Oddbins withers on the vine, but rival off-licences stay optimistic

Independent wine merchants are enjoying a high-street renaissance, finds Peter Ranscombe

ODDBINS managing director Simon Baile could be forgiven for cracking open a bottle tomorrow to drown his sorrows when his chain of 88 wine shops is expected to fall into the arms of administrators.

After last week's proposed rescue deal fell through, when the taxman refused to back a company voluntary agreement, a question mark hangs over the future of the well-known chain and its 400 staff.

For wine merchants, the unfortunate demise of Oddbins brings back memories from the collapse of Unwins in 2005 and, in 2009, First Quench, which owned a host of brands including Haddows, Threshers and Victoria Wine.

Yet 18 months on from the collapse of First Quench and the closure of its 1,400 shops, independent wine merchants are enjoying a renaissance on Scotland's high streets.

"First Quench's demise was like some big tree in the forest falling down and leaving room and light for new growth," says Michael Romer, who owns the Peter Green & Co wine shop in Morningside, Edinburgh. That new growth has come in the form of bunches of new players flowering in shops vacated by First Quench.

"Not all of these new stores will reach maturity," says Romer, but he thinks the market is a better place for having them around.

While the pruning of First Quench has stimulated new growth for independent bottle shops, Romer thinks the loss of Oddbins would have the opposite effect.

"Many people in the trade have warm feelings to Oddbins, often because they started their careers working for them," he explains.

"Their disappearance would give short-term gains but, in the long term, a much better prospect is a diverse retail sector, with lots of shippers and agents supplying it."

Romer worries that there wouldn't be enough Oddbins staff interested in taking on empty stores so soon after the demise of First Quench, reducing the amount of choice for shoppers.

Choice is a word that's also never far from the lips of Andrew Lundy who, along with business partner Gavin Ferguson, launched the Vino Wines chain in Edinburgh in June. Lundy was a manager with Wine Rack and, when he saw that the writing was on the wall, he decided to branch out on his own.

"We looked for the best-performing stores and chose three, opening on Broughton Street and Grange Loan in June, and then in Morningside in September," Lundy says. "There is room for independents like us because we offer customers a choice and something different to what they can get in Oddbins or Majestic or Tesco."

On a larger scale, former investment banker George MacRitchie and drinks industry manager Philip Craig launched BrandInvestGroup in September and took on 15 former First Quench stores. The pair have since built the business up to 21 outlets.

The personal advice and individual wines that are the lifeblood of independent merchants were also early hallmarks of Oddbins, which was founded in 1963 by entrepreneur Ahmed Pochee and bought in the 1970s by Dennis Ing and Baile's father Nick, before passing into the hands of Seagram in the 1980s.

The chain was bought by French giant Castel Frres in 2001 for a reported 57 million. Baile and business partner Henry Young bought Oddbins from Castel in 2008 and set about narrowing its losses.

But many in the industry say they didn't have enough time to turn the chain around from the "damage" done by the French giant, which has been accused of making Oddbins too mainstream and using it to promote its own wines rather than the New World tipples for which Oddbins became famous in the 1970s. Like many in the industry, Richard Meadows, who was a store manager and trainer at Oddbins but left in 1999 to set up his Great Grog business in Edinburgh, points the finger at Castel.

"Oddbins used to be successful because it acted like a chain of 200 independent wine shops, with the buying power of a much bigger firm," he explains. "Tastes are different in every part of the country and Oddbins store managers used to have the freedom to choose their own wines for their own shops.

"Oddbins will be a big loss," Meadows adds. "If it closes, then there are two ways things could go: people could lose interest in wine because they're not drinking it often or, if they already have a strong interest in wine, then they might turn to people like us."

While Baile remains hopeful that investors will come forward to buy parts of his business, many independent wine merchants will also want Oddbins to survive in one form or another.