BUYING BY ACCIDENT

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT

There's something liberating about letting someone else order a meal for you. Close the menu. Say to the waiter: "I'm in your hands, Oh Great and Wise One", or words to that effect. And it's all done. No fuss, no agonising. With wine too there's a lot to be said for leaving the decision-making to someone else. Good merchants know their lists from A(njou) to Z(infandel), and their enthusiasms can be educational.

A few of the better mail-order merchants offer services of this kind, and I'll be running through a few of them over the next week or two. In the meantime, it's a pleasure to give notice of a heart-warmingly wacky take on the lucky-dip approach to wine buying.

I'm referring to Mike Armitage of the Interesting Wine Club in north London. Armitage is a refurbisher of ancient buildings by trade and a wine-lover by just about everything else. He is also a proselytiser for ancient wines, and a veritable bloodhound at seeking them out. But this is an expensive business, so he recently hatched the idea of a club which would function as a kind of buying consortium.

Here's the deal. Everyone pays a pounds 10 joining fee and pounds 12 annual membership, and for that they can buy from one to six cases of wines chosen by Armitage and bought either at auction or (at wholesale prices) in the trade.

Each case will contain wine costing pounds 72 or pounds 120, on top of which there is a handling charge of pounds 8 or pounds 10. Each will include one bottle of great antiquity and rarity, and all the wines, Armitage promises, will be out of the ordinary. The most recent pounds 120 case, for instance, contains a domaine- bottled Mazey Chambertin 1959. Of course, you take the risk that a really elderly bottle may be past its best, but Armitage swears that it rarely happens. Incidentally, there is also a pounds 240 case available, containing rarities only.

For the time being you have to collect the wine yourself or arrange collection. However, this hasn't deterred 25 brave drinkers from joining, and there's a maximum membership of 75. The IWC also holds monthly gatherings, the next of which is a Bordeaux dinner in London on 9 July. It will feature six wines, including clarets dating from 1947, 1955 and 1966, and the Sauternes superstar Chateau Coutet from the three-star 1983 vintage. The cost is pounds 40, of which pounds 20 goes on wine. And some of the wines would cost pounds 100 a bottle in restaurants - if you could find them. Intriguing. For details, ring 0171 272 2457.

Next week: Richard Ehrlich takes a further forage into the pleasures of buying wine by mail order

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