Grape Expectations

After a decade heading Sotheby's fine-wine department, Serena Sutcliffe takes stock.

Serena Sutcliffe, the regal, silver-haired director of Sotheby's fine-wine department, dashes in, a bit late, for a presale tasting. She has just spent an hour on the phone with a Swiss client who, sipping cognac and smoking cigars, sought her counsel on an upcoming sale. Now, in the auction house's eighth-floor boardroom, Sutcliffe navigates the tasting, expertly answering potential bidders' questions, encouraging a protégé's analysis of a 1992 Puligny Montrachet, making wry jokes, and noting the flair of a colleague's Burberry scarf.

Neatly coiffed and calm, Sutcliffe, 56, seems very much at home. And rightly so. In just over a decade at Sotheby's, she has cemented an enviable reputation, establishing the department's presence in the U.S. market and presiding over the most lucrative wine sale in history: The Millennium Wine Cellar Auction, held at Sotheby's London offices in 1999, took in a record $14.4 million during a two-day blitz. Last June, a private owner's collection sold for $3.8 million. In May 1997, Sutcliffe auctioned off composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's cellar for just over $6 million.

"I don't think there's anybody working in wine who hasn't learned from her," says Michael Kapon, CEO of Acker Merrill & Condit, a Manhattan retailer that began auctioning wines in 1995. "If I could afford to, I'd certainly hire her."

Sutcliffe's rise has paralleled the growth of wine auctions in the United States. Until 1994, they were prohibited by law in New York. Once the market opened, Sutcliffe says, she was "waiting to pounce." In 2000, worldwide auction sales of fine and rare wine totaled $92.4 million, and 60 percent of those sales were in the United States, according to Peter Meltzer, auction correspondent for The Wine Spectator. Each year since 1999, New York has outsold London, the traditional hub of fine-wine auctions.

"Whether you like it or not, wine is a commodity," Sutcliffe says. "The auction is a real pleasure, because then you see the wine going out to new people. You get phone calls and e-mails and meet people at dinner saying, 'The German wines that we bought in your sale three months ago—we've just had some. They were wonderful.' That's the best moment."

Sutcliffe tends to speak in italics, her hazel eyes intent when she turns to her passions—wine, music, and poetry. One gets the sense that she has never been patient, has almost always achieved her aims, and has rarely been satisfied.

Sutcliffe was the second woman ever to have been inducted into the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine, in 1976. She earned the MW, the oenological equivalent of a doctorate, after passing the rigorous exams on her first attempt—a rare feat. In 1988 the French government made her a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, recognizing her contribution to the "literature of wine," including books that many in the industry consider the definitive guides to Champagne and the wines of Burgundy. A member of the Académie Internationale du Vin, Sutcliffe also sits on Sotheby's European Board.

A slender five feet 11, clad usually in understated tailored suits and finely crafted jewelry, Sutcliffe is friendly but imposing. "She has this sort of stern exterior," says Robert Parker, the influential founder of The Wine Advocate. "I think she's often perceived as cold, but she's a superb taster, one of the best in the industry. I have immense respect for her."

Although her decorum reflects the formality of a fine Anglo upbringing, Sutcliffe's tasting notes often reveal a near-giddy enthusiasm and a profound sense of humor. Her writing is at once scientific—detailing soil conditions, weather patterns, tannins, yeasts, yields—and lyrical, with sprinklings of Havana cigars, damp gardens, wet linens, and "sweet violet creams." The narrative style and punctuation of her notes suggest the influence of both Virginia Woolf and e.e. cummings. A reader imagines Sutcliffe scribbling furiously, her face contorted in concentration, as sips jog her memories of sojourns in Cairo, a savored slice of Reblochon, a walk through a peaty meadow in Scotland, a whiff of Guerlain.

She has, clearly, followed her instincts and her interests with abandon. A polyglot, Sutcliffe discusses the subtleties of Old Norse versus New, the poetry of John Donne and Ted Hughes, the beauty of German lieder, and the lure of cross-country skiing with as much relish and specificity as she does a rare bottle of Château Lafite. Like all good food and wine writers, she allows her varied interests to inform her work, so that Middle Eastern bazaars and a citation from Roald Dahl have been known to slip into the rarefied realm of thousand-dollar bottles.

