Oddbins – Road to Recovery

POSTED ON 01/12/2008

‘There is a new chapter in the life that is Oddbins’, wrote Simon Baile in a letter sent out following the takeover from Nicolas’ 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 brand of doing things was clearly unsuited to the Oddbins ethos. The result: Oddbins fell apart and its managers became demoralized. 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’, continued Simon Baile in his letter. ‘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 at a wine trade event who’d told me ‘never underestimate a Baile’, I was intrigued enough to go along to the tasting and meet Simon Baile to see whether the walk could match the talk. Serena had been referring to Baile’s father who successfully ran Oddbins for 10 years after it had gone into receivership in 1973. That was a period still associated with the maverick wheeler-dealer Ahmed Pochee who had founded Oddbins and Simon Baile was at pains to point out that ‘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 4, in a rather tatty looking Bedford van (not driving), starting my first holiday job aged 14 in Upper Street, and starting my own company, Ex Cellar, with Henry in 1999’, Simon Baile continues in his letter. ‘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 orientated, 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 then 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 which were ‘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 itself had been allowed to stagnate 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 to build on that by buying parcels here and there, literally the sort of odd bins that gave the company its name.

As Simon Baile pointed out during the September tasting, ‘I am surprised at how much feeling there still is for Oddbins. I have received emails from people who worked for my father 25 years ago wishing me well. It’s been heartening to get such a reaction’. This isn’t the place for full review of the tasting but a snapshot 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’ 2004 dry Tokaji Furmint Mandolas, a 2008 Pewsey Vale Gewurztraminer and the excellent 2008 Blind River Sauvignon Blanc. Reds included a 2004 Luccaiolo from Tuscany, 2006 Mendel Unus, 2007 Gimblett Gravels Syrah from Rongopai, and, on more classic lines, the 2005 Domaine d’Ardhuy, Clos des Langres, Côtes de Nuits Villages. Among the best fine wines, the 1988 Veuve Clicquot, 2006 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel White, 2005 Bodegas Palacios Remondo Propiedad Rioja and 2005 Viñedo Chadwick Cabernet shone.

A promising start all in all, but a work-in-progress. There were still too many average wines in the main range, Bordeaux for instance. Not all the parcels were convincing, nor was the fine wine range entirely consistent. Yet this was the most heartening of Oddbins tastings I’d attended for years. Evidence was there that the walk was under way towards the talk of quality and independent family producers. This wasn’t quite the adventurous Oddbins range of old, but there were at least signs that the phoenix was rising. ‘Above all 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’, Simon Baile had written in his letter. If Oddbins can be reinvented to fulfil Simon Baile’s vision of becoming a serious wine presence once again on the high street, it will not just be the wine trade, the shop managers or the press who’ll be grateful, but above all the customer. As the oracle herself said, ‘never underestimate a Baile’.

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