Speculation is mounting that Castel is ready to offload its loss-making Oddbins chain for a fraction of the £57 million it paid for the business in late 2001.
The French family company is busy rebranding some of its best sites as Nicolas and could be prepared to accept a modest fee for the remaining Oddbins estate following another set of dismal results. Oddbins made a £3 million loss in 2005 and its most recent trading figures are not thought to be encouraging.
Castel has denied any sell-off plans and insisted it was committed to Oddbins.
A number of venture capitalists are already weighing up a bid for Oddbins but none has yet made a formal approach. Some observers believe Castel will accept a massive loss on its original investment if it can secure a distribution deal for its wines - increasingly marginalised by Oddbins buyers - with a new owner.
One senior industry figure said: "They are essentially looking to sell the business. They paid well over the odds and it's been a colossal disaster. They're not actually marketing it but they would be open to an offer. Having said that, what people are struggling with is 'what are we paying for here?' Nobody seems to know exactly how many stores there are. Clearly there is a closure programme going on. They are moving a lot of the better sites to Nicolas but there is no proof that under the Nicolas banner they will do better.
"The fact they're changing fascias from Oddbins to Nicolas suggests they don't have any confidence in the brand. Many of the branches they're changing are the better sites and one has to conclude th at they are preparing the rump of the estate for sales of some form or another."
A statement from Oddbins said it had always planned to close unprofitable stores in 2007 and claimed "the most profitable branches are today still trading as Oddbins". It added: "The reason behind these closures is solely good business sense - ie they are not profitable stores mainly due to rents on the high street.
"While some Oddbins stores have been transferred to Nicolas, these have been unprofitable stores that would have been closed otherwise. Oddbins and Nicolas will both close stores that are not profitable.
"Speculation that Castel is going to withdraw support from Oddbins is without basis. We are planning to open profitable branches in 2007, an example of which is the Wirral branch, which will commence trading on March 10.
"The continued untrue rumour is unsettling for our staff. Since late 2006 we have communicated our branch closure intentions clearly and unambiguously and nothing we have done so far has deviated from our communicated intentions."
Comment - page 10.