Ignoring for the moment my advice not to accept cold calls, how can you check out the company and whether the wine they are offering is a good deal?
The good news is that the internet makes it easier than ever to make a number of checks.
Companies House (updated 21.11.2015)
I tend to start here with the UK's companies web check on the Companies House site. There used to be a charge for all but a limited amount of information. However, information on the Beta site is now free, which is really excellent news. If it is a limited company or a plc you'll find details here of when it was set up, who the directors are, annual returns and accounts. Look for the date when the company was set up. Let's use our imaginary company – Bordeaux Investment Scams Ltd – as an example.
Bordeaux Investment Scams Ltd was set up in October 2007, so how come the salesman claimed that the company had long experience in wine investment?
The company's registered office is 72 Bond Street, London W1S 1RR. This is a well-known accommodation address offering telephone answering services and message centres. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but this means that Bordeaux Investment Scams Ltd is unlikely to have offices here, so the company could be difficult to find if need arises.
The company's annual return and accounts are shown to be overdue. Under UK company law companies have to file an annual return and accounts – so two more warning signs.
Apart from details of any change of company name, this is the extent of the free information. However, you can pay to get details of the company directors and accounts etc. Each of these will cost £1. A small price to pay if you are considering spending substantial sums on buying wine for investment.
Bordeaux Investment Scams Ltd has a website. This can also be quite revealing. Ask yourself a few questions as you look through the site:
a) Does it tell you who the directors are or who runs the company?
b) Is there a contact address? Is it still 72 Bond Street? If there's another address do a Google search? Is this new address also serviced offices?
c) Is there a price list?
d) Does Bordeaux Investment Scams Ltd charge an up-front commission? The UK Government warns against this practice. It is easier to buy wine than to sell it, so it is better to pay a commission when selling rather than when buying. Furthermore if the company disappears you will have to pay a commission to another company if you then want to sell your wine.
d) Is the site long on wine's mystique but short on details?
e) Does Robert Parker, the influential wine critic, feature prominently? Without Parker's consent or knowledge a number of dubious investment companies have tended to have a section on their website about him.
Checking the website registration
All websites have to be registered and there are a number of sites that allow you to check the registration details. I tend to use http://www.who.is/ Do the registration details give the name of a person in the UK to contact or is there merely the details of an admin company usually based in the USA?
Hopefully these checks will help you decide whether the company that has contacted you is both reputable, well-established and is offering you a fair deal. If you have any doubts, then don't buy from them.
Furthermore before you buy contact other wine merchants and seek their advice. Read about wine investment – do your research!