Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Oddbins v Majestic

Most wine in the UK is bought in supermarkets, but there is still a place, albeit a shrinking one, for specialist wine merchant chains on our High Streets. Oddbins and Majestic are, I would guess, the most interesting of the chains for people interested in wine.

I’ll come clean straight away – I once worked for Oddbins. Only for 10 months or so, until I found that selling wine and selling tins of beans had too much in common for me. But I will do my best not to get all misty-eyed about how things used to be “back in my day” and attempt to give a fair comparison of these two giants of UK wine retailing.

How do they stack up? Publicly-listed Majestic currently has 147 wine warehouses across the country, compared with 132 Oddbins shops, privately owned by Simon Baile and his business partner. The distinguishing factor for Majestic is that shoppers must buy a minimum of 12 bottles of wine (or beer or spirits); at Oddbins you always have the option of popping in for just a single bottle. I get the feeling that Oddbins eye this case-only policy jealously and would love to have their customers do the same. I can see their point: it’s so much easier to serve 20 customers in a day, each of them spending, say, £80 each to earn £1600 income; rather than having to deal with more like 160 customers, spending an average of £10 each.

Additionally, it must irk Oddbins’ owners that their rival can essentially build in a case discount to all their prices, whereas they must offer a single bottle price, which is necessarily higher. In order to address this imbalance, Oddbins offers discounts of up to 15 and even 20% on particular wines if you buy a mixed case, in order to encourage shoppers to buy more each time they visit. However, interestingly, Majestic are trialling a minimum purchase of six bottles in some of its stores, rather than the traditional twelve – so it may be that the benefits of their case-only policy are wearing thin in these straitened times.

Majestic’s management has had nothing more troublesome to deal with than the transition of power from long-time CEO Tim How, to Steve Lewis last year. From the outside at least, their progress looks assured, including snapping up fine wine specialists Lay & Wheeler in March this year.

Oddbins, by contrast, has been through a particularly torrid time in the last decade or so. In the eighties and nineties Oddbins was owned by Seagram, as part of its spirit and wine brand portfolio. During this time Oddbins grew rapidly to over 200 shops and stood head and shoulders above other High Street merchants – a funky image, eclectic range and pioneers of new wines to the UK and a foregone conclusion as the International Wine Challenge’s Wine Merchant of the Year.

Then in 2002, Oddbins, that champion of the new, the exciting, the sometimes, frankly, odd, was bought by a French company, Castel Frères. It should never have worked and it didn’t. Finally, last year, Castel sold Oddbins to the son of one of its former owners – not without first having cherry-picked the most profitable sites for its own group of underwhelming French wine merchants, Nicolas.

Oddbins’ new owners face challenges on many fronts – breathing life into their wine range, so neglected under Castel; retaining and motivating staff; regaining their place in the hearts of the UK’s wine lovers – and all at a time of unprecedented economic slowdown. I don’t envy them their task.

If Oddbins have been known for their funky, risky side of wine retail, then Majestic are more steady Eddy. They don’t take chances with their wine range – if someone’s going to champion a new wine country or region, you can bet it won’t be Majestic. However, while Oddbins have, to all intents and purposes, been absent from the UK wine scene, Majestic has stolen a march on its long-time rival and turned ex-Oddbins shoppers into loyal Majestic customers.

It’s not an easy time for anyone selling anything quite so frivolous as wine and it would be a shame to see either of these two retail institutions suffer. And, while it’s too early to say if Oddbins can rekindle its old magic, a rejuvenated wine presence on the High Street can only be welcomed.

Top wine picks from Oddbins
Oddbins Own White and Oddbins Own Red 2008 - £4.49 (£3.59 as part of a mixed dozen)
The Castel-era versions of these wines were dreary. Now, though, they are fantastic value for money wines made by the enterprising Domaines Paul Mas in the Languedoc – though it’s a shame they haven’t changed the fright of a label on the bottle. The white is a veritable cocktail of grapes: grenache blanc, vermentino, chenin blanc, colombard, ugni blanc and chasan which deliver a fresh, crisp yet weighty mouthful of apple and citrus fruit. The red, meanwhile, is made up of grenache, cinsault, syrah and carignan and offers lively, dark fruits with a touch of spice. At this price don’t expect greatness - but they are honest and cheerful.

Fox Gordon Princess Fiano 2008 - £9.99 (available mid-May)
This is the kind of off the wall wine we love Oddbins for – a cultish southern Italian grape variety, used to make a wine in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. It has a gorgeous, alluring nose of honey and apricot – in the vein of viognier, but with more freshness – a full-on and interesting mouthful.

Margrain Pinot Noir Home Block 2007 - £14.99 (£11.99 as part of a mixed dozen). Available from end of May.
The case price is great value for such an accomplished Pinot Noir from Martinborough in New Zealand. This spot, at the very southern tip of the North Island, across the water from Marlborough, seems to produce the most intensely-flavoured and “masculine” of New Zealand’s pinots – this is rich, ripe, spicy and smoky, but with typical pinot noir lively acidity and perfume.

Top picks from Majestic
Dr L Riesling 2008 - £6.99
Despite its complete lack of popularity with the wine-drinking public, Majestic valiantly continues to stock a small but well-chosen range of wines from Germany. This riesling is just off-dry, with plenty of zesty, peachy fruit and at just 8.5% alcohol with a screwcap it’s a perfect picnic wine.

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Blanc, Domaine de Mercey 2004 - £9.99 (£7.99 if you buy two)
This is the kind of thing that Majestic do so well – white Burgundy is hardly original, but they have searched out a less fashionable area and found a great example of maturing Burgundian chardonnay at a very reasonable price. There’s a hint of honeyed ripeness to the appley fruit, along with a touch of peach and spice.

De Martino 347 Vineyards Carmenère Reserva 2007 - £7.49 (£5.99 if you buy any two Chilean wines)
If you’re planning a barbecue then look no further – it practically smells like barbecue steak already. The palate is a mass of juicy black cherry fruit.

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