The owner of Matthew Clark has denied that senior management at the UK drinks distributor tried to artificially boost pub sales to win a lucrative contract.

Constellation Europe has insisted a scheme asking staff to visit JD Wetherspoon pubs and buy the company's wine during a trial of three of its products was not a ploy to bump up its sales but merely a "mystery shopper type exercise".

Reports in the UK said today (27 July) that Steve Thompson, the managing director at Matthew Clark, had e-mailed staff asking them to buy eight bottles each and drive sales of the company's wine.

Constellation, which already supplies 650 Wetherspoon pubs throughout the UK, is looking to win the tender to become the exclusive supplier of house wine to the chain. Wetherspoon sells a number of non-Constellation brands including Blossom Hill, Fetzer and Wolf Blass.

However, the drinks giant maintained the programme was designed to help the company "gain greater insight into the on-trade wine category and help achieve the common goal of growing the category by providing the best possible on-trade wine experience".

The company told just-drinks that staff at Matthew Clark were sent a letter and asked to buy one of the three wines and give feedback on "topics such as wine temperature, freshness of product and staff wine knowledge".

The company said: "An e-mail was subsequently issued for the purpose of maximising employee participation in this activity. In its endeavours to achieve this, the language used was not consistent with the original letter.

"(But) given the scale of the JD Wetherspoon group, the participation of Constellation Europe employees will not significantly affect volumes of its products and therefore affect the trial of its wines."

A local newspaper had been anonymously sent the e-mail detailing Matthew Clark's ploy to win the contract. According to the Bristol Evening Post, Thompson wrote: "To date we have had a poor response to our invitation to get all employees to visit their local JD Wetherspoons outlet and purchase Nottage Hill Chardonnay & Shiraz (and Echo Falls in the Bristol area) and reclaim via expenses.

"We would implore each of you to participate in this activity as it is vitally important that we maximise volumes during the remainder of the trial period (which ends on 31 July). Line managers, as leaders of our business, can you ensure your direct reports are aware of this activity and are participating to ensure that Constellation Europe is awarded this lucrative contract.

"There is now two weeks remaining of the trial and it is key that we pull through every bottle of Constellation wine during this period to see us over the line."

A JD Wetherspoon spokesman told just-drinks that the chain would take the information it had received into account when awarding the contract. A decision, the spokesman said, was expected "in the coming weeks".

He added: "Matthew Clark was not helping Wetherspoons or helping themselves."