Greybeard’s Corner – March 2011

“Oddbins, the Demise” would be a fitting sub-title to this month’s post, for what a month it’s been for arguably the most popular wine retailer in the UK. Founded in 1963 by Ahmed Pochee, run through the 1970s by Dennis Ing and Nick Baile, Seagram from 1984 to 2001 and then by French group Castel from 2002 to 2008 it was finally purchased by Nick Baile’s son Simon in 2008. Unfortunately Baile number 2 also inherited the poor debt, range and management decisions from Castel and, with hindsight, left it too late to do something about it.
News of Oddbins troubles first went public at the beginning of March with the closure of over a 3rd (39) of its stores, unfortunately it soon became clear this was too little, too late and by the 18th the wine media were reporting on the company’s attempts to enter into a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement) with its creditors as the next step in their attempt to stay afloat. Victoria Moore wrote an upbeat piece in The Telegraph with Baile giving his side to the saga (interestingly using the same photograph as an equally complementary piece in the same paper only a year ago by Jonathan Sibun) but a close look at the comments section revealed that there was a lot of tension and unhappiness below the surface which seems to have included the largest creditor as well when, less than 2 weeks later, the CVA was vetoed by the UK taxman (HMRC are owed £8.6 million out of the company’s £20 million total debt) – the company went into administration. Tim Atkin wrote an excellent piece on the saga to bring the month to a close with a telling comment – “HMRC clearly had little or no confidence in the future of the business under its current owners.”
It promises to be another busy month as administrators Deloitte look for potential buyers, so next month’s Corner post will no doubt include an update to the tale and whatever twists still remain.

Elsewhere in the wine world Bill Koch’s complaint against Christie’s, originally filed in March 2010, was finally dismissed by a New York Judge. The Christie’s litigation was latest in a line of legal actions by Koch in his crusade to expose Counterfeiting and Fraud in the fine wine trade – summarised in an excellent article in The Slate by Mike Steinberger from last year – it was only in January that Zachy’s and the Chicago Wine Company settled with him out of court.

Victoria Moore caught my attention again with her article in The Telegraph on alcohol in wines, a current theme as May’s Decanter magazine (delivered in March!) includes, for the first time, alcohol levels for all the wines reviewed. At least the magazine isn’t still pushing ridiculous filler articles questioning whether fine wine can be made above 14%, as they did last year.

The last news I’ll review here hit an emotional chord as the last ever Wine Library TV episode was aired; episode 1000 saw Gary Vaynerchuk sign off with his trademark catchphrase “You, with a little bit of me…” after a week which included some of the oldest WLTV Forum members. The WLTV Forum was where I cut my teeth in the art of “free wine speech” (arguing would be another appropriate term!) before Reign of Terroir, and, although I now rarely get time to join in on the discussions, I still have a soft spot for the people and the Video Blog. Of course that wasn’t the end of GV and his pieces to camera as he announced the start of a new site, The Daily Grape, intended to be a more relevant, focussed and (the clue is in the title) regular wine video show. I’ve caught a few of the episodes and it’s comforting to see Gary keeping most of the enthusiasm that made WLTV so unique in the realm of wine reviews.

Oddbins demise was evident across the Northeast of England as well with the quick closure of the Darlington, Durham and Whitley Bay stores (plus the new “Oddies” convenience store in Gateshead which discussed in December). I talked with local Oddbins staff who were saddened by so many store closures and job losses affecting friends and colleagues, but understandably relieved that the main Newcastle and Gosforth shops were still going, while after the CVA failure the mood is “wait and see” (something that seems to be a job requirement working for Oddbins) but business as usual in the meantime, although the number of bottles on the shelves is looking thinner.

