Friday, 25 March 2011

Oddbins - further developments

Since I wrote on Tuesday about the beleaguered state of Oddbins, there have been further developments. Off License News now reports that "Oddbins has applied to the courts go into administration to stave off winding-up orders from creditors ahead of next Thursday's meeting to vote on a proposed company voluntary arrangement. The company described the move as a "precautionary measure" and said its remaining 89 stores would continue to trade."

This measure effectively gives Oddbins a 10-day immunity against any winding-up orders, allowing for the vote on the proposed Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) to go ahead as planned, at a meeting of creditors on 31 May. However, unless the terms of the CVA are accepted at that meeting by at least 75% (in terms of value) by the creditors, then the company will almost certainly be forced into formal administration.

Bizarrely, British Gas appears to have played a significant role in forcing Oddbins' hand, since they are one of the companies (or perhaps even the only company) to have apparently applied for a winding-up order against Oddbins. The list of creditors on Deloitte's CVA document shows British Gas Business to be owed the princely sum of £57.65. Which seems a little strange, because business regulations normally dictate that a debt of at least £750 be outstanding before any single creditor can apply for such an order. Following a little digging, the intrepid Jim Budd now reports on his excellent blog, Jim's Loire, that the explanation for this is that "the amount listed as owed to British Gas excludes estimates." Whatever that means is anybody's guess - although it isn't inconceivable that the reported total debt of around 20 million Pounds is a rather conservative estimate.

Either way, the future for Oddbins now appears very bleak. Even if they manage somehow to stave-off formal administration in the short term, actually having any wine to sell may prove rather difficult. The problem is, having treated their suppliers (both wine growers and UK importers/agents) so shabbily, why would those same suppliers ever want to to do business with Oddbins again in the future - especially if they are forced to accept just 21% of what they are already owed (and over a 4 year period, at that)? There is simply no longer any basis for trust or goodwill. If, as reported elsewhere, the Oddbins management are so confident that they can re-build their business, why not show a clear resolve to (eventually) pay back 100% of what they owe? Anything less is unsatisfactory, but 21% is quite frankly an insult.

Always assuming that their existing suppliers do what they are being asked to do and cut their losses, who on earth will take their place in the longer term? No sensible grower would touch them with a bargepole ,unless it was on a strict "payment with order" basis.
I take no personal pleasure from reporting on the seemingly inevitable demise of Oddbins - too many people will lose their livelihoods and too many honest suppliers will face severe financial difficulty. As I said in my previous post, I am one of the countless enthusiasts for whom Oddbins played such a huge part in starting my love affair with good wine, and it is sad to see a once-great retailer fall so spectacularly from grace. But that was then - and this is now. And apart from the name, there really is little left for us sentimental wine lovers to lament - except for the fact that the dreaded supermarkets will now have even less competition from the high street. 
For another take on the subject of Oddbins, including some rather damning comments by the trade, see the report entitled Suppliers being 'asked to fund Oddbins rescue' on the Harpers Wine & Spirit website.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Oddbins - is this the end for a once proud wine retailer?

Like many an avid wine enthusiast whose voyage of discovery began in the late 1980's and early 1990's, I have fond memories of many happy hours - not to mention a fair amount of money - spent in the vinous heaven of Oddbins. A wide-ranging, dynamic and continuously evolving wine list, combined with innovative marketing, fair pricing and enthusiastic staff was the secret of Oddbins' success. I remember that Australia, USA, Southern France, Spain and the Rhone were particularly well represented, although other emerging new-world countries were also given a helping hand. In short, for the budding enthusiast and seasoned aficionado alike, Oddbins was the "happening" place to find new and exciting wines. Indeed, many of the relatively unknown growers whose wines populated the shelves in those heady days have since gone on to become much sought-after, iconic names. Others have all but disappeared from the UK market, which is a great shame, because many of them were deserving of more attention.

