How Las Vegas bought up the world's great wines; It is the sort of place where characters in 10-gallon hats charge in and write out cheques for $33,000 for a parcel of fine wine
With a nonchalant wave of his bidding paddle, Barrie Larvin secured pounds 282,000 of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's finest wine at the recent Sotheby's auction, and promptly freighted it off to the Mojave desert.

It turns out the Edgware-born sommelier was purely restocking his wine cellar and scooping-up a nice chunk of PR for the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. The former Dorchester waiter presides over a cellar which pours 1,000 bottles of wine a day, a rate his bosses thought inconceivable.

"I said I hoped to sell more than 1,000 bottles a day, but was told I was talking through my arse," said Larvin, whose perfection of the sharp soundbite has made him something of a celebrity in Las Vegas.

The hotel and casino, a typical phantasmagorical structure looming out of the Nevada desert, contains 14 restaurants and 16 bars where Larvin sells oceans of wines to the guests who come for 3-4 days to gamble, to eat, to drink, to fornicate. But Las Vegas is an unlikely place in which to find a temple of wine worthy of Bacchus himself.

The complete cellar has now been going for four months and employs 22 staff. And Larvin has been on a buying spree which must make the wine- lover trogging off to Waitrose for a bottle of Bordeaux as green as a bottle of Mosel.

The thought of the people who commonly cluster around the slot machines glugging magnums of Chateau Margaux seems about as unlikely as winning the jackpot. But he regularly shifts bottles of wine at $1,000 in his premier Napa restaurant.

Larvin is not snobbish about his punters. "I am in the people-pleasing business," he says as he sips a glass of house white at the Savoy's American Bar.

But in Las Vegas, he has at his disposal every grand wine in the world - 35,000 bottles of it - waiting to cracked open by high rollers to celebrate their lucky breaks. "Actually, we have 34,813.25 bottles left according to my last inventory," says Larvin.

"There are 3,000 different wines down there from just about every wine- making country. We have everything from our house red, Casino Poor, to Chateau d'Yquem 1855."

In fact, Larvin has bought every vintage produced up to 1990 of this, the world's most famous and expensive sweet wine. The cellar abounds with treasures such as Domaine Romanee-Conti's famous Burgundy reds from the great 1985 vintage, and the flashy Pomerols - Chateau Le Pin and Petrus, and Mouton-Rothschilds in every sized bottle produced.

The Rio is the sort of place where characters in 10-gallon hats charge in and write out cheques for $33,000 for a parcel of fine wine. In fact, that is exactly what happened recently, when a punter flew in and walked out with cases of Petrus and Mouton.

Generally, though, their customers' taste is less refined: white Zinfandel, the bland, pinkish, sweetish all-American wine, is Larvin's best-seller, accounting for 22 per cent of all pourings.

The tasting policy is an enlightened one. Up to 240 wines are available to be sampled, swigged, and savoured by the glass in the Napa restaurant. No bother about wastage. Larvin simply re-stops bottles with a cork and labels them: green for the first night, amber for the second and red for the third.

If the bottle remains unsold on the fourth day, it is sent back to the cellar, then promptly returned to the American Bar and Grill, where it is sold for a song. In theory, it is possible to drink first-growth claret for about a dollar a glass - although the chance of it being oxidised is as high as leaving the tables poorer than when you arrived.

The purchase of the so-called super lot from the cellars of Andrew Lloyd- Webber was largely a public relations exercise which has got Larvin's face on TV. He did his figures and reckons he can turn a 60 per cent profit on the lot, which will now be offered to the Rio's customers in a tasting of three wines.

"It has also had the effect of putting up the value of the wines in my cellar." The policy in the auction room was to bid for no more than 10 per cent over the highest estimate and he had pounds 250,000 to spend.

"I don't have a budget as such, but buy what my customers need. I have tasted 5,000 wines for this job, and worked around the clock to establish the cellar." The ever-confident Barrie Larvin, master sommelier, is certain he can evade the pressure groups - "the sad and the mad; the mothers against drinking, the church against drinking" - and shift $1million worth of wine before September.

"No one will blink an eyelid when I get back, or say, `now look, Barrie we are going to have to put in more slot machines to pay for this lot'".

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