cinsault, this is a spicy rich blackberryish red whose vivid fruit richness is surprisingly approachable for its youthful power and just the kind of comforting southern blend you need as autumn nights close in and wintery dishes beckon.