The Losh Cause – Bordeaux’s en primeurs: Risky business
The fevered atmosphere pervading Bordeaux as it awaits reaction to this year's en primeurs puts Chris Losh in mind of an unfortunate experience that befell him two years ago. Buying en primeur can be a risky business at the best of times, but Chris didn't know the half of it.
It's February, which means that next month the most famous ex-lawyer in the wine world - Robert Parker - will be heading to Bordeaux prior to handing down his Solomonian judgments on the next round of en primeurs.
You don't have to be the Delphic Oracle to predict that this will be followed by two months of frantic e-newsletters as scores and prices are released, bulging wallets are unchained and journalists bicker about who's right about Chateau Pavie, before the whole thing quietens down again for another year at the end of May.
The 2007 vintage, I think we can safely say, will not suffer from the microscopic analysis of the 2005s, on which everyone bar Osama bin Laden seemed to have an opinion. Remember that Beatles-to-America excitement of two years ago? I bet the Bordelais do, since it's probably paid for ten years of school fees and skiing holidays. I remember it too, but with rather more mixed feelings.
Yes, I bought a few cases of wine - yeah, yeah, I know "hold the front page: 'Journalist pays for drink' shock - but I also got rather badly stung in a matter that has made me call into question just how the whole en primeur system operates, and how little legal protection there is for investors.
The en primeur campaign for the 05s began well enough. Following a trip to Bordeaux, I listed my favourites, struck off the ones I couldn't afford (which was most of them) and set about ordering some of the rest from London merchants. As an infrequent en primeur customer, this was not easy; demand was so high that there wasn't much left once regulars had had their pick. But I was happy with my seven or eight cases, from three or four different merchants - and right at the end I received a bonus phone call back from one of them, Cellaret, who said they'd found a few cases of Leoville Barton. As a cracking and well-priced wine, I said yes to one last case and put my cheque-book away for another year feeling poorer, but pleased, and (with the inclusion of Leoville) just a bit smug.
That feeling persisted until halfway through last year when I discovered that Cellaret had gone into liquidation. Still, since it was over a year after they had paid in my cheque, I figured that it was unlikely to affect me.
Boy, was I wrong!
Cellaret's directors had taken the money for the 2005 clarets and simply not passed it on to the chateaux or negociants.
Had they defrauded the hundreds of people who bought 2005 en primeur wine in good faith? Apparently not. According to the law, you would need to be able to demonstrate that they took the money knowing they were going to misuse it. Almost unproveable, in other words.
So, though we probably couldn't sue the directors for misappropriation of funds, surely we were at least entitled to either our wine or our money back? Again, the law said not. The problem is that, when buying en primeur, what you are ordering doesn't exist yet. I might have ordered a case of Leoville Barton, but I was only buying an intention for when that wine was eventually bottled, not the actual wine itself. Even my receipt, apparently, did not prove ownership, so when the wine was finally bottled, I had no comeback.
As the liquidators breezily put it, "you do not have title to any of the wine you paid for".
This is bad enough, but it's worse for the poor souls who bought 2004 en primeur wines through Cellaret. Even though their wines have been paid for, bottled, shipped and are sitting in a bonded warehouse in Britain, they won't get anything either, because the cases have not been marked as belonging to specific customers.
These are not the bleatings of a miffed journalist. When it comes down to it, I've only lost GBP500 and the chance to drink some very nice wine. I'm sure just about every other customer lost far more. But the lack of legal protection for customers in the en primeur game ought to be a major concern. Just how is it possible to buy something, hold a receipt and not own it?
It's like going to a restaurant, paying up-front then being told that what you've ordered is off, and that you're not entitled to replace it with anything else, or to your money back because at no point did you specify exactly which steak, which precise vegetables and which scoops of jus you wanted.
I don't know what sort of legal protection there is in the US or Japan, but that which is on offer in Britain is, frankly, appalling.
It could, of course, have been far worse. Not long ago the UK government was considering permitting fine wine purchases as part of a tax-free addition to pension funds. Can you imagine the carnage if unsuspecting investors had gone long on 2005 Bordeaux through Cellaret?
At the moment, en primeur investors place themselves at a dreadful disadvantage when buying, seemingly unprotected by any facet of the laws that govern normal purchases.
The vulnerability of the purchaser needs to be more clearly explained. Or better still, the law amended to offer some protection. En primeur might be an unusual way of buying wine, but that doesn't mean it should be done without a safety-net.
The fevered atmosphere pervading Bordeaux as it awaits reaction to this year’s en primeurs puts Chris Losh in mind of an unfortunate experience that befell him two years ago. Buying en primeur can be ...
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