THOSE who scoff at the seriousness of wine as an investment need look no further than last week's sale of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's 18,000-bottle collection for proof there is more to wine than drinking it. For those not drawn by the bouquet of the wine itself, the sweet smell of profit was attraction enough. Sotheby's auction of Lord Lloyd Webber's collection - necessitated by his self-confessed habit of 'hogging' wine - realised a staggering GBP3.7 million (about HK$47.02 million), clearing the previous world auction record for any wine sale by a cool GBP1 million. Many of the purchasers were hoteliers seeking to cash in on the Lloyd Webber name as much as on the wine itself. Investing in vintage wines requires knowledge and experience, something new investors typically lack. But an Australian company called Wine Bank has come up with a solution it says will satisfy both wine lovers and investors. Rather than buying vintages, Wine Bank offers investors the opportunity to buy a pallet of 720 bottles of young Australian wine. This is stored and insured on the investors' behalf for three years - by which time it is mature enough to be drunk - and then sold outside of Australia, thereby avoiding government duties. A pallet costs A$3,600 (about HK$21,564), and insurance and storage add A$460, for a total of A$4,060. Investors should be able to sell their pallet for A$101 to A$114 per dozen bottles (consumers might ultimately pay A$400 per dozen), but Wine Bank has no control over the selling price. 'We undertake to provide people with 60 per cent capital appreciation over three years,' Wine Bank's general manager for sales and exports, Ron Dinan, said. Before selling the wine, the company agrees on a price with the investor and takes a 7.5 per cent commission. If unhappy with the price, investors can choose to have the wine re-cellared for another 12 months or delivered to them. Wine Bank sells across the world, although not in England, which Mr Dinan described as a 'totally price-orientated market, with no emphasis on quality'. Because the Australian wine industry is highly regarded, risks are minimised. Merrill Lynch retail analyst Giselle Roux said Australia's wine producers could sell as much as they made. 'The issue is how much wine is available to ship rather than the demand which is out there,' she said. The industry enjoyed a record vintage of 885,000 tonnes of grapes last year and predicts growth of more than 300 per cent, to A$4.5 billion, over the next three decades. 'It is performing exceptionally well at the moment,' Ms Roux said. Wine Bank is already taking orders and agreeing on prices with distributors for 1997 wines maturing in 2000. By establishing prices and buyers in advance, investors were assured of a profit, Mr Dinan said. But the company could not eliminate all risks. 'Even with an irrevocable letter of credit, that is only as strong as the company you are dealing with,' he said. Wine Bank was in the same boat. 'We're jumping in the lake with you. We're not sitting on the bank watching,' Mr Dinan said. Whatever the virtues of Wine Bank's approach, many experts remain unconvinced. David Allan, managing director of London-based Allwines, which buys, stores and sells clients' claret for a 15 per cent commission, questioned the re-sale value of Australian wine. Hong Kong Wine Society chairman Barry Burton described the wines sold by Wine Bank as 'everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff'. 'The best investments have proved to be like blue-chip stocks, absolutely the very best wines that are in short supply,' he said. 'If you just want to buy 720 bottles of wine to drink in three years, then go ahead. As to making money, I doubt it.'