When we shop for wine, online or in-store, the world is our oyster. It wasn’t like this 30 years ago. Today, we talk to someone who played a large part in changing what and how we drink, wine buyer extraordinaire Steve Daniel.
The name might not mean much to younger readers but Oddbins, the chain of wine merchants, helped change Britain’s drinking habits. Before Oddbins, wine was stuffy, class-ridden and largely French. Afterwards, wine became normal: it could be enjoyed in front of the telly, it might not be French, it might not even come in a bottle! The chain, still existing but now in much diminished form, dates back to the 1960s but had its heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s. Steve Daniel, who joined the firm as a trainee buyer in 1987, was there for the glory years.
“It was a fabulous time because wine was still relatively young to most people,” Daniel told me when I met him at a tasting put on by his company, Novum Wines. “Supermarkets hadn’t really discovered wine at that point. Wine was still very traditional and it was a time to sort of be a bit disruptive, which we were.” The choice on the high street was very limited: “If you had a wine shop, you could not not have Lambrusco,” he said. “You could not not have Muscadet,” Daniel said. “ It was very traditional, there was a lot of Bordeaux, there was a lot of Chablis.”
In contrast, Oddbins shops were scruffy, unpretentious and stacked full of interesting wine, especially from the New World. “It was a chance to bring in Australian wines in a big way for the first time,” Daniel said. I asked if there was any resistance to these new wines: “No, absolutely not,” he said. “Our first shipment was something like 20,000 cases. It was BVE, Barossa Valley Estates. We brought them in and sold them out at £2.99. And they were lapped up”. He went on to say that there was a gap in the market: “France or Italy wasn’t making a good job of their domestic wines, a good Chardonnay from Australia at a cheap price was much better than the same priced French wine.”
Shoppers can be persuaded to experiment, according to Daniel: “I think the consumer is always willing to try new things. You just have to give them a good enough reason and take the risk out of it for them. So what we did was stack it high, put it at the right price and have it on tasting in every one of our shops for free over the weekend,” he said. It helped having passionate and (usually) knowledgeable staff. Chile was another great success: “I remember with Chile people were saying, ‘Why the hell are you doing that? You’ve only just brought in Australia and Chile’s never going to make it’”, he said. Less successful was his attempt to introduce Greek wines in the 1990s. The wines were fantastic but they weren’t cheap and while it was easy for customers to understand a Chilean Merlot, it wasn’t so easy with grape varieties like Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko (I remember as I used to work for the firm in the late 1990s), especially as the labels were often in Greek lettering so we, the staff, were just as much in the dark as the customers. Daniel laughs when I remind him of this: “I had taught myself the Greek alphabet when I got into the wines so didn’t realise that nobody else could read them,” he said. “I have to be ahead of the time, I don’t want to be a follower”, he added.
Daniel now works as a buyer with his own specialist list, Novum Wines, within a much larger wholesaler, Hallgarten. He is still a Grecophile, he speaks the language and part-owns a brewery on the island of Santorini. He has been vindicated, eventually, as now nobody bats an eyelid about buying a bottle of Greek wine. “The wine industry is a long term project for everybody involved. When I look at an area I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, it’s going to take some time and yeah, maybe 20 years is a bit longer than I would have expected for Greek wines to have made its mark, but they have now,” he said.
It’s a very different retail environment to when Daniel started out. Supermarkets and online dominate, with most of the high street chains gone. “Brand and discount became important. Which is quite worrying because if you have varietal and price, then it takes everything down to a lowest common denominator and makes interesting wines and their position on shelf a little bit more tenuous,” he said.
So how do you get people to experiment? The Oddbins way of selling wine face-to-face doesn’t work with supermarkets and online. Media is important, newspapers, blogs etc. But you can’t beat good old fashioned word-of-mouth: “The way that people always used to learn about wines was their friends telling them about it. Someone would have invited them around and said ‘You’ve got to try this, it’s brilliant’ and that’s always happened,” he said. “But it’s how it starts and I suspect most of it now is more on the social media side of it so if there is an article by a journalist I very rarely think that a lot of the consumers now actually pick up that magazine, but it will get retweeted or it will get pushed on in some way.”
And face-to-face selling still goes on. With the decline of the high street, there’s also been a parallel rise in independents. If you live in a city or bigger town, there is probably a good one near you: “I think that’s where there’s been a growth in the independents, which is great because people just don’t want to buy Chardonnay at a price point or a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand at a price point, they want something else.” These shops cater for people who are interested in wine, who are, according to Daniel, still in a minority: “I’ve always said, even in the days of Oddbins, there’s about 10% of the population that are interested in wine,” he said. “In those days only about 10% of the population drank wine, but now 90% of the population drink wine, but only 10% of those are interested”.
Daniel has been ahead of most trends, so I asked him what’s going to be happening next. Firstly, he thinks that how we drink will change, with glass declining especially in the on-trade where many venues are using kegs for their house wines. Then when it comes to the contents: “areas like the Eastern Mediterranean are really exciting, because they have indigenous varieties that no one else has got and they’ve got a story to tell, because to me, stories have always been really important in selling wine”, he said. “Places like Georgia, Armenia, Lebanon, Croatia, Slovenia.” Climate change too is affecting how we drink: “I tasted a great Sauvignon which was from the Cotswolds,” Daniel told me. “And it was wonderful and it reminded me of the old Touraine [Loire] Sauvignons I used to love to drink back in the day and I haven’t tried that style for a long time, because it’s got warmer there. Bordeaux has been given permission to plant different grapes. We work with Jim Barry, who years ago decided to plant Assyrtiko [a Greek grape variety] in Australia because it’s got great acidity and rather than acidify, you just use Assyrtiko as an acidifying agent.”
After speaking to Daniel it was time to taste some of the wines. Daniel and the Hallgarten team had laid out a selection brand new to the trade from Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Chile, all corners of the globe. But, interestingly the wine that he made sure I tried was from France, a Muscadet. It’s a world away from the underripe high street Muscadets of yesteryear, made without added sulphur, it had piercingly intense fruit, but still, a Muscadet! Plus ça change and all that.