Having been acquired by Seagrams in the late 1980's, Oddbins' success continued well into the late 1990's. But by 2002, things were (for a variety of reasons) on the slide and Seagrams sold the business to the French wine retailer Castel. An even more lacklustre performance (in terms of both marketing and choice of wines) by Castel saw things go from bad to worse until, in 2008, the Company was sold to a consortium headed by Simon Baile, son of Nick Baile, who was the owner in the pre-Seagram days.

Fast-forward 3 years and Simon Baile's grand design, aimed at restoring Oddbins to it's former glories, appears to lie in tatters - as do the finances of both the Company and many of it's creditors. Those creditors - as can be seen from the proposed CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement) now available to view on the Deloitte website - include many of the current and former staff of around 130 shops, who are owed wages and/or severance payments ranging from less than £100 to several thousand. Then there are the landlords of the shop premises, utilities companies, local authorities, and of course the wine growers and agencies, who have continued to supply Oddbins with stock, despite what must have been some pretty ominous warning signs. Many are small, independent growers, whose very livelihoods are threatened by the prospect of having to write-off debts of perhaps a few thousand Pounds. Others are somewhat bigger and arguably better placed (though I imagine not best pleased) to sustain some pretty significant losses. For instance, the relatively small Champagne grower Drappier is owed £80,000, UK wine agency Hatch Mansfield is owed £200,000 and Chilean wine grower Concha y Toro is owed £250,000. Several other companies and large growers are owed six-figure sums and many more are owed five-figure sums. Even wine haulage and shipping company J F Hillebrand is owed almost £25,000 - and believe me, that amount of money shifts an awful lot of wine. The full list of creditors, as shown in Appendix 6 of the CVA, makes for sobering reading. The list is as long as your arm and the debts total somewhere in the region of twenty million Pounds.

The most staggering figures of all, however, are the amounts owed to Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue (HMRC) - over £3,000,000 in unpaid VAT and PAYE, and almost £5,500,000 in unpaid excise duty. Speaking as a (very) small independent wine merchant myself, my Company settles its VAT bill every quarter, without fail - it would be seriously negligent of us not to, for the simple reason that it was never our money in the first place. Furthermore, if we don't have the money to pay excise duty, we don't get our wine. The bonded warehouse sees to that, because it is their job. In both instances, if we failed in our obligation to pay these taxes, you can bet that HMRC would be down on us like the proverbial ton of bricks. Which begs the question, who - if anybody - at HMRC has been keeping an eye on Oddbins? Suffice to say, some serious questions need to be asked.

So what sort of a future lies ahead for Oddbins? The idea behind a CVA seems to be that a company which is essentially insolvent gets to carry on trading, subject to agreement by at least 75% of the creditors to accept a guaranteed percentage of the monies owed to them. In this case, the proposed fixed dividend (i.e. the amount to be paid back to the unsecured creditors) amounts to 21%. In other words, each creditor would receive 21p for every Pound they are owed - and over 48 months, at that. I may be wrong, but I can't see the proposal being acceptable to the majority - and I know what my answer would be, if I were put in that position. Problem is, of course, that most (if not all) of the alternatives may be even worse.

One of the most surprising things about this whole sorry tale is that, despite the rumours circulating on the Internet in recent months - not to mention the dwindling numbers of bottles on the shelves in the Oddbins shops - the real state of affairs only became clear when Deloitte published the CVA. Which, coincidentally, was at around the same time that a Daily Telegraph article, penned by wine columnist Victoria Moore and entitled Oddbins fights back, was published. You can draw your own conclusions, but under the circumstances, it will probably not go down as Ms Moore's finest hour. Then again, we all get the wool pulled over our eyes occasionally, and she'll live to fight another day. Somehow, I doubt that Oddbins will.............

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Riesling orgy continues

My new range of Mosel Rieslings arrived in bond yesterday, so are now officially "in stock". And because there are so many of them (14 in all) I've been facing a race against time to write all the tasting notes for my website. I've only 4 more to go, now (plus a solitary Weisserburgunder and the grower profiles) which I hope to complete over another Riesling-fuelled weekend, in time for sending out a newsletter early next week. Here are my notes on a couple of delicious Auslesen, tasted last night.