NEWTS this month was the AGM where the discussions went on for an age before the first wine was opened, followed by something of a tasting sprint to get through 8 wines in just over an hour. It was a quartet of reds which filled most of my notes for the night, starting with the Chilean Cousino-Macul 2007 “Finis Terrae” Cabernet-Merlot blend, a strong, herby nose with plenty of juicy blackcurrant fruit and soft tannins . Next was Australia’s Barrossa Valley and the Yalumba 2007 M/G/S with a very smooth herb nose & palate, although a touch one dimensional , not something that could be applied to Le Vieux Telegraph 2003 “La Crau” Chateauneuf du Pape which had smooth complexity – both wines initiated debate on the relative merits of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blends from Old and New World, each having its supporters (I was leaning towards the Yalumba). Finally to the Barossa again for the palate pleasing St. Hallet 2006 “Old Block” Shiraz, a well made wine which showed good complexity, balance and integration but just needed a few more years of maturity to really shine.

The next NEWTS meeting is my own, first, presentation, a tasting showing a cross-section of German wine grapes, styles and regions to a group that has not shown much enthusiasm in the past to white wines or thin reds – I expect a “tough gig” but will let you know how it went next month!

Traveling kicked off again at work with a 2 week visit to Guangzhou in the south of China. The scale of the city is truly awesome – 14 million people stacked together in an endless high-rise skyline – a major culture shock for someone more used to the rolling green Northumberland countryside! Although I was in China for nearly two week a winery visit was not forthcoming so I made do with a visit to Grace Vineyard’s store in central Guangzhou where I tasted their Tasya’s Reserve Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (both 2008 vintage), both solid wines with plenty of fruit and structure. Grace Vineyard looks to be making a name for itself as one of the leading Chinese producers focussing on quality above quantity and I may follow up with a more detailed piece in the future, but don’t go looking for a bottle with your local merchant – exports are rare, like the 2008 Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc that came home with me!

That leads me nicely onto this month’s review of my own drinking and buying, a lean month on both fronts.

Along with the Chinese Cabernet Franc only two other bottles were added to the home collection; Tim Adam’s 2007 “The Fergus” Grenache blend joins its 2004 and 2006 siblings, whilst a favourable TV review from Olly Smith encouraged me to get the Paul Mas 2010 Marsanne from the Languedoc, the first wine I’ve bought with the new IGP labelling I discussed in 2009.

I also took advantage of my flight to Guangzhou routing through Dubai and, in anticipation of a “lean” 2 weeks in China, picked up 2 Château Musar wines for drinking; the 2006 Rosé was my first experience of this style from Musar and was a fresh, savoury wine which blossomed over 3 days (even a pink Musar seems to improve with air) while the 2002 Château Red was simply a joy to drink (especially after 10 days in China!) and further suggests to me that the ’02 is on a par with the delicious ’99 after relatively disappointing ’00 and ’01 bottles.

I also managed to try two other Chinese wines in Guangzhou, the 1998 Great Wall and 2003 ChangYu, both Cabernet Sauvignon and both mildly corked (although not enough to be undrinkable, and faced with the choice of that or nothing then drink I did!). I had serious suspicions on both the claimed vintage and variety of the Great Wall while the marginally better ChangYu at least showed some Cabernet character – these retailed for between £5 and £10 so are at the cheaper end of what is available in local wine stores (the Grace Vineyard Cab-Franc I brought home came in at just over £20).

It was a Rosé and Red which provided the most enjoyment at home as well as abroad; the 2009 Domaine de la Garenne Bandol Rosé (Comte Jean de Balincourt) proved a hit with fellow NEWTS at a March dinner with its smooth strawberries & cream profile and a “grown up” texture on the palate, while the inky 2006 Montes Alpha Merlot showed a powerful blackcurrant nose with balanced, savoury tannins and a chocolate mint finish, perfect for quiet evening drinking at home.

Looking forward and with the start of Spring, the world wine diary is beginning to fill out. VinItaly has just come to a close in Verona, and California hosts the next two major events the end of April with the 19th annual Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles on the 28th – 30th and the 2nd annual California Wine Festival in Orange County on 29th & 30th.
May then sees the start of the UK’s National Wine Month, an initiative run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust under the slogan “Make Time for Wine” with the headline act of the London International Wine Fair on 17-19th May.
Even if, like me, you’re not able to make any of these events then I trust you’ll still find some time to open a bottle of something special and toast the end of Winter.



Originally published April 10th, 2011 on Reign of Terroir

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