Of a 1982 Romanée-Conti, Sutcliffe writes: "A temptress of a wine. Cèpes!! Delicious. In full beauty. Soft. Chocolate on finish—lovely and creamy." A 1961 Château Haut-Brion "has a kick like a mule at the end and yet it is so sweet and seductive." A 1919 vintage evokes a "very wet fur taste. Such currants in the mouth. Like divine treacle. Just wallow in it!"

Though it is in her professional interest to promote wines, she readily acknowledges their imperfections. She excoriates "clumsy" tannins and chastises the Bordeaux from Château Grand Puy Ducasse. "I do wish this property did better—one remembers, with reflective regret, that the 1961 and 1962 were worthy bottles. But the 1986 is seriously disappointing."Of a 1993 Zinfandel Essence from Paso Robles, Sutcliffe admits, "I hate to say it but it smells like fresh blood!"

Sutcliffe is partial to French wines. Her favorites include Château Cheval Blanc's Bordeaux, white Burgundy from Jean Noël Gagnard, Beaujolais from Alain Chatoux, and "white or red from Haut-Brion." Still, she describes her tastes as "very catholic, in the sense that they're universal." She drinks German Riesling "even though it's not so fashionable," and is quick to add, "I also like Greek retsina, for its slightly piney flavor. A lot of wine snobs would have a fit if they knew that. I'm not a label or a money snob. A wine can be good at fifteen dollars or five hundred."

At the end of a day, she says, "What I really need is a glass of Champagne. It's a fairly cheap luxury, actually. If you said I could have only one Champagne for the rest of my life, it would be Cristal, but I'll drink any Champagne."

Her book A Celebration of Champagne, published in 1988 by Mitchell Beazley, is full of anecdotes about the great French houses and endowed with Sutcliffe's signature blend of history and commentary. She is, as ever, analytical, her love for the wine matched by her observation that women are underrepresented in the industry. In an aside about the "widows" of Champagne—La Veuve Clicquot and her lesser-known counterparts, the widows Laurent-Perrier, Pommery, and Olry Roederer, who were left to run the houses after their husbands died—Sutcliffe writes, "In view of this special history, it is a pity that there are not more women in the Champagne trade today."

A glimpse at Sutcliffe's schedule makes clear why she requires a nightly sip or two of Champagne. She oversees 19 specialists and support staff working in London, New York, and Chicago and spends much of her time traveling. A typical week, Sutcliffe says, "involves two countries" as she visits collectors in the Far East and cellars in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, England, and the United States. Her department holds more sales than any other at Sotheby's—six or seven a year in New York and a dozen in London. In 2001, the department's London and New York offices sold 20,049 lots valued at a total of $36.4 million.

Sutcliffe's poise serves her—and her clients—well, since wine sales move much more quickly than other auctions, running through 600 or more lots in a session. As the auctioneer calls out, in staccato bursts, the lot numbers and bids, Sutcliffe works the phones, answering calls from top clients who preschedule their slots with her.

"I'm really useful on the telephone, because a lot of clients ask questions, call for advice," she says. She speaks with up to ten buyers per sale, pulling off a delicate balancing act. "I try not to be on two phones at once, because you could make a mistake. I have to put people on hold. It can get quite frantic." Around her, in a moneyed blur, bidders raise paddles, colleagues take calls, the auctioneer announces the opening bid, and Sutcliffe relates it all to her clients. The bids mount, the gavel falls, and it's on to the next lot, all in a matter of seconds.

The auction's frenzy caps a calmer process for most bidders, who receive the subscription-based catalogue about four weeks prior to a sale. Once they have it, they often call Sutcliffe and her colleagues for advice, to ask, in industry parlance, "how a wine is drinking" or to get a better sense of its provenance. About a week or so before the sale, Sotheby's holds a tasting session, at which potential bidders pay a $75 entrance fee, sip their way through a representative selection of bottles, and ask questions of the department's specialists. Though these are congenial affairs, with music and chatter, the major bidders often forgo them, sending bidding agents in their place or calling Sutcliffe directly.

