A line in grapes of worth

Chris Arnot talks to a former bank clerk who sells vintage wines and birthday nostalgia

WHILE waiting for Stephen Williams to come to the phone I was serenaded by musical monks warbling Gregorian chants down the line. Tapes like this are played to the goats on the Thorpe Constantine Estate in Staffordshire. "It calms them down and helps them produce more milk," said Mr Williams as the monks faded away. "We thought if we played it to customers, it might encourage them to spend more money." He paused. "It doesn't work."

Not that his Antique Wine Company is doing too badly. Turnover is approaching pounds 2.5m and he has just supplied a case of 1946 Sauternes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Yokahoma Grand International Hotel in Japan.

A growing taste for fine French wines among the businessmen of the Pacific rim has helped to ensure that prices at London auction houses have risen by 25 per cent a year in the past five years. Coupled with a lucrative deal with a top wine company in Miami, the Far Eastern business has given a substantial boost to a company that began in 1989 from the unlikely headquarters of Mr Williams's garage.

He has a dozen employees now. Most operate from offices in the farmyard at the hub of the 3,000-acre Thorpe Constantine Estate. Trans-Atlantic telephone calls are occasionally interrupted by the bellow of a particularly voluble bull.

Across the yard are the cellars that once housed the claret collection of William Ives, a 17th century vintner who owned Thorpe Hall and the surrounding lands. Today the brick-lined vaults are racked with row upon row of vintage wines, spanning over a century. Every year is represented, all the way back to 1893. The vast majority are from the Bordeaux region.

Needless to say 1893 Chateau Beaumonts and 1922 Chateau Lafites do not come cheap. How on earth did a former bank clerk from Derby manage to finance such an operation?

By 1979 he had decided that life behind the counter at Barclays was not for him. A new job working for an insurance company was more to his liking, particularly as it entailed a certain amount of corporate entertaining. He developed a taste for wine and began to learn more about it. "I saw the wine trade then as not particularly entrepreneurial. I felt that if I could apply my communications skills to a product I enjoyed, I should be able to take some market share."

He started in 1989. From his garage he conveyed cases of decent but not vastly expensive wine to the boardrooms of factories on industrial estates in the Midlands. At Christmas he sold gift packs. "But the trade was too seasonal and the wine business was more competitive than I'd thought. To build stronger margins I needed a way of spreading business throughout the year."

The idea came when a customer told him that its company chairman was retiring and asked if Mr Williams could get hold of a vintage bottle from the year he was born: 1920, as it happened. Here was a potential market. Birthdays, unlike Christmas, happen every day. Why not offer a presentation pack - a vintage from the year of birth, a copy of The Times from the exact day, and all encased in a lavishly padded leather-effect box?

He sold the commercial side of his business to one of his suppliers, negotiated a loan with his old bank and took out discreet advertisements in upmarket magazines.

It worked. By 1992 the Antique Wine Company had a turnover of pounds 250,000. To raise another pounds 600,000, he sold some of his shares to one of his wealthy customers.

He secured alliances with companies in the same market: Harrod's, Asprey's, the 21 Club in New York and the Jockey Club in Hong Kong. The growing perception of vintage wine as a long-term investment has helped to keep sales buoyant.

"Obviously a limited quantity of vintage wine is produced in the first place," says Mr Williams. "And as time goes by and an amount of it is drunk, then the value of what's left continues to rise."

Does anybody pay thousands of pounds for a bottle of wine and drink it? "We deal with some extremely wealthy people in the Far East, and it's an important part of their culture to show their wealth by consuming the best the West can produce." They are not alone. The company brochure includes a favourable letter from one Larry Ruvo of Navada, who paid around pounds l,500 each for bottles of 1924 and 1925 Gruard-Larose to entertain former President George Bush and his wife.

But Mr Williams is aware that even the finest vintage wines can very occasionally go past their drink-by date.

He pays pounds 6,000 a year for pounds 10m worth of product liability insurance in the United States - just in case a litigious customer discovers that his 1896 Chateau Latour tastes like sour goat milk.

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