Ryman, king of wine, goes bottoms up

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The Independent Online
THE GOLDEN boy of Britain's wine industry is being forced to sell the pounds 2m chateau where he grew up to fend off a growing list of creditors who are threatening the future of his business.

Hugh Ryman, the son of the stationery chain millionaire Nick Ryman, is widely acknowledged as having transformed wine-making worldwide with a team of young Australian winemakers using the latest technological expertise in vineyards from France to South Africa. But the man who supplies more than two million bottles a year to British supermarkets and off-licences admitted yesterday that financial mismanagement has left him with serious debts.

He must sell Chateau Jaubertie, in the Bergerac area of south-west France, to pay creditors. He said he had a buyer and a sale could be completed within weeks, although the chateau has already been on the market for two years.

But the sale means the end of a dream begun by Hugh's father of beating the French at their own game of producing award-winning wines at the 16th- century chateau. Nick Ryman bought the chateau after the Ryman chain was sold to the Burton group in 1972 for pounds 8m. He sold it to a consortium, including his son, in 1994.

Hugh Ryman has become one of the best-known names in Britain's wine industry because of the way he has helped to revolutionise the quality of everyday drinking wine. But documents seen by The Independent suggest a catalogue of debts going back several years.

A number of winemakers say they have not been paid for work carried out as long ago as 1996, while both his former public relations company, R and R Teamwork, and transport company, Torchrise, parted company from him amid financial wrangles.

Some bond-holders who invested in Chateau Jaubertie when Nick Ryman began the family's winery in the early Seventies now fear they will never see their stake money again. Sue Whitley, a publisher and bond-holder since she invested pounds 1,500 15 years ago, said: "One gets increasingly nervous that one isn't going to get one's stake money back."

Neither have the bond- holders, who number more than 300, yet received their annual consignment of wine each was promised in return for their investment. The 1998 wine was due to arrive next Monday but will now not be available until March. Last year's consignment was impounded by Customs and Excise in a dispute over duty and bond- holders only received their cases if they paid to have the wine released. Mrs Whitley said that over the years she had received her money's worth in wine. But more recent bond-holders, encouraged to join by early enthusiasts like herself, had paid a bigger stake and still not received their supplies.

Winemakers, too, have suffered. Josephine Horn, 25, worked for Mr Ryman in France for three months two years ago. After continual problems over pay, she took Mr Ryman to court in Bordeaux last October and won judgment against him. She said this week, from her new job in Australia that she had not received the outstanding money - more than pounds 3,000 - and she owed significant sums to lawyers in fees.

Another winemaker, Paul Dunnewyk, claims he is owed two and a half months' wages and his travel expenses for working in Moldova in 1996, a sum of about pounds 5,000.

"Under no circumstances would I work for Hugh Ryman again, nor would I recommend the experience to other winemakers," he said.

These debts were unknown to many in the trade until the end of last year when the wine writer Jim Budd circulated details to supermarkets and off-licences. One senior wine buyer for a supermarket chain said it had raised the matter with Mr Ryman. "I would give him at least a year before we consider what we were going to do, but we don't really want to deal with people who don't pay their workers. He's not getting rich. He's trying to keep the balls in the air so that in the end everybody is all right."

Representatives of First Quench, the company that owns wine shops including Threshers, Victoria Wine and Bottoms Up, have also held talks with Mr Ryman.

The problems are understood to have increasingly alarmed Nick Ryman, who resigned from the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers after months of delays in settling the bill for a wine-tasting hosted by his son in the livery company hall in June 1996.

Hugh Ryman, 37, said yesterday: "We do have debts," but denied owing all the money claimed. There had been poor financial administration in the past, but he had cut overheads by pounds 450,000 a year and the company was now in better shape.

Asked whether he would go bankrupt, he said it depended whether a campaign against him meant he did no business. "It can always happen," he said. But he was confident the chateau could be sold because he intended changing the bond-holders into shareholders, which made it more attractive to potential buyers. He said the sale of the chateau would generate enough revenue - about a third of the sale price - to pay off the debtors who were causing the problems.