M&S fields the best formation

W hen Sky Sports, never a channel to stint on hyperbole, shows three back-to-back football matches, it often calls it Super Sunday. In the build-up to the day itself, the bloke who does the stentorian, over-the-top sales pitch is lumbered with the challenge of making a, say, Blackburn versus Fulham, Stoke versus Hull City and Middlesbrough versus Portsmouth sound like the pinnacle of the sporting calendar. Er, not quite...

How would Sky Sports deal with the wine trade's equivalent of Super Sunday - three heavyweight tastings held in central London on successive days? There were certainly footballing parallels to be drawn and, potentially at least, a lot more genuine excitement on offer.

Oddbins, struggling to avoid relegation, but under new management, is not unlike Newcastle United at the moment; Marks & Spencer, last year's retailing Premiership winner is, just like Manchester United, fancied by many to retain its title, despite the fact that it's about to lose one of its star performers in Gerd Stepp, while Majestic, good in Europe, and challenging for the top spot this year, is a vinous Liverpool.

Readers who don't give a stuff about football will be relieved to hear that I'll now boot this extended metaphor into touch and get on with an assessment of the current strengths and weaknesses of each retailer, without

footie jargon.

For a booze hack, the chance to taste 382 different wines (144 each at Majestic and Marks & Spencer and 94 at Oddbins) in such a short space of time, pitting the three retailers against each other, is gruelling but highly instructive. This is my verdict on each.

Oddbins first. In common with almost everyone in the UK booze trade, I want Oddbins to succeed. Only 10 years ago, Oddbins was arguably the most exciting retailer in the world. We all know what happened under Castel, an initially promising stewardship that ended in costly failure, but Ex Cellar has had eight months to put its own stamp on the chain. There was an interim tasting last autumn, but managing director Simon Baile stressed that it was only a beginning. Judge us in six months was his message to


Well here we are. Baile described the latest Oddbins tasting as a chance to gauge "the direction in which we are travelling, both for finding some interesting and esoteric wines, and our ability to source, good, entry-level products as well".

Has progress been made? I wouldn't say that Oddbins has gone backwards since last summer, but it hasn't moved forwards either. In fact, in many respects the tasting resembled one held under Castel's aegis: a few decent bottles, too many dull French wines, high prices (most of the bottles are £1-2 overpriced unless you buy a mixed case) and the odd faulty bottle that should have been withdrawn and sent back to the supplier. Oddbins will not succeed unless it puts better wines than this on its shelves.

Where should it look for inspiration, or possibly salvation? It could do worse than visit a branch of Majestic to buy some of its competitor's range. Majestic, like Oddbins, showed a lot of French wines at its tasting, but the quality was superior at every level. Majestic buys well from the Loire, Burgundy, the Rhône and regional France; only its clarets were generally poor. Other highlights included Italy, New Zealand and Germany. Chile and Australia could do with some work, as could a new range of sherries, but the overall impression was of a retailer playing to its strengths.

The same was true of M &S, which continues to source some of the most exciting wines in the UK. At a time when other supermarkets are focusing on the lower end of the market, demonstrating shameful risk aversion, M&S has occupied higher retail ground. How many supermarkets list a dry Pedro Ximenez from Chile, a white Douro blend, a white Collioure, a Pecorino, a white Crozes-Hermitage, a Margaret River Semillon, a Falanghina, a Priorat, a Rioja made from Graciano, a Barbaresco, a Petite Syrah/Souzao blend from California, a Russian River Pinot Noir and an Aussie Monastrell? Tesco's, Asda's and Sainsbury's ranges look very dull by comparison.

The irony of all this is that M&S is now doing precisely what Oddbins used to do: take risks and offer a range of unusual, deliberately challenging flavours. This is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Only a decade ago, I chided M&S for being obsessed with "cleanliness and conformity". It was, I wrote at the time, the "Singapore of the supermarket sector". Oddbins, meanwhile, was "buying and selling exciting, flavoursome and innovative wines from all over the world", adding up to a "broad, complex and constantly changing selection". The two retailers haven't quite swapped places , but I know where I'd advise people to buy their wines.

Baile, just like Alan Shearer at Newcastle , has a scrap on his hands.