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From Coast To Coast – The O’Briens Wines story marches on / The state of the Irish wine art

20 Feb

The O’Briens Wine group last month opened it 28th store in Ireland, this latest one in Galway bringing the group coast to coast coverage of Ireland and cementing its position as Ireland’s largest independent wine, beer and spirit retailer.

More than mere figures however, O’Briens Wines has acted as the cornerstone of new era of wine interest that has evolved over the last 20 years in Ireland. The O’Briens phenomenon is not a Celtic Tiger creation and had its roots planted long before that rapidly fading memory.

O’Briens Wines can trace its origins back to Patrick and Eileen O’Brien, opening a mixed grocery store in Bray in 1945, but the real wine story and the heart of the current business began in 1978 when the O’Brien family acquired The Wine Corner in Donnybrook becoming the ground zero for a wine business that now directly deals with and imports 750 of its own wines, along with offering for sale about the same number of wines from other importers. This is a touchstone of the O’Briens success, well over 1000 wines available in each of its stores.

It is this encyclopedic, library style offering of wines, in all price categories, particularly the monthly wines in cases in the middle of the floors of the shops at prices from €4.16 to €995 a bottle and everything in between.

Almost no UK retailer offers this range. This kind of diversity and cultural inclusiveness is unique to Ireland.

In many other countries, such as the UK and Germany, wine sales have been driven by the supermarkets however in Ireland, wine consumers have it seems preferred to stay within the specialist retailers such as Off Licences and wine shops.

The National Off Licences Association, or Noffla is headed this year by Chairman Jim McCabe of McCabes Wines in Blackrock and The Gables in Foxrock, with Vice Chair being Evelyn Jones of The Vintry in Ranelagh. This organisation represents over 330 individual independent Off Licences, throughout Ireland.

NOffla figures show that fully 35.6% of the monetary value of the alcohol business in Ireland, a total market of some €6.9 billion. In 2008 according to Anthony Foley’s Report on The Drinks Market issued by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland this represented a 2.5% fall in overall sales. Nevertheless this still makes the drinks business in Ireland one of the largest domestic businesses and one that is still fighting its corner in an increasingly difficult Environment.

The latest figures from the Revenue and the CSO in August show that the decline in the value of sales slowed to 0.0% month on month in August, while the monthly volume of sales showed a 0.5% drop. This by no means signals a return to the days of 8 and 9% annual growth, but the steep declines of the last 18 months do seem to have now arrested.

Of course, the unresolved question, for the entire economy, and not just for the alcohol market is whether this represents the bottom, or a ledge we have hit on the way down.

Happily for the Independent sector, like Noffla and O’Briens, the wine component of the €6.9 billion annual sales is dominated by sales through the independent sector. Noffla figures state that 75% of the wine and cider sales in Ireland are through the Independent sector.

The percentages are however only part of the story, the underlying reality of the figures is that overall wine consumers in Ireland, appear to see wine shops and off licences, that is specialist drinks shops as the places they prefer to shop for wine and clearly in economically harder times this means that they are being well served or they would surely go elsewhere. Looking at sales and promotions in wine shops this year, it certainly does seem that the independent sector are offering increasingly good value.

O’Briens Empire

For some years now, the title of the Oddbins of Ireland has been up for grabs, not least by Oddbins. What is meant by this is the group of wine shops that people are not just supportive of or customers of, but the shops of which wine consumers are devoted fans.

It is a peculiarity of the food and wine business that not alone individual products, but individual shops and their owners become, heroes, with a fan base.

I know because I get regular emails, letters and accosted moments in the street from people who are bursting with the kind of enthusiasm for a wine or a shop that you really only find elsewhere for football or a pop music. The near rhetorical question, do you know such and such a wine shop in Kildare, Mayo or Fairview is not infrequent exchange.

Foodies are of course the same, with many people crossing the border between food and wine fandom with an ease only our continental fellow EU members can match, until the day we sign up to Schengen and allow Irish people to abandon their passports when travelling to France or Spain.

The Sheridan brothers of Sheridan’s Cheese-mongers would be the example of an adored outlet with a strong fan-base in a non wine field.

The amazing thing in Ireland is that we uniquely have in O’Briens Wines, a nationwide chain of stores that has a devoted, fan-base. Now I will probably offend Beatles worshipers by saying in many ways, the best comparison for the O’Briens phenomenon might be the The Beatles, that is, the rare alliance of artistic ground breaking musical genius and mass market popularity. Turning that dial down from 11, O’Briens have matched ground breaking, mould breaking exploration of the wine world, with a broad commercial success and mass appeal.

They broke a wine like Coyam, an all guns blazing bio-dynamic, exotic multi blend wine from at the time an avant garde and virtually unknown Chilean winemaker, Alvaro Espinoza.

O’Briens Wines, and at that time their wine buyer David Whelehan even brought Espinoza over to Ireland and held consumer tastings of his wines. Coyam back in 2005 was then offered on sale at €15 for the 2002 vintage. It was a huge commercial success for O’Briens Wines.

