Corks Out closes branches as Yates family consider next move

Corks Out has closed two of its remaining four branches as part of a dramatic shake-up of its ownership structure.

The Knutsford and Chester sites have ceased trading. A new company, owned by Richard Wood, is now running the Stockton Heath and Alderley Edge branches.

It’s understood that a board meeting took place on November 11 in which the decision was made to put the company into receivership. Three days earlier, the leases, assets and stocks of the Stockton Heath and Alderley Edge branches were sold by auctioneers to Corks Out (Warrington) Ltd, a company incorporated on August 29.

Ruth Yates, who founded the business and established it as one of the highest-profile names in the independent trade, had been a minority shareholder since 2013 when she sold a majority stake to the Wood family.

A rights issue in November 2018 diluted her shareholding to less than 25% and since that time Yates says she has had limited access to company accounts or trading information.

Ruth Yates, her husband Richard Yates and daughter Hayley Staunton had been involved in a legal dispute with the business, claiming unfair dismissal in September 2018. The family say they are consulting lawyers about the courses of action now open to them.

Yates told The Wine Merchant it was “a very sad time it is for me personally at the moment” and that she “wishes all the employees well for the future”.

Richard Wood has been contacted for comment.

Beaujolais is back in fashion

Beaujolais Nouveau is showing signs of a comeback in the independent trade, with dozens of merchants planning to get behind the new wines when they arrive on November 21.

Just a few years ago the category seemed in danger of extinction in the UK, but many specialist retailers say there is a consumer appetite for a wine that has seen a surprise revival in its fortunes, partly on the back of a less gimmicky style than has traditionally dominated the market.

Matt Tomas of Vinoramica in east London says: “Personally I love it. We like to get in a few cases and sell it over a few days. It always seems to go down quite well.

“I think it’s shaken off a bit of an image problem it maybe had a few years ago. People are definitely interested in lighter, slightly lower ABV reds, even in the winter.

“I think the growers are releasing decent quality Beaujolais Nouveau and it’s good to enjoy it when it’s there. Generally, the slightly younger age group, between 25 and 45, are the ones who have got excited about it. They are more curious and tend to buy it without any of the baggage.”

Greg Andrews of DVine Cellars in south London says: “We do something with Beaujolais Nouveau most years and it’s always good fun.

“We use the event to broaden people’s understanding – they understand the difference between the crus and the Nouveaux once they’ve been told, but I don’t think the level of knowledge is necessarily there at the moment. I’m seeing cru Beaujolais become a little more popular in light of the escalating Burgundy prices.

“This year the plan will be to have three Beaujolais Nouveaux as well as a showcase of cru Beaujolais; a Morgon, a Fleurie and maybe a Saint-Amour.

“The suppliers I’m working with have all been positive about the ’19 vintage – even more so than last year’s I’d say. I think the quality has improved over recent years – it’s a lot more serious. It’s not just a whim for the cool kids or the traditional francophiles either. I’ve been surprised that the demographic who are interested are mostly drinkers in their 40s.”

Devon merchant Christopher Piper has been making wine in Beaujolais for almost half a century. The majority of his wines are Brouilly, Morgon and Beaujolais Villages – he began making Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 15 years ago when he started to view it not just as a “cash cow” but rather a “legitimately interesting drink, created for the Lyonnaise market in the 19th century”.

Piper has witnessed the rise and fall in the fortunes of Beaujolais Nouveau and is confident that the region as a whole is now back on track and ready to take its rightful place on the world wine stage.

“There’s a lot of good things going on in Beaujolais,” he says. “People realised the whole of Beaujolais had to improve, not just Beaujolais Nouveau. One of the biggest issues was over-production and yields have been radically reduced. If you compare now with the end of the 1990s, even early 2000s, yields have dropped by 20% per hectare and an enormous amount of vineyards have been grubbed up.

“I think the young winemakers are making a huge effort to concentrate on quality and grow their vines on fairly difficult steep slopes compared to a lot of regions in France.

“The new generation of winemakers have different ideas of how to make wine, and they’ve travelled. But it’s not necessarily a question of age. There are people who have changed their whole viewpoint – there are people in their 50s who are quite radically forward thinking. It’s about people opening their eyes, realising the region has huge potential and trying to grab it and run with it.”

Modern Beaujolais Nouveau can be a very different animal to what was knocked back in the 80s. “We’re after red fruits, dark fruits, the floral side of it,” says Piper. “I will ferment my Beaujolais Nouveau for six or seven days. We don’t do too much pumping over or extraction – we want it to be fruit-forward and tannin-guarded, but also to be a serious wine.”

Third branch for Le Vignoble

Le Vignoble is set to open its third and biggest branch in the coming weeks as part of a regeneration project in the heart of Bristol.

