UK drinks retailer Unwins is in crisis talks with potential takeover partners that could save the jobs of its 2,500 employees and avoid bankruptcy.

Over the weekend some 25 different parties showed interest in the company. It is understood the main contenders include Castel, owner of Oddbins and Nicolas, Terra Firma, owner of Threshers, and Raj Chatha of Whittalls Wines.

The 380-strong chain of off licences has been in trouble for over a year. In May 2004 decanter.com reported it was set to sell off part of its business, citing the impossibility of competing with supermarkets as the reason.

In 2002 the company announced 100 redundancies, and in the previous year it sold off 30 stores. In 2003 it made a pre-tax loss of £1.7m.

In March this year DM Private Equity bought the 168-year-old Kent-based firm for £32m including debt.

Specialist wine merchants like Unwins have been clawing for space against the might of supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s – which between them control 50% of the retail wine market. Wine represents half of Unwins’ turnover.

Unwins is also reported to have suffered from cash-flow problems leading to shops being understocked, and a subsequent loss of vital market share.

Last week Unwins filed an application with the High Court to place it in administration. It is now in ‘interim moratorium’ which protects it from creditors. The High Court decides on its future tomorrow (Tuesday 20 December).

Unwins has declined to comment, Reuters said.

Written by Adam Lechmere, and agencies