Irish wine consumers seemed to appreciate not being treated like commercial cannon fodder and the competitive pricing brought immediate solid sales.

This is a wine that had to be sourced, explained and sold by hand in each store, it was not a €7.99 big brand with a massive publicity campaign behind it. The O’Briens staff, perhaps their greatest asset, are enthusiasts who talk wine, wine politics, wine gossip and wine knowledge from the minute that you enter the 28 stores, it’s an infectious atmosphere and is it appears heavily encouraged.

Lynn Coyle has just taken over as Head of Wine Buying for the entire O’Briens Group. In one move Coyle has become one of the most significant players in the multi billion euro Irish drinks business.

“I was amazed, I mean almost immediately I was straight into the intranet, the in house network running between all the shops where there were fantastic conversations going on about ever aspect of wine, urging new suggestions, looking for information on harvests and new vintages, it was very energising” says Coyle of engaging with the huge staff conversation that circulates amongst the 28 stores, which has seen O’Briens take on the reputation as a wine university.

The ongoing educational drive in O’Briens Wines with all senior and junior staff encouraged to pursue certificates, diplomas and degrees in wine and wine knowledge gives a studious campus like air to many of the stores. Many of the founders and owners of best known independent wine shops began their careers in O’Briens Wines.

This positive atmosphere for the staff does palpably pass through to the consumer side, with local shop recommendations and staff and manager boards up in each shop with picks of wines by the people who work there.

The O’Briens stores also have wines on permanent week round tasting, this can vary subtly in each shop with some shops pushing one favourite of that area over another, in addition to the wines that are obviously on some special push, mostly new wines. This encourages dialogues between staff and with customers who importantly are not then buying blind.

“I want to keep surprising people with places and varieties that we can offer, it seems to me that the Irish consumer has come to expect this, every market has its own feel, its own culture and the Irish wine market is one of the most exciting.” says Coyle.

“Of course, increasing emphasis on good value is also going to be key as well and I think we can offer both” says Coyle ambitiously.

O’Briens Wines deserve as much credit for success of wine over the last decade in Ireland as the highly motivated New World wine producers, because without a venue for these exciting wines all the New World might have offered over the last decade could have been simply big brands or simplistic imitations of existing wines, but today Irish wine consumers have benefited from the entire independent wine shop sector, that is Off Licences, wine shops and chains, like O’Donovan’s in Cork, Molloys in Leinster, Harvest in Galway and Carry Out across the country. But, it is too easy to spend time praising Oddbins or Majestic in the UK, and overlook a prophet here at home, in terms of seeing the future for wine back in 1978, the O’Brien family were those voices in the wilderness.

O’Briens New Arrivals and a old favourite

Blason D’Aussieres, AC Corbieres 2006 (90) at €14.99

This is an offering from the Languedoc by Chateau Lafite Rothschild and it is a luscious and spicvy blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan, that is frankly astoundingly accomplished and compelling at its sub €15 Languedoc price. It is definitely in a youthful state, but with an hours decanting it mellows into a superb, complex wine begging for heart winter roasts, perhaps even cassoulet.

Almirez, DO Toro 2007 (91) around €19.99

This is another new wine into the O’Briens Wine range, it is a 100% Tempranillo that has been barrel aged for 12 months. The vineyards are located in the Toro region which is near Ribera Del Deuro, but slightly warmer, this produces more rustic, beefier, spicier wines that will probably not last as long as Ribera wines, but are considerably cheaper. Toro wines like this example which is a very polished, with rich blackcurrant, touches of dark chocolate and burnt coffee grounds are at the more sophisticated end of the Toro spectrum, but still represent value over Ribera wines. A super new find.

Roger Belland, AC Santenay Comme Dessus Blanc 2007 (90) around €22

Another excellent find, a very fine wine, a white Burgundy that is playing in the taste shadow of a Meursault, but with a little lighter fruit profile. In this 2007 vintage it is evident that the fingerprints of fine Chardonnay are here, creamy, buttery wash, long complex mineral touches mid palate and a finish of substantial cut and complexity. Stunning lightly chilled with a hard cheese.

Astrolabe, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 2008 (91) at €12.99

A stalwart of the O’Briens range, this is the kind of quality Sauvignion Blanc that has made the reputation of the Marlborough region in New Zealand, most famously in the case of Cloudy Bay. In many ways this ultra crisp, clean nettle and tropical fruit soaked offering is the true successor to Cloudy Bay, as Cloudy Bay itself becomes more refined and restrained. This is old school New World Sauvignon and almost begs for a crunchy crab starter or lemon sole.

Wines Available in O’Briens Wines 28 stores, nationwide, from Galway to Greystones, from Droheghda to Limerick, and online at wine.ie, a very neat web address.

Email the wine column at wine@sbpost.ie

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