Hundreds of wine-lovers lose out as 'posh Farepak' crashes

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The Independent Online

Wine buffs have been left nursing losses of tens of thousands of pounds from the collapse of an online exchange that aimed to make it easier to invest in rare cases.

Victims poured money into buying expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy from the glamorous British website, once backed by the former England cricketer David Gower. But they were left high - and dry - when the company collapsed with multimillion-pound losses.

Now the creditors, including a member of the House of Lords owed £17,000, suspect foul play. In an echo of the Farepak scandal, uvine kept taking money from customers while lurching seemingly inexorably towards disaster.

When the wine equivalent of eBay went into administration in late September, 400 people were left scrambling to find wine orders. Two hundred are still owed substantial sums, including one out of pocket by £350,000.

Concerns arising from the collapse have prompted administrators to report nine instances of possible misconduct to the Department of Trade and Industry. Prosecutions are possible.

At the centre of the affair is Christopher Burr, 55, a former director of international wine sales at Christie's and a master of wine. During the boom, he launched uvine with £7.5m from three investors. David Gower was persuaded to be external relations manager; his involvement ceased in 2003.

At first had a glamorous image with offices in California and Australia, but in recent times some of its 25,000 clients complained that they were left waiting for long periods to receive payment.

They were unwittingly risking their money. Unlike eBay, uvine was an actual middleman, taking money from the buyer and - after commission - passing it on to the seller.

From 2003 to 2005 the amount owed to creditors rose from £89,000 to more than £1.4m.

The administrators, Graham Wolloff and John Munn, said on 16 November said: "Although many clients appeared to be under the impression that the company operated individual bank accounts for each client, there was only one client bank account. Regrettably, I have to confirm it appears the monies paid into the client account were then utilised to fund the company's business operations or to repay earlier debts to clients."

Despite being made bankrupt on 26 June, Mr Burr - the only executive director - stayed in charge well into September. By the time his company collapsed, losses totalled £10m.

Mr Burr, who appeared to have an overdrawn loan account of £102,000 at the company, declined to comment. But he told this month a large part of the withdrawals was to cover his loans to the company as well as salary and "non-claimable business expenses".

He said: "In absolutely no way should it be implied I was withdrawing cash from the business for my own purposes or benefit."

The administrators are now seeking to recover money for the creditors.