The murmur of wine whisperers
Flourishing personal advisers offer a range of services to help affluent aficionados manage their cellars
One of Matt Wilson’s wine clients asked him in 2016 to organise a dinner in Las Vegas with a $100,000 wine budget. Easy for Wilson; he rounded up such rarities as 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle, 1985 La Tache and c1834 Madeira.
But he also had to convince chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin to give the 16 guests a cooking lesson and prepare the dinner.
Wilson, who launched Napa-based Company Fine Wine in 2016, is what I call a "wine whisperer", a rapidly growing category of white-gloved wine fixers for the ultra-wealthy.
Some call themselves personal wine advisers. Others, such as Wilson, function more like private wine merchants. All offer a range of services to help cash-rich, time-poor aficionados manage their wine lives.
Disorganised cellar? They will take an inventory of a collection and advise which bottles are ready to drink.
Don’t know what to buy? They will find out what kinds of wines the client likes and be their personal shopper.
Panting for a rare bottle? They have the inside connections to get it. Need to know what wine to order at a restaurant? Call them.
For those who crave a lunch with a reclusive winemaker, they will organise it — and perhaps even accompany them.
Most wine whisperers operate on word-of-mouth recommendations. There is no single business model for how they work and the range of services they offer are not set in stone. Some will bid for clients at auction; others will not touch a paddle. "You have to be flexible," explains Wilson, who helped found Soutirage, a similar type of firm in Napa, before going out on his own. "Everything depends on what a client wants."
He counts 25 billionaires among his clients, including Joe Schoendorf, partner at venture capital firm Accel, and David Viniar, former chief financial officer at Goldman Sachs Group, who is now on its board of directors.
Wilson has an inventory of older wines to offer clients (he just spent $1.3m on Bordeaux), and wraps services into the price for those they buy from him.
Most wine advisers charge an annual retainer and will take on short-term projects for a negotiated fee, a good starting point for establishing a relationship. London’s Susie de Paolis, of De Paolis, works differently.
She is an independent private wine adviser who sources wines that individual clients want through merchants she knows personally — and trusts.
One of the founders of merchant Armit Wines, she went out on her own in 2001 and has since garnered a stellar reputation. She handles about 20 wine collectors at any time; some have cellars worth £5m-£10m. Stuart Rose, former executive chairman of British retailer Marks & Spencer, credits de Paolis with "saving his wine life".
Her first step is creating a database of every wine a client owns, showing its current value, when it should be drunk, what there is too much of, and what great vintages are missing.
Right now, she is combing a client’s list to decide which bottles should be sent to the cellar in his new country house. Ongoing advice starts at £5,000 and goes up, depending on the size of a wine portfolio.
The top 50 or 60 spenders at London-based wine merchant BI Fine Wine & Spirits each splash £100,000 a year or more. The company’s private client department, like those at the city’s other serious merchants, is highly attuned to their needs.
"Wine is emotional and personal," says David Thomas, who handles many of these elite accounts. "You have to know their palates and spend time with them to advise them."
Many start out as beginning collectors and gradually ratchet up annual purchases at BI.
These clients especially prize experiences that money cannot buy. Thomas has arranged a lunch at Bordeaux cult property Le Pin, for one. For another: tickets to a Coldplay concert, followed by tasting of rare wines with the band.
BI has flown its wines to government ministers and clients’ yachts. The merchant is now expanding into Asia.
As with other types of personal advisers, some specialise. David Beckwith of New York-based Grand Cru Wine Consulting satisfies the dreams of some of the biggest Burgundy collectors around.
Beckwith has 20 clients, mostly in finance, real estate, and the law, on yearly retainer ($2,000 a month and up). His most difficult request from a client was planning three nights of dinners with wine at three different restaurants in San Sebastian, Spain.
Some specialise in certain parts of the world. Charles Curtis, the former head of wine in Asia for Christie’s auction house and a certified Master of Wine, handles about a dozen projects and clients a year through his consultancy, WineAlpha. Most of his clients live in Asia, though he has just added a Texan.
"They may need help selling a million dollars worth of wine from their cellars," he says.
"And they often want a sounding board. Should I buy this? Is it a good price?"
The number of Asian collectors is exploding, and many want advice on how to buy in London, Curtis says. His Master of Wine status reassures them of his expertise, as does his status as a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice appraiser. Annual fees range from $12,000 to $40,000.
Peter Thustrup, based in France, is a rare wine dealer who tutors beginning collectors on how to collect and live with wine, giving advice not just on what to buy, but how to use wine in business and social life.
He takes on about 25 clients, each of whom plans to spend a minimum of $100,000 on wine in the next 12 months, and he bases his fee on a percentage of what they spend.
Could chatbots take on the wine whisperer’s role in the future, reducing the cost? It is hard to imagine being able to say, "Siri, get me some 1982 Petrus" and having a case turn up in your cellar a few days later. But maybe.