Dr F Weins-Prum Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese 2009 Mosel - £16.75
A bright, limpid, pale yellow/straw colour!. As with all of the Weins-Prum wines, the nose is delicate and refined, yet full of subtle complexity. This one shows plenty of wet slate minerality, even a hint of steeliness, but also plenty of fruit, in the way of dessert apples, lemon and flowers, along with an enticing hint of clarified butter. Again, the palate has a good deal of residual sugar, but this is tempered with intense, laser-like acidity and that ever-present mineralit, which carries through to a long, lingering finish. This really is elegant in the extreme - and another wine with tremendous potential to age and evolve.

Dr F Weins-Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2009 Mosel - £17.30
Ultra-pale straw/gold colour. The nose offers delicate aromas of spring flowers, stone fruits, lime zest and mandarin, with a hint of oregano. More than anything though, this wine speaks strongly of slate/minerality. The palate is loaded with all manner of citrus and stone fruit flavours, and is fairly rich and intense, even honeyed - as you would expect from a wine of this level of ripeness. But all of that intensity and richness is more than matched by utterly mouth-watering acidity and again a strong impression of minerality. The result is a wine of great focus, purity and elegance - and impressive length. Yet again, this wine is just wonderful to drink now, but also has great cellaring potential. I would expect it to reach its peak sometime after 2020.

Incidentally, both of these wines coped admirably with a light supper of home-made smoked mackerel paté, lightly-dressed salad and warm crusty bread.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Pancakes and Riesling - a match made in heaven!

OK, so I can't claim to be the first to discover this fact - one which is, come to think of it, rather glaringly obvious. I'm currently tasting my way through a few more bottles of Kurt Hain and Dr F Weins-Prum Riesling and writing full tasting notes for the website, in preparation for the delivery of my shipment later this week. It is hard work, but someone has to do it - all in the name of research, of course!

And since yesterday was Pancake Day, it was an ideal opportunity to do a bit of impromptu wine and food matching. We started with some tortilla wraps, filled with hot and spicy chilli con carne and a freshly-made onion, capsicum and chilli relish. Although not the ideal match, both Rieslings were a refreshing and fruity accompaniment to the chilli, especially the Kabinett, which was slightly drier and with a touch of refreshing spritz. But the wines really came into their own with pancakes, laced with a little sugar and lashings of freshly-squeezed orange juice. The Kabinett coped admirably, but the Spätlese, with it's flavours of mandarins and apricot and intense acidity, really was a match made in heaven, mirroring the sweetness and acidity of the pancake toppings.

The nose on this wine really is something to behold - intense lime, apple, stone fruit, herb and wet slate aromas, with a palpable whiff of the acidity lying in wait on the palate. When I first tasted this in September 2010, it seemed soft in comparison to the 2009, but perhaps that intense acidity and minerality have begun to temper the overt fruitiness - all part of the evolutionary process in great Riesling. Whatever the case, this has turned into a wine with incredible focus and verve, with lime oil, tree fruit and grape flavours melding beautifully with truly mouth-watering, palate-cleansing acidity and a mineral depth worthy of the finest Mosel Rieslings. Although it is so, so good to drink now, I think it has the structure to age and evolve for perhaps another 10 years. So the choice is yours - drink it now, for its sheer vitality and youthful exuberance, or leave it for a few years to develop the more mineral and tertiary aromas and flavours of classic aged Riesling. It really is a fabulous wine - and I promise it will put a smile on your face! £11.95

