It's a sad week for beer and wine drinkers in Leeds. First of all, the news came that two of the city's four Oddbins shops – Albion Street and Headingley – are among the 39 Oddbins stores around the UK being closed down (the Chapel Allerton and Street Lane stores are apparently remaining open). And then came the completely unexpected news today that specialist beer shop Beer Ritz, managed by beer writer Zak Avery, has ceased trading. In fact the term 'ceased trading' doesn't do it justice. Beer Ritz is something of a legend, with an incredible range of beers and truly knowledgeable staff: time has been called at a party no-one wanted to end.
Oddbins in general has come in for a lot of flak over recent years, with several wine writers pointing the finger in particular at the chain's previous owner, French company Castel (which bought Oddbins in 2002 and sold it three years ago), for presiding over its downfall. Writing in the Observer back in July 2008, Tim Atkin called Castel's ownership of Oddbins "a disaster". He said: "Most of the good buyers have left, the range has been reduced, prices have increased and many of the famously enthusiastic, over-qualified shop managers have set up on their own or moved to other companies. There are still good people at Oddbins - not least the two remaining English wine buyers - but the business is a mess."
From personal experience, I'd like to reiterate: there are still good people at Oddbins. As a relatively regular shopper at the Albion Street branch, I can say the team there are absolutely superb: full of enthusiasm, taking pride in what they're doing, keen to engage with customers, knowledgeable. But… the range in the store was at times patchy, and pricing has been a problem. Offering 20% off if you buy six wines gives the impression (true or not) that you're paying over the odds for a single bottle, and that's a major problem for city centre stores aiming to attract regular one and two-bottle purchases. And it has to be said the growing empire of supermarkets over the past decade or two must also have been a huge problem for stores like Oddbins. We're all buying everything in supermarkets and online. Why take a detour to a wine shop when you can lob in a couple of buy-one-get-one-frees into your supermarket trolley, along with every other consumer product you might ever need, on your weekly shop? We're giving a bottle of wine the same amount of respect as a ready meal.
With Oddbins, if Atkin and others are right then it's the same old story of mismanagement at the top resulting in pain for those on the shop floor. Those who've been doing a fine job, especially given the difficult circumstances, are the ones who are now losing their jobs. A theme of our times. And it's more than their jobs. You only have to read this account from a member of the team at Beer Ritz to realise that. You only have to speak to a member of staff at Oddbins in Leeds city centre to realise it: they care about what they do.
There seems to be a big appetite for high-quality, interesting and varied drinks in Leeds, and there are several very good independent bars and local breweries. You'd think that a specialist drinks shop should thrive in the city. You just have to hope that independents like Latitude can find a formula for continued success. Because other than them, in the city centre we only really have Gerry's Wines & Spirits, Harvey Nichols and M&S with dedicated alcohol sections offering more than the usual suspects.
In the meantime, the staff from Beer Ritz and Oddbins should get together over a beer at North Bar, form a dream team and open a new wine and beer store of which Leeds can be proud. Because a future of supermarkets and the internet, and little else, is not an appealing one.