Imbibers go for liquidity: Buying bulk wine by mail order is increasingly popular and can be an effective way of saving. Conal Gregory reports

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WINE merchants recognise that many customers would like to build up a cellar of fine wine, but have neither the capital nor the storage facilities.

To meet both needs, several schemes based on regular payments have been developed, the latest of which was launched this month by Lay & Wheeler.

Since 1981, the Colchester- based company has offered the Cellar Scheme, which currently boasts some 500 investors. Monthly standing order payments of at least pounds 25 enable customers to select wine to the value of four times their monthly contributions or ask the firm to make the choice within the customer's guidelines.

Recent offers have included classic wines at opening prices such as 1990 and 1991 claret. Hugo Rose, one of the firm's directors, compares 1990 red Bordeaux to 1985 and 1978 and says: 'For those seeking reliable drinking into the next millennium, this is a very good time to buy.'

There is no cellar rental for the first year but a charge thereafter, currently pounds 4.65 per dozen bottles. There is also a charge for insurance - Lay & Wheeler's premium is 0.3 per cent of the stock value. It is important to ensure insurance cover is effected at the full replacement market value and not at the invoice cost.

There are quantity discounts of 1.5 per cent on 4-11 dozen bottles, and 3 per cent on larger orders, which may be assorted. Delivery is free on two cases or more but otherwise costs pounds 5.05.

Lay & Wheeler's newest scheme, called Wine Discovery, is a 12-month programme which delivers six mixed cases together with tasting notes. This involves a monthly payment of pounds 35, either by standing order or credit card.

Justerini & Brooks, a subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan, has operated a monthly wine investment scheme since 1969 - some 350 customers subscribe. Its Selected Cellar Plan looks after the purchasing (usually at advantageous opening prices), shipping, cellaring, insurance at replacement cost and all the paperwork.

Established more than 200 years ago, Justerini draws the wines for each cellar from the classic French regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Loire Valley. For future investment prospects, look particularly at Cellar I based on pounds 133 per month (cases each of 1989 Chateau Latour, 1988 Chateau Haut-Brion and 1989 Chambertin, Clos de Beze, domaine bottled by Bruno Clair). There is a discounted price of pounds 1,486 for outright payment (compared to pounds 1,596 over 12 months). Free storage to June 1997 is included.

For investors who prefer a wider choice, Justerini offers the Personal Cellar Plan, through which any wines can be taken from its extensive list.

Howells of Bristol established The Bin Club in 1978. Each spring and autumn clients are mailed a selection list from which they choose wines to a value of three times their monthly payment. The minimum standing order is pounds 25; the average monthly payment pounds 39.

Recent wines on offer include the fine first-growth Sauternes, Chateau Rieussec from the rich 1989 vintage at pounds 15.50 per half-bottle, Meursault Charmes 1990 at pounds 19.10 and Californian wines, such as Ridge Vineyard's Zinfandel at pounds 11.70. It expects to include a new vintage port - Quinta do Vesuvio 1990 from the Alto Douro - at opening price later this month. Storage and insurance is a modest pounds 3.24 per dozen bottles per annum. Howells issues tasting notes and advises clients on the relative maturity of its stock.

A regular subscription scheme, Wine Without Fuss, is run by the Stevenage-based International Exhibition Cooperative Wine Society, which was founded in 1874. The wines are mixed selections and charged out at three price levels: pounds 48; pounds 72; and pounds 80 per dozen bottles.

Subscribers can make payments at whatever interval is convenient. When their payments reach a particular level, the selection requested is despatched.

The range is changed quarterly and based on all-red, all- white or mixed, all ready for drinking. Stock with greater maturation potential may also be purchased.

Lay & Wheeler Ltd (0206 764446); Justerini and Brooks (071-493 8721 or 031-226 4202); Howells of Bristol (0454 294085); The IEC Wine Society (0438 741177).

(Photograph omitted)