The Russian wine bid

Welcoming me in a luxury-furnitured room painted with Damien Hirst butterflies all around, the head of Sotheby’s auction house’ wine department Serena Sutcliffe MW is elegantly dressed in black. There is no less of a girl in her than one could expect at her age – just the opposite. Yet, some of her business partners would probably say she is a wolf in a sheep’s clothing. Well, she has to be. And she is a Master of Wine. And a Master of wine auctions, too. While speaking to me she is both serious and funny at the same time. She controls what she says when it comes to corporate affairs and relaxed speaking about her private life. With another Master of Wine as her husband, you’d be surprised her whole life is actually not revolving around the tasty subject. In 30 minutes we talked about wine sales, Russian clients and the passions of the Lady of Fine Wines.

Russians are considered to be among the wealthiest people in the world. And still we don’t really see them buying fine wines at major wine auctions. What is your feeling and experience with the Russian market?

We are making progress. Russia has a long history of appreciating fine wines. Wine is something that makes sense to Russians when they have some disposable income. It’s an extra enjoyment in life and definitely not an alien culture. The client base was small when we started and now we are making progress each year and I’d like to make it even bigger. It appeals more to Russians who have houses outside of the country whether it’s London, Vienna or South of France, because it’s very easy if they buy in London whereas getting it to Russia is something we do not touch because the whole importation business is so difficult and protected. Still, many Russians have homes elsewhere in Europe. I think sometimes they just do not realize how much advice and help we can give. We are not there to make them buy masses of wine the first time when they make a bid. We are about helping them buy, helping them form a cellar, giving advice. One doesn’t tell them to come and buy everything at once, we just don’t do that. It’s all about long-term relationship.

Did you have a personal experience being wine advisor to a Russian client?

Yes, I had some really good experiences helping people including a few Russians. You start with them finding out what they want – if they want to have some for investment and some for drinking so you build up an idea and come out with a strategy for them, sometimes for several years in advance. Of course, they could buy all the wines much faster but in this case they would end up paying a lot. We would normally suggest not to go so fast, bid middle estimate. It takes a bit longer, but makes them buy at better prices. If they want to source everything in two months, they’d typically end up paying too much. Even if in terms of business it’s more profitable for us to make it quick, we don’t go for it.

What is stopping Russians from being more engaged with auction houses?

Sometimes I see that psychologically they feel like they don’t want to show their lack of wine knowledge. Or they feel that if they’d ask for advice they’d be taken advantage of. In fact it’s the opposite. If you make a personal contact it’s in your interest in forming a long-term relationship, not making a quick buck as Americans say. I don’t know much about nuclear physics – so what? We are still to make more connections with the Russian audience.

Talking about you personally, what is it about wine you’re currently interested in? After all these years of experience is there anything that you don’t know about it?

What fascinates me above all is tasting wines when they are young and watching them develop. You’re starting to see certain patterns. This always makes me very interested. It’s like watching a child growing. I like seeing new great wines coming out from places that used not to produce decent wines. Countries like Austria, Greece for example. That’s fascinating!

 What do you do after you earn the top degree in wine world – Master of Wine?

You go on learning. A few years later you realize you know nothing. That’s my case. I had no problem with the exam, I got it from the first attempt. I thought – ah, fantastic! Ten years later I was thinking – gosh, I know nothing! There is an English phrase:  you mustn’t fall in love with your own product. You have to keep steady and be objective. But personally in my home life I’m passionate about wine and my husband is also a Master of Wine and every time we drink great wines around the kitchen table – not always very expensive ones, by the way. But good wines. Wine is not my whole life – music and art both play a good part in it, particularly music. But I couldn’t live without wine, seems like it’s a part of my DNA.

Wine writers often try to match music to wines. What do you make out of it?

It’s a good press when someone says: “This Lafite makes me think of Schubert”, but this is a very personal thing. Having said that – a lot of top musicians love wine! And we’ve got many friends among them and they do, they do love wine.

Would they write better music if they had a glass of wine before them?

Well, Mozart would drink a very nice wine, I am sure

So you drink fine wines every day. With all your experience you must like blind tastings?

Mostly my husband gets me to blind taste at home. Still, I cannot bear dinner parties – you know – lots of wines, all blind, they talk about wine non-stop. I don’t want to talk about wine non-stop all dinner. I want to talk about politics and music and the theatre. And the problem is when you taste blind you spend so much time concentrating and guessing and everything – you often write not such good notes. And then you want to re-taste the wines to understand – why, on Earth, didn’t I think of it? So it takes double the time. Well, people say it’s good because in case of blind tasting you’re not prejudiced, but for my part I am not prejudiced either when I have a label before my eyes. The wine is either good or bad.

Your first glass of wine must be long time forgotten?

Actually, just the opposite, I remember it very well. My grandfather gave me a sip of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. I was six then. He always ordered Veuve Clicquot, people of his generation called it “The widow”. And it was one the two big champagnes in Russia – Clicquot and Roederer. And so he’d always order a bottle of “The widow” in restaurants, I loved the way it gave a prickling sensation on the nose, I thought “Oh!”. I loved the taste and I was hooked! And Champagne still remains my passion.