I first set eyes on Sotheby’s honorary chairman of wine, Serena Sutcliffe MW, at a tasting in 2013. She swept into a room full of dreary suits sporting a shocking-pink leather biker jacket and a razor-sharp white bob. I remember thinking: if this is what fine wine looks like, then I’m in.

“Oh gosh! I’ve still got that jacket! I usually just plonk it over some jeans,” laughs the 78-year-old when we meet at the Sotheby’s HQ on London’s New Bond Street. She’s here to host the launch of a new series of wine events organised by the asset management company Hundle, designed to entice more women into fine-wine drinking and collecting (tonight, for the record, she’s sporting damson suede ankle boots, a zigzag kilt and a blood-red manicure).

Serena Sutcliffe in a cellar in London, 1981
Serena Sutcliffe in a cellar in London, 1981 © 1981 Popperfoto

Women do most of the wine-buying in western supermarkets, but they’re underrepresented in wine’s upper realms – Sotheby’s estimates that just 10-15 per cent of its fine wine buyers are women. Sutcliffe knows what it is to be an outlier. When she joined the wine trade in the early 1970s women were “virtually invisible”, she says. Undeterred, she went on to become the world’s second female Master of Wine in 1976 (the first was Sarah Morphew Stephens MW). “There were a lot of patronising types around back then,” says Sutcliffe briskly, “but I can’t say it bothered me. Wine was what I was mad about, so I just stuck around till I got my MW.”

Three more grape names to know

Bo Heung 

Private client director Asia at Justerini & Brooks (Hong Kong)

As head of J&B’s Hong Kong division, Heung has amassed a strong base of female clients whom she advises on cellar management, as well as offering valuing and brokering services. Many start their journey with storied Bordeaux first growths such as Lafite, she says, “but now they’re looking to other exciting regions, such as Burgundy, Germany or the Jura”. Her aim is to educate clients not to be “label drinkers” who are simply swayed by big names – she enjoys organising blind tastings, for example, of the same grape from a variety of different regions. justerinis.com

Laura Taylor 

Fine wine advisor at Private Cellar (UK)

After seven years at Corney & Barrow, Taylor co-founded Private Cellar in 2005, an independent wine merchant offering everything from by-the-bottle sales through to full-blown portfolio management. As well as advising clients on their collections, Taylor runs a Women In Wine club that convenes online every two months for a tasting of a specially curated case. She also regularly hosts female-friendly (but not women-only) tastings and dinners with visiting producers. “Some of our members are already confident with wine, while others are new to it,” she says. “Either way, we find it’s often the women who ask the most interesting questions!” privatecellar.co.uk

© Gary He

Victoria James 

Sommelier and beverage director at Cote and co-founder of Cote Wine Club (US)

As drinks director of the vibe-y restaurant group Cote (NYC, Miama and soon, Singapore), James has put a rocket up the fine-wine scene – and her Cote Wine Club approaches fine wine with the same mix of style and attitude. Members receive monthly wine selections with food-matching advice (“think Pierre Gimonnet’s blanc de blancs with his grandmother’s gougères recipe!”) as well as invites to winemaker dinners, BYOB lunches and tutored tastings. The fact that women have long been excluded from wine’s inner sanctum, she says, means “they are now are entering the world with fresh eyes and opinions – they’re really going above and beyond to see what the next new market trends and hip producers might be.” cotewineclub.com

Sutcliffe rose through the ranks, becoming worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine, a post she held for 25 years, during which time she launched the auction house’s wine business in North America and the Far East. She chaired the Institute of the Masters of Wine and became the first British wine professional to receive the Légion d’Honneur. As honorary chairman, she still consults for Sotheby’s wine department.

“I’ve met a lot of women with the natural ability but perhaps not the confidence,” says Sutcliffe. “They often have a better sense of smell and taste – but are less fact-driven than men. They seem less interested in collecting – a word I rather dislike as it has connotations of hoarding. I like to think they buy wine less for prestige and more because they love it.”

In a bid to attract a bigger female contingent, Sotheby’s and Hundle will both be hosting more wine events, cross-fertilising wine with fashion, fine art and jewellery (before she entered the wine trade Sutcliffe actually considered becoming a gemologist). Sotheby’s says it’s also intent on upping the number of women in private client roles.

The number of female wine buyers at Sotheby’s peaked in 2022 when the pandemic was accelerating the growth of sales online, a development that Sutcliffe suggests allowed buyers to “research in privacy and peace, without being patronised”. Sotheby’s also saw a surge in the number of bidders under 40 during this time.

“You’ve now got so many different types of people coming into the fine-wine market –it’s changed completely from that rather small world it was 40 or 50 years ago,” says Sutcliffe. “Bordeaux and Burgundy are still fundamental – but you’ve also got some top Italian wines coming on. Some very top Californian and Australian too. I think Italy in particular has the potential to go even further. I love the north-east of Italy, particularly for its whites. For the reds, I think it’s a question of identifying the absolute right plots because it has such diversity of climate and soils – it’s something they’ve already done in parts of Maremma in southern Tuscany.”

Sutcliffe declines, most diplomatically, to pick a favourite wine sale or bottle – but she waxes lyrical about a recent tasting of an ’82 and ’83 Château Margaux. “You want that great Margaux scent – very enchanting, quite different from the more solid black fruit and big nose of Pauillac. It’s got to unfold in layers, and have depth and volume.

“A great wine must have character and personality,” she adds. ‘It must sing to you – and they do. When you hit one that is really on song, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Sutcliffe’s not drinking wine, she loves aquavit: “It’s my Achilles heel, I absolutely adore it. We have it at special times like Christmas, or if the weather is ghastly. And you’ve got to eat herrings with it.”

If you’re just beginning in wine, she advises “start by buying single bottles, here, there and everywhere. And once you’ve found a wine you like, buy a case – because forming a relationship with a young vintage and seeing how it evolves over time is one of the most riveting things.

“And don’t be intimidated by it. Order the wine or the grape variety or region you don’t know – that’s what I always do. Because there’s actually nothing less frightening than wine. It’s really frightfully docile.” 

For more information on Hundle’s future Women & Wine events, contact ederusett@hundle.co


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