As to making their bids, buyers have three choices: They can fax them in before the sale, to be entered in the auctioneer's book; arrange to bid by phone through one of the department specialists; or attend the auction and bid in person.

The auctions are just a fraction of Sutcliffe's work. "You're always on a deadline, always getting out a catalogue, always having to inspect wine," she says. "You need enormous stamina and nerves of steel."

Indeed, increasingly difficult times require ever more fortitude. Last October Sotheby's discontinued wine auctions at its Chicago offices, though it still accepts consignments there. In December a jury found former Sotheby's chairman Alfred Taubman guilty of collusion with his former counterparts at Christie's. He will be sentenced next month, and Sotheby's is rumored to be up for sale. Also in December, Christie's announced it was splitting with Zachys, its wine-merchant partner of six years. Christie's will resume sales—with new partner New York Wine Warehouse—this month. Like other businesses, auction houses must contend with the recession, the aftereffects of the September 11terrorist attacks, and the war in Afghanistan.

Still, the fine-wine market appears to be healthy, industry watchers say, with sales of rare vintages continuing to break records, and Sutcliffe remains unruffled. "Two weeks after I joined Sotheby's, we had a sale on the first day of the Gulf War. There were only four people in the room," she recalls. "After that, you don't scare easily."

Sutcliffe's combination of scientific and sensual appraisal and shrewd business sense has drawn important sellers to Sotheby's. Her charismatic approach and dedication to clients have often kept them there.

"We chose Sotheby's because of Serena,"says Prince Alain de Polignac, heir to the Pommery Champagne dynasty and chief oenologist of the company, whose bottles were included in Sutcliffe's London Champagne auction in 2000. "She's professional but also nice, polite and elegant. Sometimes you have someone who's professional but not elegant. Serena has everything. When she speaks of your wine, you are proud."

While she's not alone in her influence—collectors also follow writers like Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker very closely—Sutcliffe's reputation has helped Sotheby's win some of the world's rarest wines. Last December it sold a seven-bottle lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet 1978, estimated at $7,000 to $10,000, for a dizzying $167,500. Only ten other bottles of that vintage had been auctioned in the previous two years.

"Probably what's more important than her tasting notes is the growing confidence that buyers and consigners have in her sales," says Meltzer. "The kinds of collections Serena presents are a reflection of that confidence. The product that she delivers has become increasingly enticing."

In a notoriously competitive field, she also has the respect of formidable adversaries. Bruce Kaiser, fine-wine specialist at Butterfield & Butterfield, says he "worships" Sutcliffe's writing on Champagne: "Before she showed up at Sotheby's, they were going nowhere in the wine department. They were getting clobbered by Christie's in London. I imagine Serena can take the credit for turning that around."

One is hard-pressed to elicit anything but praise, even from her chief competitor. Michael Broadbent—the 74-year-old éminence grise who ushered in the modern auction business when he created the wine department at Christie's in 1966, four years before Sotheby's began its own—says that one of his primary goals is to "make sure clients don't go to Sotheby's." Still, he lauds Sutcliffe, calling her "brilliant" and claiming that she "probably has the best brain of any of the Masters of Wine."

The two are rumored to have a longstanding feud, but Broadbent refers to it as "friendly competition," adding that they see each other frequently at industry events. Sutcliffe will acknowledge only that her arrival at Sotheby's must have come as a "shock and surprise" to Broadbent, whom she had known since the early 1970s, when he was already an esteemed authority.

Before joining the auction house, Sutcliffe had run a consultancy and brokerage firm with her husband, David Peppercorn, also a Master of Wine. The two met during a series of tastings in the '70s, and, as she describes it, in her deadpan version of a courtship: "We looked at each other after a couple of dinners and said, 'Right, we'd like to get married,' and 'Right, we'd better not be in competition against each other.' So we joined forces." Together they dashed around the world, advising wine producers, importers, and airlines. "I was never near the auction business until I came to Sotheby's, and I never thought I would be, either," she says. "Not at all."