Owner Yannick Loué has had his sights set on the city for some time and his latest move, to the high-profile Finzels Reach development, looks tailor-made for Le Vignoble’s hybrid model.

“We have one or two hurdles but we are hoping to open in six weeks, maximum,” said Loué when The Wine Merchant spoke to him at the beginning of October.

The waterside location encompasses a range of residential properties as well as retail and office spaces.

Le Vignoble will take its place among an eclectic mix of restaurants, cafes and shops on the ground floor of the Fermentation Buildings.

“It’s exciting,” said Loué. “I love the property – it used to be a brewery and it’s got a lot of history behind it. It’s perfect for us and I’m looking forward to it.” But he admitted the move is “a massive gamble”.

At 223 square metres, the branch will be more than double the size of the Plymouth or Bath sites and will offer 64 wines from Enomatics. Ten new staff will be recruited, with some moving from other stores.

Finzels Reach has gradually bedded in and already hosts a popular weekly street food market. Left Handed Giant has a brewery and brewpub on the site and there are a number of independent cafes and restaurants including a vegetarian wood-fired pizza offering provided by Mission Pizza.

Channel 4 and English Heritage also have a presence on the development. “The vendors have been very picky – they wanted independent people as well so it’s going to be a nice mix,” said Loué.

The 6-acre site will include 737 homes and a 168-bed hotel as well as 375,000 square feet of office space. Its developer describes it as “one of the largest and most significant mixed-use regeneration projects in the south west”.

Bristol boasts a broad range of independent drinks specialists, including Corks of Bristol, Clifton Cellars, Davis Bell McCraith, Grape & Grind, Aimee’s Wine House, Weber & Trings and Little Tipple.

Most specialise in retail, though Corks has a branch called Corks at Cargo at Wapping Wharf where wines can be enjoyed by the glass on the premises.

The first branch of Le Vignoble opened at Royal William Yard in Plymouth in 2012 and a second venue appeared in Bath in the spring of 2018.

In an interview with The Wine Merchant in early 2015, Loué said he ultimately wanted five branches in the south west of England.

This story appears in the October edition of The Wine Merchant.

Trade counts the cost of no-deal Brexit

With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looking increasingly likely, independent wine merchants are braced for disruption – and potentially increased costs – during their busiest trading period after October 31.

The government has pledged a 12-month suspension of World Trade Organisation tariffs on wine in the event of no deal. These tariffs could eventually add up to 7p-10p on a bottle of still wine and 21p on a bottle of sparkling.

But Whitehall has given no such reassurance on the introduction of VI-1 forms – the paperwork accompanying wines imported into the EU, which include mandatory laboratory analysis of each wine.

Borough Wines sold for just £60,000

Borough Wines, which collapsed into administration at the end of May with debts of almost £1.3m, has been bought in a pre-pack sale for just under £60,000.

Administrator Mazars said there had been “no reasonable prospect of rescuing the group in its existing form as a going concern” and that the deal, secured with Borough founder Muriel Chatel and a French backer, represented a better outcome for creditors than liquidation.

The biggest chunk of debt (£779,000) was actually to Expression du Terroir Ltd, a business within the Borough group which sourced and supplied stock.

Many of Borough’s other creditors included small French wine producers, some UK brewers and distillers and a number of logistics companies. Armit was owed £4,867, Ehrmanns £4,720, Boutinot £3,058 and Sipsmith £3,652.

Mazars reported that Borough Wines, which started on a stall at Borough Market in 2002, had expanded to nine units but recently closed six sites “as a result of declining turnover and increasing losses”.

The sale of the business to Spirits of Borough, owned by Muriel Chatel and Arthur de Chalus, includes £43,760 of stock and all equipment, along with goodwill, intellectual property and customer records. The company has secured an initial three-month lease at the Stoke Newington branch.

Chatel said that rent demands had been “like a hoop around our neck”.

She added: “It’s been tough but what I would say is that at least we were extremely proactive and we took control while we could. We didn’t wait for the landlord to fold the company because we couldn’t keep up with the payments on empty shops for the next 20 years.

“We are doing everything by the book. We had to send out letters to people we work with in order to keep the trading name, to inform people that the previous company had to go into administration, but that Borough Wines was still very much trading.

“We have a French investor backing us, which requires faith in the current climate. They are an extremely serious investment company who invest in all sorts of businesses and they decided that our project was extremely strong if we managed to get out of retail and keep the strategy towards wholesale. They love the idea of the franchises and of wine on tap.”

Chatel said that relationships with some creditors had been maintained.

“We haven’t been able to write cheques left, right and centre straight away but we are trying to find solutions to maintain relationships with those who have been supportive of us for many years and will hopefully be part of the next chapter.

“In some ways what we are doing and putting together with the Borough Wines franchise is more interesting than the few shops we closed.”