Oddbins: The Road to Recovery

  • Monday 3 November 2008

The ex-darling of UK wine lovers, high street chain Oddbins has taken a mauling from both critics and consumers in recent years. Anthony Rose asks is a change of ownership heralds a return to form

'There is a new chapter in the life that is Oddbins.’

So said Simon Baile, the new owner of the once-loved, quirky, UK high street leader, in announcing its takeover from French parent company, Castel Frères. ‘

Henry Young [his brother-in-law] and I recently bought the company and plan to breathe new life into what should be the best wine company in the country.’

True, Oddbins in its heyday used to be synonymous with all that was good about wine: irreverence, a sense of adventure, enthusiastic service, a willingness to take risks, a showcase for wines with personality – and the sound of Miles Davis.

Despite the loss of independence and eventual corporate ownership of Seagram, it continued in this vein until it was bought in 2002 by Castel Frères, whose attempt to impose

its very French way of doing things, as seen in its sister brand Nicolas, was clearly unsuited to the Oddbins ethos.

The result: Oddbins fell apart and its managers became demoralised. Its French wine

range in particular was a pale shadow of past glories and losses mounted up to the

point where the whole caboodle was in danger of crashing.

‘Many of you will be wondering how we aim to bring Oddbins back to its rightful place at the heart of the UK wine trade,’ continues Baile in his announcement.

‘We do have a vision of what we want to achieve, and believe that we now have a structure with which to achieve it.’ Since I had just met the formidable Serena Sutcliffe MW at a wine trade event, who’d warned me ‘never underestimate a Baile’, I was intrigued enough to go along to the first Oddbins tasting under the new regime and meet him, to see whether the walk could match the talk.

Sutcliffe had been referring to Baile’s father, Nick, who successfully ran Oddbins for 10 years after it went into receivership in 1973.

That was a period still associated with the maverick wheeler-dealer Ahmed Pochee

who founded Oddbins, and Simon Baile was at pains to point out: ‘We’re not into

recreating the Oddbins of yesterday.

It was very good for its time, but the 1970s and 1980s were crazy days. We need to go on our own journey.’

The Simon Baile journey started where it continues.‘I have spent all of my life in

the wine industry, embarking on customer deliveries, aged four, in a rather tatty-looking Bedford van (not driving), starting my first holiday job aged 14 in Upper Street (in Islington, London), and starting my own company, Ex Cellar, with Henry in 1999.

‘Ex Cellar was created with the aim of ensuring excellent customer service and the desire to introduce our customers to all the wonderful wines made by the smaller, family-oriented producers scattered all over the world.

Over the years we have discovered some wonderful gems and wish to continue along this path’. It’s clear that Simon Baile hasn’t taken over the running of Oddbins for sentimental reasons, but he believes it can really work if instilled with the key virtues of ‘product, price and people’ along with his successful Ex Cellar formula of combining a quality core range with small, independent family producers.

‘The market opportunity is real’ he says. ‘Though it’s lost direction and quality, Oddbins is still the best brand on the high street’.

The new chapter in the Oddbins journey started on 1 August. It’s a slimmed-down Oddbins, because Nicolas had already cherry-picked many of the best stores.

Of the 158 shops Baile took over, 25 of which, considered ‘beyond repair’ were closed, leaving a final tally of 131 stores from Hove to Inverness.

Despite the dark spots, he says: ‘When we did store visits, we were pleasantly surprised at the quality that still exists’.

There was one gaping hole that needed plugging right away: France, with a poor range of own-label and négociant brands.

‘It’s a challenge to get the French offer right. That’s the big weakness. So we’ve spent a lot of time and effort on it as a critical first step. We’ve done a lot of work on Burgundy, some on Bordeaux, some on the Loire, and we’ve started on the south, but there’s a lot more to do there.’

Such honest self-appraisal is crucial if the new-look Oddbins is to turn round what all agree was a disastrous French range. The next step is to come up with a core of products, and then build on that by buying parcels here and there; literally the sort of odd bins that gave the company its name.

At its recent tasting, Simon Baile pointed out: ‘I am surprised at how much feeling there still is for Oddbins. I have received e-mails from people who worked for my father 25 years ago wishing me well. It’s been heartening to get such a reaction.’

The tasting showed a reworking of the French range, with some good-value new selections from Quincy and Menetou- Salon, Château Lions Lamartine in Gaillac, Berthomieu in Madiran and Ollieux Romanis in the Aube.

Some good work had been done on the parcels, with an Oremus dry Tokaji Furmint Mandolas 2004, a Pewsey Vale Gewurztraminer 2008, and the excellent Blind River Sauvignon Blanc 2008.

Standout reds included a Lucciolaio 2004 from Tuscany, Mendel Unus 2006, Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007 from Rongopai, and on more classic lines, the Domaine d’Ardhuy, Clos des Langres, Côtes de Nuits Villages 2005.

The best fine wines?

Veuve Clicquot 1988, Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2006, Bodegas Palacios Remondo Propiedad Rioja 2005 and Viñedo Chadwick Cabernet 2005.

A promising start, but a work in progress. There were still too many average wines, particularly in Bordeaux, and not all the parcels were convincing, nor was the fine

wine range entirely consistent.

Yet this was the most heartening Oddbins tasting that I’d attended for years. Evidence was there that the walk was under way towards the talk of quality and independent family producers.

‘We have a burning desire to create a pleasurable and intriguing shopping experience, with service and product at the very heart of what we do,’ says Baile.

If Oddbins can become a serious wine presence once again, it won’t just be the wine trade, the shop managers or the press who’ll be grateful.

Above all, it’ll be consumers.

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