It sounds like the sort of thing Oddbins would do, at least before it was bought by the hard-nosed bunch that runs Castel. But the answer is considerably more surprising: Marks & Spencer. The company that used to play as safe as a swimmer
in arm-bands and a rubber ring has come over all touchy-feely .
Holding tastings on flower, as opposed to root, days is only a part of it. M &S
is currently one of the most innovative and exciting wine retailers in the country. If you'd told me I'd write that sentence with a straight face back in the mid-1990s, when the M&S range was duller than an evening with a bunch of Trappist monks, I'd have laughed at you. There was the odd highlight (Champagne and Chablis have always been strengths) but the company always seemed to be comfortable with blandness and vinous mediocrity.
Not anymore. The department began to change under Jane Kay MW, who encouraged younger buyers to take risks and list more unusual wines, but it has really started to blossom in the
past year or so. It's partly the willingness to list fine wines (a Côte Rôtie at £30, say, or a top Rioja at £20), but it's also the desire to stock off-beat wines that challenge its customers: the 2005 Saint Mont white, a blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac ; the 2005 Clos de Reynard, a Marsanne/Roussanne from California ; and the 2001 Campo Aldea Rioja, a wine made entirely from rare Graciano.
M &S 's latest piece of innovation is the launch of six Fair trade wines. That's a significant addition to a smallish, 400-bin range and marks a major departure for the company. The Co-op has a larger list of Fairtrade wines, but the M&S range is better chosen and, significantly in my view, more expensive. The Co-op has not managed to sell a single Fairtrade wine over £4.99; M&S, on the other hand, has four at £5.49 and two at £7.99, which has to be good news for producers in South Africa, Chile and Argentina.
I didn't like all of the wines, but I was delighted to see the two listings for M'hudi at £7.99, as this is arguably the most promising Black Economic Empowerment project in South Africa. I was also impressed by the Pinot Grigio from the La Riojana co-operative in Argentina and the Cape Chardonnay from the Citrusdal co-operative. Four out of six is pretty good given the mixed quality of some Fairtrade wines.
M &S has also increased its organic range from seven to 12 wines in the
past few weeks. This is not as many as Sainsbury's, which has more than 20, but once again the quality more than stacks up against the competition.
Highlights included the 2005 Brocard Chablis (£12), the 2006 Domaine Grand Milord Vin de Pays du Gard Rosé (£5.99), the 2005 Botteghino Chianti (£6.99), the Okhre Natur Cava (£9.99) and the 2004 Mareante Hill Cabernet/Merlot, Central Valley (£5.99), from ace Chilean red wine-maker and biodynamic specialist
I'm excited - and still more than a little surprised - by what has happened at M&S. But it seems to be part of a general trend. Under chief executive Stuart Rose, Britain's favourite underwear supplier has discovered a new sense of adventure. Long may it continue.
Tough acts to follow
With the departure of Alex Anson from Thresher earlier this month and the announcement that Angela Mount, the so-called Million Dollar Palate, is to move on from Somerfield at the end of February after 15 years running its wine department, the retail sector has lost two influential personalities in the space of a few weeks.
We know that Anson has left the booze industry, at least for the time being, to work for Nuance, a company that runs a chain of airport shops. Mount's movements are less clear cut. She says
she made the decision over Christmas and that she's "likely to be doing her own thing in future", but that's as much as we know for now. My hunch is that, unlike Anson, who has always been a trader first and a wine lover second, she'll stay in the trade. I certainly hope so.
In their different ways, Mount and Anson have both made significant contributions to our industry. Mount took over a moribund supermarket wine range (remember Gateway with its sweet Spanish whites and British fortifieds?) and gave it credibility and a good dose of her own personality. Typically, she kept only one supplier, La Chablisienne, and junked the rest.
Anson, for his part, was the architect of three-for-two, a dynamic that has brought a bit of excitement back to the high street, if not quite as many customers as he would have liked. He's made Thresher a retail force again and leaves it
in a much better state than he found it. Both their successors have big boots to fill.