Sotheby’s Wine Retail Supercharges Into 2024


Sotheby’s Wine Retail Supercharges Into 2024

Wine Team New York |
Vanessa Conlin MW, Sotheby’s Global Head of Wine Retail, shares her vision for the future, and her desire to turn Sotheby’s wine retail outlets into exciting destination venues catering to all luxury needs, with a brimming roster of tastings and events.

Bringing a wealth of experience with her to the role, having worked as chief wine officer at e-commerce retailer Wine Access, and as director of sales for Napa Valley’s Dana Estates and Arietta Wines, as well as a wine buyer for two prominent Manhattan retailers, Conlin is seeking to turn wine buying at Sotheby’s into a more holistic experience within the luxury space. “A lot of our clients are unaware that we have a wine retail business, which seems tragic in a way, but provides us with an opportunity to focus on getting our specialists in front of people to help them understand what we do,” says Conlin. “People are currently buying a watch from us and wine from someone else. We want to take a more holistic approach and become a one-stop shop for all luxury purchases.”

This cross-category approach is currently in play at Sotheby’s Salon at Bucherer on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s elite shopping street. Located on the third floor of the famous watch and jewellery flagship, the salon brings a dynamic new dimension to the luxury shopping experience, allowing fashion, fine art and wine lovers to peruse a curated selection of watches, jewellery, leather goods, paintings and prized bottles in a relaxed, living room-like environment where specialists in each field are on hand to guide clients with their purchases.

Exclusive Access

Exemplifying Sotheby’s new approach to wine retail, the wine room at Bucherer – known as the ‘Caveau’ – features library vintages and rare bottles usually reserved for long-term clients. “Rather than the experience of visiting a traditional wine merchant, the Caveau looks and feels like entering the world-class cellar of an expert collector,” says Conlin. For the launch party in September, Sotheby’s flew London-based Joe Rorke, EMEA director for Napa Valley icon Harlan Estate, out to Zurich to present and pour the 2015 vintage of Promontory, alongside the 2006 vintage of Bordeaux first growth Château Margaux.

“We’ll be hosting winemakers and château principals at the Caveau every month to bring the wines to life and encourage more education and conversations around wine. If a client wants to curate a specific tasting with their closest friends we can do that too, and if we don't have a certain wine, we’re very good at finding it for you.” In taking a cross-category approach, Conlin hopes to attract a new audience to Sotheby’s wine retail who otherwise may not buy at auction, while also offering auction regulars easier access to their favourite labels. “We want to tie all of the luxury divisions together. Not everyone is an auction buyer, and even if they are, maybe they need a wine gift for tomorrow and don’t want to have to wait for an auction in order to get it.”

Championing Napa 

Having sold wine at auction since 1970, Sotheby’s launched its retail business in 2010 with a store at its New York headquarters on York Avenue. A second store at One Pacific Place in Hong Kong followed in 2014. The New York flagship carries around 800 wines, sourced from leading wholesalers, direct from wineries and from private cellars, while the Sotheby’s wine website offers significantly more labels. A private client sales division also offers a VIP white glove service by phone and email.

As you’d expect for a fine wine specialist, the classic French regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne attract the lion’s share of interest at the New York store, though labels from Napa Valley are also highly sought after in a trend Conlin is keen to push. “I have a home in Napa so have recently brought a few new producers into the store that I’m passionate about,” she says. Among the new Napa gems are wines from Massican, a white wine-only project spearheaded by former Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski, whose Mediterranean-inspired whites are proving a hit with sommeliers due to their food-friendly nature. “The wines are all under US$50 – it’s great to be able to showcase a younger wine project on the more affordable side,” says Conlin. 

Own Label Success

Leaning more heavily on Old World producers, the store offers a mix of new releases and ready-to-drink wines, and currently boasts an enviable collection of 1980s Bordeaux for those seeking a little age on their claret. “As we often work with private cellars, we don't always know what will come in,” says Conlin. “We attained this great private collection recently, so we’re currently swimming in Grand Cru Burgundy from the likes of DRC and Coche-Dury, which is exciting.” Sotheby’s range of own-label wines, which includes a Provence rosé, blanc de blancs Champagne and Langhe Nebbiolo, are among some of the store’s best-sellers, and account for around 30% of total sales.

Working with revered producers such as Super Tuscan Ornellaia, which created Sotheby’s new own-label Tuscan blend, the wines have garnered a loyal following due to the excellent value they offer. “Our own-label blanc de blancs is flying. Champagne was one of our fastest-selling categories during the pandemic and hasn’t really slowed down as people are less worried about waiting for a special occasion to pop a cork,” says Conlin, who would like to add a Napa Cabernet to the own-label range.

Destination Venue

While the New York store has been happily ticking away for more than a decade, Conlin is keen to inject new life into the space and turn it into a destination venue. “Our headquarters on York Street is a beautiful building to spend an afternoon in. We’re trying to make the shop more of a social space where people want to spend time, so we’ve added a seating area and are ramping up our tastings.” To add a personal touch, Conlin recently hired Montreal-born Etienne Guérin to take on the role of wine concierge, who will be on hand to impart his knowledge and share winemaker stories with customers. “Etienne’s background is in restaurants – he’s worked for the likes of Daniel Boulud and has a deep understanding of the hospitality industry,” says Conlin. “I want him to be a big draw for customers, and for him to form his own client base and hold tastings with them, so the shop isn’t just a retail outlet, it’s a social space for wine lovers to connect. One of the best aspects of wine is that it inspires conversations and brings people together, and I want the store to facilitate that.”

Conlin is also keen to attract a wider client base to the store, which she’s starting to see happen. “We’ve had an influx of younger clients recently, which is a result of people being more open to experimenting with buying fine wine online during the pandemic,” she says. “Our New York team is young and dynamic, which is helping to lower the barrier to entry and bring more women and younger clients into the store.” Looking ahead, Conlin would like to launch the Sotheby’s salon concept in other key global cities, and has her sights set on Paris, where Sotheby’s currently has offices and an auction house but no retail offering. “I’d like to take the concept forward internationally, as the more we can offer our customers everything that they might want, the more valuable we are to them.”

- Lucy Shaw | A wine and spirits editor and writer, based in London.


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