Bright, pale yellow/gold, with a water rim. Of the trio of Hain Spätlese 2009's in our range, this one is probably the softest, most fruit-forward and hedonistic of them all. That said, it already shows a fair degree of complexity, even at this early stage. The nose is absolutely brimming over with the scents of fresh grapes, mandarin orange and apricot, with plenty of that classic Mosel minerality cutting right through the fruit. My rule of thumb for 2009 Mosel Rieslings is that the Kabinetts have almost Spätlese levels of ripeness, whilst the Spätlesen are more akin to Auslesen - and this one is a perfect example, with intensely ripe, luscious fruit flavours and a hefty dollop of residual sugar. But great Riesling at any level needs acidity to balance the sweetness, and this one has it by the bucket-load. The result is a wine of both immense concentration and supreme balance, with the acidity countering the fruit sweetness perfectly. The purists would probably say that this wine needs 5 to 10 years before it is really ready. I say it is utterly wonderful and delicious now - and will always be so. £14.95

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A delicious white Burgundy and a delectable Cornas

There's a particularly vociferous Burgundy nut on one of the wine discussion boards that I frequent who contends that fruit is not something he particularly looks for (or even wants) in his aged Burgundies. Whilst I still demand some semblance of fruit in my red Burgundies (in fact, red anything - whether aged or not) I can sort of see where he is coming from, as far as the whites are concerned. Some may think that my over-use of fruit descriptors in tasting notes is an easy option - and I'd be the first to admit that my notes tend to have a uniformity of "style", relying quite heavily on fruit/flavour commentary, although I do very occasionally find myself drifting towards the poetic (or some may say pretentious)! But using fruit (which in wine normally means anything but grapes) to describe the flavours is, to my mind, one of the best ways of conveying the feel and style of a wine to the reader. That said - and for all it's many different guises - Chardonnay may well be the least "fruity" and most difficult to describe of all the grape varieties. Depending on where it comes from, you may get hints of apple, lemon, stone fruits, tropical fruits, whatever. But it is usually all about the flowery, minerally, earthy, fruit-in-a-non-fruit sort of way. Good Chardonay smells and tastes of Chardonnay - and good white Burgundy smells of white Burgundy - whatever that is. Here's a case in point, with my latest bottle of........

Domaine Michel Juillot Clos des Barraults 1999 Mercurey 1er CruI seem to remember that my previous bottle of this was a little kess evolved than this one, but that's bottle variation for you - and this is actually just as enjoyable. The only perceptible fruit remaining is baked apple, cut through with a bit of lemon juice - quite rich, but with a definte citrus tang. At almost 12 years of age, it may just be starting to tire a little, with some gentle oxidative notes, which I actually find attractive in aged white Burgundy. But it still shows plenty of Chardonnay (or should I say Burgundy) character, with fruit, minerality, terroir and some nicely integrated oak working in complete harmony. There's a hint of toffee apple (again, a sign that it is fading a bit) but that lovely lemony acidity keeps it fresh. There's also an interesting note of fresh root ginger - lightly spicy, in a cool climate sort of way. Mercurey isn't a grand appellation (it's in the Chalonnaise, some way to the south of the Cote d'Or) but this one certainly stands comparison to a good village Meursault. Lovely wine - who needs fruit?!

I actually have quite a backlog of notes from some really excellent tastings and dinners enjoyed recently. Not that I plan to write them all up, of course (that would be very boring) but I certainly plan to tell you about some of the better ones, when I have a little more time. Meanwhile, here's a particularly fine Northern Rhone for starters;

Thierry Allemand Chaillot 1998 Cornas
Still quite deep in colour with just a tiny pink-ish rim. The nose is a glorious expression of pure, traditional Northern Rhone Syrah - blackberry, raspberry and wild strawberry fruit aromas, mingled with lily of the valley and forest floor. There's a nice touch of savoury smoked bacon, beef stock and sun-dried tomato, but just enough to complement rather than smother the fruit, and what oak there is (or was) is now beautifully integrated. The palate too is traditional - a model of elegance and restraint - which is just how I like my wines. Again, there's plenty of fruit, some savouriness, and perhaps even a hint of rusticity, but there's a lightness of touch that makes it a real joy to drink, with present (but softening) tannins and the most wonderfully mouth-watering acidity. A Cornas for Burgundy lovers.