A number of independents told OLN they had sold out of a current vintage and reordered, only to be delivered the previous year’s stock.
Often the wines remained perfectly drinkable even though they were not the current vintage – but in some cases shops have been forced to sell stock off as “cooking wine”.
“It shouldn’t happen,” said George Worblewski of Manchester merchant Smithfield Wine. “It really is bad practice. It is obvious the supplier is not doing stock rotation correctly, or alternatively is trying to pull a fast one. It has happened occasionally on and off over the years.
“Some of them will list a wine and won’t state the vintage, and if you don’t ask they won’t tell you. They can be getting rid of overstock which is possibly on the cusp and past its best. It is sharp practice but it does happen.”
He added: “We always check the vintage before they send it and if it is not correct we send it back. The majority of wine merchants are pretty conscientious and want to make sure the customer is satisfied. There is nothing worse than someone bringing back a bottle and saying it is corked or it is off.”
David Henderson, of Edinburgh independent Henderson Wines, found himself stuck with wines he didn’t want after trying out a new supplier.
“It is a very rare occurrence, but I had one load from a supplier about six months ago that was definitely past its sell-by date and then they replaced it with something which was almost of a similar age,” he said.
Because the wine arrived as part of a mixed pallet, it wasn’t worth paying to send it back to London. The supplier said it would send more stock to make up for the old wine, but only if Henderson ordered from it again – and, because it had to be a cash-up-front deal, he couldn’t get his money back.
He said: “Some suppliers have stock to shift and they are chancing their hand. There are a lot of dodgy wines in corner stores that people who don’t really know what they are drinking will drink because they are inexpensive. Unscrupulous traders are trying to clear old stock.
“They would avoid some of the better wine merchants but try it with less knowledgeable or less experienced vendors of decent wines, but it is not common practice.”
Henderson added: “As certain aspects of the trade slow up, maybe that will occur more, but most reputable agents will bin-end it before it goes completely over the top.”
Bill Rolfe, owner of East Grinstead wine merchant, deli and convenience store the Market Square, has recently been sent 2010 and 2011 vintages of Italian Verdicchio, Pinot Grigio and Orvieto wines – which really need to be drunk fresh.
He said: “Buying white wines for small, specialist independent operations is not easy because you don’t get the freshest stock. It is as simple as that.
“I suspect suppliers don’t have a high enough turnover of every wine in their range to keep vintages fresh. Maybe even the wholesalers themselves don’t realise they have a problem, but I think they have.
“Wholesalers for independents have got to show a reasonable range of white wines but can’t turn them all over fast enough to only have a 12-month vintage backlog. In supermarkets it is easier because of the fast turnover.”
Rolfe added: “It is the consumer who loses out because they are not getting fresh wine but they don’t realise it – but we know in the trade that consumers get a raw deal. Unless it is a white wine that develops with age, it should be consumed within 12 months of vintage in any outlet, whether it is a supermarket or an independent – and that is not happening.”
“It happens a lot, and it happens with red and white wines,” said Ruth Yates, who runs the small chain of Corks Out stores in Cheshire.
“We are very vigilant at our warehouse, and if we have a particular vintage that has been coming in and then moves back we send the stock back. We have had some wines which I wouldn’t say were past their best, but weren’t showing very well, and it does seem they were trying to offload wines that they have been sitting on for a while.”
Some retailers suspect something more sinister than poor stock rotation.
Tom Jones, of the Whalley Wine Shop near Clitheroe, Lancashire, said: “We have heard rumours there were big orders placed for summer 2012 which then didn’t materialise, or sales weren’t as good as some people were hoping so that stock has been released to the market.”
Others have suggested that when supermarkets delist suppliers they might then try to pass that stock on to independents, and that wine left over from agencies that have gone out of business is also finding its way into the market.
Anthony Borges, of the Wine Centre in Great Horkesley, near Colchester, agreed it was more of a problem for lower-end off-licences than wine merchants.
He said: “Dumping has been going on for a long time. Usually it will go to certain off-licences on the high streets, the sort of place where they stack them high and sell them cheap. There has always been a market for that but it is not the sort of business we would promote because we want to promote quality.”
Some believe that as supermarkets have simplified their ranges suppliers have found themselves with too much wine – but Yates at Corks Out, believes oversupply is drying up, at least at entry-level.
She said: “There is a lot of wine around at the mid-price point so possibly that is why there is a lot of competition. I think at the entry level there is probably not enough wine around as that is where supermarkets want their deals.”
But she added that slightly less than fresh wines aren’t necessarily a problem. “The buyers are more concerned than the consumers are, and some wines benefit from it. I wouldn’t say it means they are out of condition,” she said. “We don’t take it, but other people do and they may be able to get away with it.”
Many independents contacted by OLN said they had not noticed older vintages appearing in their orders, or had returned them if they did.
Andrew Lundy, of four-strong Edinburgh chain Vino, said: “If someone was to try that with us we would just send it back, they wouldn’t get paid. It is not something that has happened to us.”
Suppliers who specialise in working with independents urged their clients to send wines back if they aren’t right. Karen Hardwick, head of on-trade and independents at PLB, said: “At PLB I’ve never come across it and I’m quite sure my customers would shout.”
She said keeping portfolios small – PLB’s independent division has just 350 lines – could help suppliers keep stocks rotating properly. But she noted that mistakes can happen, especially if warehouse staff aren’t trained in the importance of vintage.
“It’s a tough market but it is ever more important for people to make sure they are absolutely on top of that inventory. There is no room for sending out a bottle that is less than perfect when it is so competitive,” she said.
Hatch Mansfield marketing director Lynn Murray added: “I would expect customers to send it back or raise it with us if it happened. If it did it would just be a mistake in picking.
“If it is an old vintage and out of condition that could be damaging because a consumer is going to end up with it. If it is really old and the consumer does buy it I imagine that is damaging for the brand.”