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Unique stories

Serena Sutcliffe - MW

Head of Sotheby's International Wine Department
“What is Masseto – above all, it is seductive opulence! With its deep, velvety, black cherries flavour and exotic chocolatey allure, Masseto is always exciting and a marvellous expression of luscious Merlot. You could call it noble perfection.“

Can you tell us something about your know how and your profession?
 I suppose many people think I have the dream job, dealing with the world’s greatest wines on a daily basis, and I would not quarrel with that! Of course, one does not sit around all day sipping Masseto and Lafite (although I am working on it), but managing an auction calendar in three cities, London, New York and Hong Kong, is a logistical, almost military exercise. You have to have strong nerves – will we get in some of the greatest wine collections in time for the next sale, how many experts from the department will it need to inspect every bottle in the sale, will the catalogue deadline be met and have we alerted all the potential buyers, from Brazil to Taipei, about the auction. Provenance issues and authentification are vital skills, involving research and due diligence. Integrity is all in this profession, as buyers can become sellers and many will become friends in this gregarious wine world. Experience and attention to detail go with the territory – and it helps to have a good palate, which is always a mixture of practice and talent. Honing that art, over the years, is the best part of the job and writing all the tasting notes (there are over 6,000 of them!) for the catalogues is the most stimulating aspect of what I do.

How did you get your passion for wine?
I think I inherited sensual perception from my mother who had an amazing natural sense of smell and taste, without being in the wine trade. I was brought up in the countryside and revelled in all the scents and sensations of plants, flowers and trees, damp earth and sea coasts, fields and forests. I would always smell things before I ate them, freshly-baked bread, honey, bacon, strawberries – it gave intense pleasure. And I noticed things like gas leaks before anyone else – quite useful really! Then I lived in France for some years, while working in another profession, and spent all my spare time in the vineyards – so that really sealed the love affair. I have never regretted joining the wine trade – the best thing I ever did (apart from marrying my husband!). I always wanted to work at the fine wine end of the trade as these wines have so much depth, character and complexity and that enthrals me.

In your opinion, what qualities must a wine have to be considered a collector’s wine?
 If someone is “collecting“ wine for investment purposes, which is a part of my profession but which I do not personally follow, you just have to buy the very best, the top of the pyramid. The wines you buy for this purpose must have world-wide recognition as blue-chip liquid investments, so they have to be the “classics“, those wines with an absolutely solid reputation – iconic status, if you wish. However, if you are buying for drinking, developing a cellar, or collection, for the joy of sharing bottles with family and friends, there is a much wider choice, a whole range of exciting wines with personality, impact and regional style. Winemaking has never been better and the most exciting wine collections are those that reflect the personal taste of the collector.

Based on your experience, how can one recognize a wine that is a masterpiece?
A wine qualifies as a masterpiece, in my opinion, by being endlessly fascinating, by having the ability to age with grace, developing different facets with each year. Both the bouquet and the palate must be multi-dimensional and the finish, the time it takes to linger in the mouth, has to be long – that is a real sign of quality. After so many years with wine, you just know when you meet vinous greatness.

What are the criteria for selecting a lot for auction?
To be accepted for auction with us at Sotheby’s, a wine has to be in perfect condition for its age. We have to know its history, as we would for a picture, and to be sure that it is absolutely what it says it is. The wines can be young, middle-aged or old, youthful, adult or mature, but they must be excellent examples of their kind. We specialise in selling whole collections, or a proportion of what a collector has in his cellar so that he can renew vintages, or follow a new wine area that interests him.

Can you tell us something about your professional life as a woman in wine? Have you experienced problems, compared to the career of a man?
At first, back in the 1970s, the attitude to a woman in the wine trade was very negative – I found it almost prehistoric! This was particularly bad in the British wine trade – I never felt that prejudice in France, for instance. Gradually it has changed, although there are still very few women in what is known as the fine wine trade. It could be that women themselves do not want the responsibility and accountability of being at the top in the wine business, with the decisions and management that this involves. Certainly, nearly all my clients are male, although it is interesting that there are some Asian businesswomen who do their own buying for their own collections. Personally, I am more interested in people as people, rather than their gender. I do not think I notice any more if I am the only woman around the table at a wine dinner – just as long as there is something marvellous in my glass, and enthusiastic neighbours with whom I can enjoy the experience!

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