Friday, February 01, 2008

So where do you buy your wine?

I've been reading a fair bit recently about the change in the fortunes and the reputation of Oddbins. It made me think about where I got started with wine.

An important question came to my mind, which I believe is very important to The Wine Conversation.

"Where is it cool to buy wine?"

Plenty of places will sell you wine, but where do people WANT to go and buy it? Once upon a time, and one of the main reasons the wine culture in the UK became 'cool', that place was Oddbins. They may not have been everywhere yet, but anyone interested in wine, particularly if you were younger and wanting to know more about the wine world, would know the name ODDBINS.

It was a place to hang out and find all sorts of weird and wonderful, and just affordable, wine discoveries. Australia. Chile. South Africa. California. Exotic names and brands.

Not only were the wines available, but you could be certain that the person behind the counter, and very often not behind the counter but on the shop floor ready to talk to you, would know a great deal. They would have just tasted some "amazing new listing" that they could recommend.

My wife (girlfriend at the time of course) would know that if I went in "just to browse" I would certainly come out with a bottle of something.

Where are they, and their successors today?

Majestic is certainly one of the most successful. Their 'by the case' formula is very good for the bottom line, and profitability and confidence help to keep that success going. But 12 bottles is too much for a student or young person just starting out with wine. I was worried about spending £7, never mind £50.

I believe that when he moved to take charge of wine (amongst other things) at Tesco, Dan Jago said that his aim, and I paraphrase slightly, was to make it the kind of place even those in the wine trade would be happy to buy their wine. He has certainly overseen an interesting expansion of their range, I can't fault that. Unfortunately, I personally can't see Tesco or any supermarket being a 'cool' place to buy your wine, however good the range (he may well disagree).

Independent Merchants, small shops run by enthusiastic individuals, are certainly out there, but the market is very fragmented and their power to reach out to new consumers is limited. Many also find them quite daunting - an unknown quantity where one's own lack of knowledge might be sneered at.

Can anyone step in? Threshers seem more intent on becoming convenience stores. Nicolas' exclusive focus on French wines is insanity in the current climate.

One final alternative are the mail order and internet merchants - and here I'm mainly thinking of Direct Wines / Sunday Times Wine Club / Laithwaites / Virgin. This is a growing area for selling wine, but no-one has yet become THE place to go and buy wine. However, this is something to explore further. Many are vying to be the Amazon of wine retailing.

Maybe Oddbins will finally turn it around, who knows, but it will take a great effort, but who else is there?

So, where do you buy your wine?


Unknown said...

We were recently blessed with a real Laithwaites shop (Binfield). I certainly don't buy ALL of my wine there, but I do buy cases. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly and they have that most welcome of features - a tasting table.

Robert McIntosh said...

thanks Simon. I actually had a thought about the new Laithwaites shops just as I was finishing the post. I have not been in one, but with the power and marketing cleverness of Laithwaites behind them you never know.

do you have to buy wine by the case in there or can you buy single bottles?

Anonymous said...

Here in Spain it is often the grocery store, though this is mainly due to the fact that our tastitng schedule doesn't leave us much time to seek out wines that don't relate to Catavino. If I was a bit more in the disposible income world,I would definately turn to online resources, not only to support them, but I find they often are very helpful when looking for something new.

Robert McIntosh said...

thanks Ryan. Of course I too buy from all sorts of places, online and not - I have even been known to buy wines from Tesco and the other supermarkets, of course.

I worry though that online sources are of most interest to the converted. But who is doing the missionary work? Where does the 19 year old student, or 22 year old new graduate with her first pay cheque, who'd like to learn to appreciate wine (and not just buy the latest offer) go? Who is even raising their interest in wine in the first place?

Wulf said...

Majestic has been the main prop to my recent interest in developing my palette and getting beyond buying for the pretty labels.

Of course, barely had I started before their local (Catford) branch closed down! However, the second case was ordered via the internet, which went smoothly, so I am likely to try them again via the web.

Unknown said...

The customer has complete freedom of choice. I have bought their 'case deals' (i.e. 12 bottles of the same wine, or a 'fixed' selection of 12) but I also buy 6 or 12 bottles of my own choosing at a time and get a small case discount (and my two free bottles, as I joined their Premier club thingy.
When I was there yesterday I was warmly welcomed, and one of the staff was asked to open a bottle for me to try (as I had previously enjoyed something similar) so they're obviously very much customer-oriented in terms of wanting us to experience new wines as they become available.

Gabriella Opaz said...

Because our time is rather limited to peruse retail shops in Barcelona at leisure in search of odd finds, I'd rather chat about the experience of finding a 'cool' wine shop. Personally, a wine shop is very similar to a book shop for me. They both are treasure chests full of beautiful covers, created by fascinating people from places I've never been. What differentiates a cool wine shop from an uncool wine shop is primarily the feeling I get the moment I walk through the door. Is it warm and inviting? Do I enjoy the staff and are they passionate about wine/food? Do I feel that my questions will be answered? Can I form a relationship with the store? If I can't find the wine I want, will the store go out of their way to get it for me?

I love knowing that my resources are supporting people I trust and believe in. Even if a store has a better selection of wine at a cheaper price, I won't spread the word unless the ambiance and staff equal in quality.

Will said...


Great Post, I have been thinking about this topic for a while. In Ireland, like all other countries, there are a number of sources of wine. Wine specialist chain merchants (O'Briens Wine, O'Donovans), Independant wine merchants, Supermarkets, general off licences & online. Each sales medium has it's own pros and cons and I feel there are a number of factors that influence who buys what where. The most important factors that distinguish each retailer I feel are sales personal and range of wines.

Personally I will buy certain wines from certain retailers if it's something I want and the price is right but to try something new and interesting that I haven't heard of in advance or wasn't planning on purchasing will require a good sales person. These people are becoming ever more rare in the wine industry over here and it's a real pity.