Thursday, October 12, 2006

Caveat Emptor

The collapse of the UK wine merchant and exchange Uvine with estimated debts of £1-2m will ring horribly familiar bells with anyone who has been following the wine trade over the last two or three decades. As will the revelation (by Jim Budd on that Graham Wolloff, the administrator brought in to try to oversee a sale of the company has apparently reported the situation to the Department for Trade and Industry, in his words, as he is "obliged to do where criminal conduct is suspected."
This story which follows hard on the heels of a similar saga at Mayfair Cellars, coincided with the news of the closure of World Gaming, an online gambling firm whose raison d'etre disappeared when President Bush moved to prevent it from taking bets from US citizens. The difference between these cases is of course that anybody who invested in any online gambling outfit did so in the knowledge of the risk they were running. There were apparently several pages of warnings in the share prospectuses that specifically outlined the likely consequences of the US authorities doing what they have just done. The people who lost at Uvine thought they were on far firmer ground. This was, after all, a highly sophisticated wine business run by Christopher Burr, a well respected Master of Wine and former International Head of Christie's Wine Department.
But, as Burr admitted in September 2006, the company which used a computer system designed to handle £50m of trade a week, never managed to make a profit between its launch in late 1999 and its effective demise seven years later, despite the feverish activity surrounding the 2000, 2003 and 2005 Bordeaux vintages.
Uvine survived for as long as it did, thanks to heavy early backing by players such as US hedge fund Moore Capital (which enabled Uvine to buy another wine merchant called Michael Morgan in 2001) and by the ongoing reluctance of the wine world to acknowledge that its feet were made of clay.
It would be good to be able to say that Uvine and Mayfair are unlucky exceptions to the rule, but they are not: there are far too many other UK firms (reportedly including some well-known names) operating at marginal profits whose retail customers would be in a similar position if the axe fell. Which raises an interesting question for anyone who bought 2005 Bordeaux, or has 2003s or 2004s sitting in a merchant's bond. In the latter case, I'd advise taking a careful look at the way records are kept and individual cases of wine identified. If there is no clear indication on your boxes that their contents are yours - or an easily followable paper chain - I'd have the wine transferred to a bond where you can take responsibility for their storage yourself. Precisely the same rules will apply to people who bought 2005s, but sadly they can only wait with their fingers crossed until the wine hits British shores.

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