WORDS: JOANNA WILLCOX
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN KNOWLES
SELLING FINE AND RARE WINES ACROSS SIX CONTINENTS, THE ANTIQUE WINE COMPANY HAS A STELLAR REPUTATION, THANKS TO ITS FOUNDER, STEPHEN WILLIAMS
At Hollywood’s 1997 Academy Awards the film Titanic swept the board with 11 Oscars. The director James Cameron and his stars and crew celebrated afterwards, quaffing a very special premier cru Bordeaux of 1912, the year of the ship’s tragic sinking.
Stephen Williams, founder of The Antique Wine Company, sourced the bottles. A self-taught wine connoisseur, he developed his strong interest into a business nearly 30 years ago. He had the idea of advertising the ultimate birthday gift: a rare and precious vintage bottle in a presentation case with a reprinted period copy of The Times, both in the year of the anniversary. This caught the interest of the US market and he has since built up a global reputation in the wine world with 45,000 clients in more than 100 countries.
One of his key skills is tracking down the wine for the customer. ‘Our business is driven by sourcing the wines,’ he says. ‘It is 70% Bordeaux, 30% Burgundy. ‘The UK market for fine wines has historically been via Bordeaux. The French, though the producers, prefer to consume wine, rather than drink it when it is older.’ Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria are the key countries, along with the UK, dealing in vintage wine.
He sources wine directly from chateaux, with whom he has built up strong relationships, or via the secondary market. ‘We write to lawyers on the Continent advising on cellar evaluations resulting from inheritance or divorce.’ Such is his reputation that sellers approach him. It might be the cellar of an impoverished owner of an English country house. ‘We look at the wine in situ because we can tell from the way it is stored whether it is in good shape or not.’
He might buy at auction, where collections are broken up and sold in lots. He prefers to build them up, picking out the finest vintages. As the reputation of Château d’Yquem, the aristocratic Sauternes, is unparalleled, what was arguably Stephen Williams's most notable achievement was to assemble every consecutive vintage between 1860 and 2003 and offer the collection to the highest bidder in 2007. The Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera beat off bidders from 11 countries, acquiring the collection for a record-breaking £775,000.
His latest coup has been to achieve the sale of one 1811 bottle from the same illustrious vineyard, at a record £75,000. It is a vintage described by the doyen of wine critics Robert Parker as ‘Iiquefied crème brûlée’. Stephen Williams waxes equally lyrical. ‘It’s not just wine, it’s history and nostalgia in a bottle,’ he says. ‘Napoleon was building his empire, Beethoven was writing music when this wine was made.’
Although Stephen has claimed he can tell much about the authenticity of the wines ‘by looking into the eyes and cellar of the vendor’ he leads the industry in establishing scientific methods for dating the wine and the bottle it’s contained in. ‘Châteaux in Bordeaux have produced 200,000 to 500,000 bottles a year for 200 years, so it is not surprising that the real thing on the market,’ he says.
And who are the customers? While the sellers are usually old money, the buyers are new. ‘Historically the US has been our biggest customer, but it has been overtaken by Hong Kong and China, which have more than 50% of our business.’ He runs an office in Hong Kong. ‘Three years ago the Hong Kong government abolished import tax on wine – it went down from 86% to zero in three years – so since 2009 Hong Kong has served as the wine gateway to Asia. It is a wellestablished and efficient hub, so wine can be stored tax-free, and the consumer buys it tax-free. Wealthy residents in Hong Kong and Shanghai have an appetite to learn about wine.’
With these new markets, there is a great demand for the very best – Châteaux Latour, Lafite, Pétrus, Romanée-Conti – that serve as western status symbols
ARGUABLY STEPHEN’S MOST NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT WAS TO ASSEMBLE EVERY CONSECUTIVE VINTAGE OF CHATEAU D’YQUEM BETWEEN 1860 AND 2003 AND OFFER THE COLLECTION TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER
Some customers want an entire wine cellar and Stephen’s company will spend several million pounds creating one. Then there is a need to show the wine off. The company has introduced the Grand Château Series: exquisite limited edition wine cabinets modelled after the nine most celebrated Bordeaux chateaux. Crafted of fine woods such as sycamore, ash and rosewood by the royal furniture maker, David Linley, the cabinets make a stunning centrepiece. They are temperature-controlled and filled with 18 bottles of the best vintages of the past 100 years from the respective estates.
Wine’s attraction to buyers at this level of spending power is ‘the comfort factor – they simply enjoy the taste of the wine, it is living, changing,’ says Stephen. But it can also make a strong investment, increasing by 15% in value per year, to a maximum of 40%. Stephen buys not only antique vintages, but recently produced wines for individuals, hotels and restaurants, and other wine traders. ‘We do an annual quality assessment of approximately 1,000 wines of a vintage on a chateau-by-chateau basis; detailed notes are archived and published on our website,’ he says. ‘Clients buy wine en primeur and lay it down. We reconfirm our expectations by retasting every two or three years.’
It is not surprising that Stephen and his family have settled in France; he jets regularly between his home near Cannes and London in his own six-seat Cessna 340, which he pilots himself. He also flies around Europe conducting fine wine tours and on buying trips. As he says, ‘It is a good way to transport valuable wines for my customers.’
Clients who visit his London head office, where the wines are stored and tastings are held, can experience an exciting new venture. The AWC Wine Academy, run by Master of Wine Tim Atkin, gives them a chance to meet chateau winemakers, who are participating in the courses. The project demonstrates once more the impeccable connections and the passionate commitment to wine and its heritage of Stephen Williams and his multi-faceted company.
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