The UK “Government Wine Cellar”

Bottles of wine aging in a cellarIn late March, the UK government pulled out a few bottles from its wine collection, sold them at auction, and pocketed almost £75,000 (US $115,275) which it plans to use to replenish its wine cellar. Wait—a government with its own wine cellar? It may seem odd, but when you think about it, many a person has a few nice bottles tucked away for entertaining, so why can’t a government do the same? If you want to know more about the cellar, here’s a quick overview:

In 1922, a wine cellar was established to provide wine for UK government functions. The rationale was that buying in bulk and storing young wines for use when fully mature would be the most economical way to procure wine for government functions. Over the more than 90 years the cellar has been in operation, the collection has grown to about 38,000 bottles with an estimated market value of £2.95 million (US $4.53 million)—more than three times the £857,000 (US $1.32 million) spent to acquire it. The cellar, which provides wine for about 200 functions a year, is operated by the Government Hospitality Service, which employs fourteen civil servants and has an annual budget of £600,000 (US $922,200). It is located beneath Lancaster House, a grand London mansion commissioned by one of King George III’s sons in 1825, which Queen Elizabeth leases to the government.

Wine is procured for the cellar based upon recommendations from the Government Wine Committee, a group of five individuals who participate in blind tastings. While the cellar includes some of the world’s finest wines, which are consumed at state banquets attended by presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, the majority of the stock are good, reliable wines used on a daily basis for events hosted by ministers from a range of government departments. Wines are classified according to an internal rating system indicating for which type of function each wine should be used.

The Foreign Office, which runs the wine cellar, considered shutting it down as part of an austerity measure, but decided to keep it open after an 11-month review completed in 2011 concluded that it was the most cost-effective way of supplying wine for government functions. To make the purchase of wine “self-financing” for the remainder of the current Parliament, which is set to run until 2015, high-value bottles from the collection are being sold to fund new purchases.

On March 21st, six lots of wine (54 bottles) from the cellar were offered as part of Christie’s Fine and Rare Wines Auction. According to Christie’s, the much-anticipated collection sparked intense competition and sold for £74,406 (US $114,362), exceeding the pre-auction estimate of £65,000 (US $99,905). Among the highlights were a six-bottle lot of Chateau Latour 1961 which was sold for about £28,000 pounds (US $43,036), six bottles of Petrus 1970 which sold for a total of £10,530 (US $16,184) and a twelve-bottle lot of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1986 that sold for £9,360 (US $14,386).

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