I’m old enough to remember when Oddbins was the most exciting wine store on the high street. Back in the seventies when supermarket wine ranges were terminally boring and wine merchants the pompous, pin-striped suited caricatures of legend Oddbins shone like a beacon of light with its offbeat listings and quirky Ralph Steadman-illustrated wine lists. It put Australia on the map and then Greece (remember the Greek wine range?) And then it all went horribly wrong ending up under the ownership of Castel Frères, owners of the nondescript Nicolas.
When it was rescued a couple of years ago by Henry Young and Simon Baile whose father had run the business in the early days I must admit I still wasn’t convinced about the direction the chain was going in. The shelves were still pretty dull. There was a half-hearted flirtation with natural wines which no-one in my local branch had ever heard of but suddenly - judging by yesterday’s press tasting - Oddbins has a spring in its step and is stocking the sort of wines that made its reputation. And believe it or not almost half of them are organic or sustainable.
It’s obviously a personal passion for head wine buyer Richard Verney (above) who sees it as his mission to make this the point of difference between the company and their rivals. And is clearly sincere about it rather than seeing it as a marketing ploy. The difficulty he sees is how to present it to their customers - whether to talk about organic, sustainable or natural wines.
"It’s not always straightforward" he admitted to me yesterday. "Some of our producers are effectively organic but not certified. I was talking to a Muscadet producer the other day and she said ‘Look, we’re in a marginal area. I need to reserve the right to use sprays as a last resort.” You can understand that - they've got to make a living. And there are certain aspects of the organic movement I’m not 100% happy about if it means organic stops as soon as the grapes are picked. We need to think what our attitude is to additions of sugar and acid and what is acceptable and unacceptable. How wine travels to us - the stuff that comes in on a truck from Europe may be more ecologically unfriendly than wine that comes in by container."
But he’s convinced that ‘greening’ Oddbins is the right move. "The next thing in wine has always been a new region but I think it’s now going to be a new attitude."
"I go to Borough Market every Saturday and see people who are obsessed with the food there and wonder where they’re buying their wine. Most people still see wine as a factory produced product rather than an agricultural one - we’d like to change that."
The detailed notes on each wine presented at the tasting illustrate that Verney is serious about his intention. The return of the old ‘odd bins’ philosophy means that many of the most interesting bottles will only be available in selected branches and small parcels. Which is fine - you'll just need to get in quick. I’ll post a couple once I’ve checked availability.
December 21st: Sadly for Oddbins it's just been announced that Verney has left "to pursue new challenges" so I wonder if they'll sustain this momentum.