Last week was the final day of trading at Oddbins Camden High Street, the finest wine merchants in North London, where I spent five years – on and off – drinking learning about wine, and other beverages. It’s hard to express what an impact this place – and the culture of Oddbins in general – had on me. Before I worked there I knew nothing about wine, and no particular interest in it. By the time I left, I was not only well on the way to oenological enlightenment, I was off to work on an actual vineyard. I also learnt everything it’s possible to know about customer service, small chain retail, and shoplifters, but never mind that.
It seems that Oddbins is in a pretty sorry state right now. From its high point in the 1990s, when it introduced new world wine to the British high street, almost single-handedly creating a mass wine market in this country through quality buying and a friendly, no-nonsense approach to wine education – and winning Wine Merchant of the Year at the International Wine Challenge an unbelievable 12 times in the process – it has since suffered under a succession of poor, almost suicidal owners.
In 2001, it was purchased by Castel Frères, one of France’s largest wine companies, which has systematically set about destroying everything that was good about the chain, removing local buying powers and filling the stores with substandard, mass-produced old-world crap (like Castel’s own, godawful Virginie range or the sacrilegious Oddbins Selection). It should come as no surprise that Castel is also the owner of the Nicolas chain – snooty purveyor of obscure, overpriced and exclusively French wines: everything that Oddbins stood against.
Despite huge losses and repeated denials, Castel appears intent on starving the chain to death, shutting stores and converting others into Nicolas, which is a mighty shame for UK wine buyers. Despite the huge competition from the supermarkets, there is still a place on the high street for a friendly, knowledgeable and interestingly-stocked wine merchant – but Oddbins may well be past the point of no return. Majestic awaits the better-heeled, as does a new breed of independent wine merchant such as Philglas & Swiggot (Battersea, Richmond & Marylebone), The Sampler (Islington) and Six Wines Eight (Bermondsey & Online), whose fortunes we will watch with interest.
Still, the death of Oddbin’s Camden was celebrated in high style by Camden alumni past and present. As well as archiving the graffiti, riding the conveyor belt and starting a small fire (oops), we toasted the Oddbins of old with the kind of wines that made its reputation: great new-world wines like Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, Australian whites from the Clare Valley and reds from the Barossa, Pinots from Chile and South Africa, and Malbecs from Argentina. Damn fine wines all, and still better than you’ll find in the supermarket. Here’s to the odd bins.