When Sotheby's approached her in 1990, Sutcliffe was wary of accepting the offer, fearful of sacrificing her autonomy. Her husband urged her to take the position. The auction house courted her for nine months ("a normal gestation period," Sutcliffe quips) and even then she warned them that they could expect her to stay for only five years. "When I reached ten years, I thought, 'Good God, what have I done?' "

Serena Sutcliffe was born in Buckinghamshire and raised on the Surrey-Kent border. Her father, a prominent tanker broker, often took business trips to Scandinavia. As a young woman, Sutcliffe would get "lifts" on his cargo boats to go cross-country skiing. Her parents met during the Second World War, when her father was a navy officer and her mother a radio operator for the Women's Royal Naval Service. When Serena was born, on May 21, 1945, her father was still at sea. He was granted leave three weeks later but was soon sent out again, not returning until she was nearly a year old. "He came back and said, 'What happened, you're six feet tall!' " she recounts, laughing. "He always regretted missing those first months."

As with many Europeans of her generation, Sutcliffe's world-view was informed by war and political hostilities. Her family history is dotted with complex lives lived abroad. Her mother was born in Shanghai, where Sutcliffe's grandfather worked as an economic adviser to the Chinese government and broadcasted a radio program with music and news commentary. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, Sutcliffe's mother, grandmother, and aunt escaped. Her grandfather was taken to an internment camp, not returning to Britain until the 1950s. "For years they didn't know if he was dead or alive. It was ghastly," Sutcliffe says. "But he really loved China and felt that it was his country." Perhaps as a result of this legacy, Sutcliffe is resolutely international, bilingual in French and proficient in Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, and Swedish. (She says her Finnish is passable but describes the language as "an absolute devil.")

At the age of 16, Sutcliffe finished boarding school, where she had a "racy" French teacher who taught her to love Racine. She applied to Cambridge but was told she was too young and would have to wait two years. Not one to wait, Sutcliffe enrolled in a translation program in Switzerland. In 1965 she moved to Paris and got a translating job with NATO. After two years, she left to work for Finland's largest paper company, "mainly because I wanted to do a lot of cross-country skiing. It was a bit naughty."

But ambition and nostalgia for Paris prevailed, and 15 months later Sutcliffe took a position with UNESCO. In 1969, she was sent on various trips to Egypt, serving as an on-site translator at UNESCO historic preservation sites along the Nile.

The country proved a sensory revelation. "It was my first exposure to the extraordinary spice markets. England and America and France in those days didn't have much in the way of the exotic ingredients you can find now," Sutcliffe says. "I noticed not only the incredible spices but also that Egypt provides a lot of the base substances for perfumes, which are often quite overpowering in their natural, unblended forms. That interested me too.

"I observed the way the different essences were being sold," she says. "I was already living on my nose a bit." One snowy Paris evening in 1971, Sutcliffe realized she wanted to use her nose professionally:

"At the time I rented a very nice historic flat on the Ile de la Cité. I remember sitting there one winter evening. I could see the snow on the gargoyles that come out of the roof of Notre Dame, and it was just breathtakingly beautiful. And I thought, 'Gosh, I'm not at all enjoying my work. I want to work with wine every day, not just on weekends and holidays.' " Sutcliffe, who had been spending her free time at French vineyards, received job offers from wine producers in Burgundy and Bordeaux. A devout Francophile, she was loath to leave France but worried that staying there would limit her knowledge of wine.

"Something in me said that I would get stuck in Burgundy or Bordeaux, and then I'd know only about that wine. And I really wanted to know about all wines," she says. "I thought, 'Blast. I've got to go back to London.' Which I didn't want to do, but it was—and is—a world wine center, because we're not really producers. We've always imported everything."

She accepted an offer from the wine importing firm Rutherford Osborne and Perkin, an entry-level position that involved "doing pretty much everything. Then I heard about the trade exams leading to the Master of Wine and thought I'd better take those quickly," Sutcliffe says. "Otherwise the attitude was: 'She'll be in it for a few years and then go off and get married and have children.' It was a different time."

In the '70s, Sutcliffe recalls, her male colleagues in the wine trade would ask, "What's she doing here?" or, at best, assume she was working in public relations. "Once I had passed all the exams, they started to take me seriously." Sutcliffe clenches her jaw a bit, remembering those initial encounters. Then she pauses, and the grin of someone who has earned the last laugh breaks over her features. "They learned to get over it."