Steve Daniel: the legend continues
It’s generally accepted in the wine business that the current rebirth of Oddbins is a force for good. When people are expressing that opinion they’re prone to refer to a “golden age”, starting some time in the early 1980s and running well into the following decade. And when they do the name of Steve Daniel isn’t usually very far away.
Daniel was buying director in the golden age of Oddbins but left more than a decade ago, since when he’s enjoyed the same sense of autonomy he had there while building the supplier portfolio of Novum Wines.
He isn’t keen to dwell on his time at Oddbins, not because of ghosts or skeletons but because it was “so long ago, I’ve moved on”.
It was while training as a chef in his early 20s that he had his first introduction to wine, at a tasting laid on for local luminaries by his boss. “I went along and tasted some wines, one of them was Michel Redde Pouilly-Fumé – I remember it to this day – and I thought ‘oh my God, wine can taste that good’. That was it, I was hooked.”
After studying hotel management at Leeds Polytechnic he joined the Yorkshire independent Martinez Wines as shop manager before heading south to join Rackham’s in Surrey.
He was actually after a buying job – “there weren’t many in Yorkshire” – and one fell into his lap when he applied to Oddbins, initially for a store post.
He joined Oddbins in February 1987 as trainee buyer and was there for 16 years, becoming a buyer within six months, senior buyer after two years and eventually buying director.
With Daniel in charge of buying and John Ratcliffe – now chief executive of Accolade – captaining the ship, Oddbins entered what more than one esteemed wine writer has referred to as its “glory days”. The Ralph Steadman cartoons, the reputation for quality and quirkiness, and the chatty, informed staff were all in place but in the, er, Daniel-Ratcliffe era things went into overdrive.
“The environment was if you can do it, do it,” says Daniel. “It was always part of the culture of Oddbins but we had the opportunity to push it to the extreme, which we did.
“Obviously you had to make sure whatever you bought sold through, and that was mainly through enthusing the staff. They were an integral part of what we did. Without their enthusiasm we wouldn’t have got away with half of the things that we did, to be honest.”
Google Daniel’s name today and his tenure is connected with words such as “eclectic” and “quirky” – as well as a famous spell championing Greek wine, still a passion today.
“The aim was to find interesting things,” he says, “and work out a way of getting them
to sell. Simple as that. Just to go out and find quality wherever it is.
One of his first missions was to educate the UK about the joys of a little-known wine producing country called Chile. “I was the first gringo wine buyer to go to Chile,” he says. “We saw the potential and went for it.”
He’s keen to make clear that the brief wasn’t just to find weird stuff or open up new countries.
“We went there because we saw the value and the quality, but we were in classic areas as well. We were the biggest retailer of Champagne in those days, way before the supermarkets were taking over.
“It was the same with en primeur. We bought the wines, stored them, financed them and then put them on the shelves for our customers. We thought en primeur was an elitist thing, earning people who were buying cases lots of money.
“But we gave people the chance to buy a bottle of Mouton at sensible prices. Every year we’d spend more than £1 million en primeur.
“We also had a great list of classic Burgundies: Niellon, Sauzet, Carillon. It was about good wine wherever it came from.”
Crucially, Oddbins was then owned by the financial muscle of Canadian spirits giant Seagram. Two more myths that Daniel is happy to dispel: (a) Oddbins was simply a shop window for Seagram brands, (b) never made any money.
“We did a good job for it. We gave it profits every year, contrary to most people’s view. We sold a lot of Perrier- Jouët and Mumm [both then Seagram- owned] – but as part of being the biggest retailer of Champagne it was natural we would sell a lot of its product.”
Daniel left Oddbins in 2003, a year after it was bought by French wine giant Castel. “I’d done my bit and realised I needed to move on,” he says, but takes obvious pride in his part in those times.
“We wanted to demystify wine, to make it accessible for everybody, but we still wanted it to be seen as a treat, as an art. Now, wine has become commoditised. People are constantly undervaluing it whereas in those days we could put Angelo Gaja or Mouton wines on our shelves and they’d sell. We’re drinking more wine than ever now, but we were more diverse in those days.”
For many in the trade and thousands of consumers, Oddbins has never really been the same since the pre-Castel era.
Daniel insists he had no strong emotional response to its demise under Castel and, more dramatically, the collapse under Simon Baille, but agrees with the current mood that Oddbins is on the way back, although a reduced force from its heyday of 200-plus shops.
“I’ve moved on with my own life, but I’m glad to see it back and doing well. But at the time of its demise there was none of that ‘oh well it wouldn’t have happened in my time’.”
He thinks current Oddbins boss Ayo Akintola has done a “fabulous job”. And adds: “When I walk into an Oddbins now, it’s much closer to the Oddbins I knew and loved. It’s all about the product and the staff.”
When he did move on it was to set up Novum Wines for an Israeli entrepreneur who shared his enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of good taste in wine. The brief, he admits, was “vague” but had a familiar ring – to source from “new countries, new techniques, new approaches or new producers in existing countries”. He adds: “Greece was always going to be in my plans. India was one of the first things we did, with Sula.”
Others followed: Larry Cherubino from Australia, Perez Cruz from Chile, Andeluna from Argentina – all with a story, niche or point-of-difference to enthuse trade customers and consumers.
Daniel has retained autonomy and Novum operates independently of Hallgarten Druitt, which bought it in 2010. He is also now buying director for the group.
So what does he look for in a producer?
“It’s a gut feeling, I suppose. Helping it sell through is about finding a niche or a story behind it. We work in Santorini in Greece – it’s the oldest vineyard on the planet. You can’t get a better story than that. If there’s no soul then there’s no reason to engage. If the person who’s making it isn’t passionate how on earth can you expect anyone else to be?
“But I don’t wake up every morning with a yearning to reinvent the wheel, just to find interesting wines. That’s my brief to myself.”
So does he mind that his peers may see him as Mr Esoteric, Mr Quirky or Mr Greece? “Not at all. They’re things I’m very proud of. I’d rather be seen as that than Mr Boring.”
DRIVING FORCE: WHAT MOTIVATES STEVE DANIEL?
So, has retail wine buying legend Steve Daniel ever thought of opening his own wine shop? “No, not at all. I’m more interested in working with the product and producers. That’s more my style.”
Daniel doesn’t really have a favourite wine merchant either, though expresses admiration for online retailer Swig.
“I don’t really drink that much wine,” he claims. “I see the beauty and intrinsic quality of wine but I’m not that obsessive about it. If you asked to see my wine cellar I’d say you can’t – because I don’t have one. I’ve never collected wine. I do all of that stuff during the day but I need another part of my life.”
At the moment, that other part of his life is playing out in the form of the Rocky Head microbrewery, which he set up in 2012. The four-barrel plant goes into production every weekend.
“We sell to Oddbins, Spirited Wines, independents and a few restaurants here and there. It’s this creative thing – I like to get my hands dirty and create things.”
But he adds: “I’m not a big beer drinker either. I’d rather have one glass of something great than five of something ordinary.”