How Sotheby’s Head of Wine Seizes Opportunities

Jamie Ritchieof Sotheby’s.
Jamie Ritchie / Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

Jamie Ritchie is the first to admit that he has been very lucky. The worldwide head of wine for Sotheby’s is a bit more reticent in that self-deprecating English way when it comes to admitting that it also took hard work, long days and late nights, and having the right skills at the right time that propelled him to the auction house’s top spot.

Ritchie was studying law in London, working at restaurants and bars on holidays, when he met John Forbes, “the man who would change my life. He was my godfather,” he recalls. Forbes saw Ritchie’s interest in wine and offered him a job as assistant manager of his restaurant.

The central London eatery was “a very English restaurant that was packed with lawyers and politicians who would have a traditional English lunch–steak and kidney pie, chicken Kiev, those sorts of dishes,” he laughs. There was, of course, the traditional wine list as well. Forbes sent Ritchie to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust where he earned a diploma.

Ritchie joined the restaurant group Brinkley’s in 1986, and by the time he left in 1990 it had 10 locations. “This was the late ‘80s in London. It was crazy. It was fun…It also gave me a solid foundation for learning the financial side of the restaurant business.

“The restaurant business is fun, but at the end of the day the money has got to end up in the till…So, it’s a very good way to learn about one of the less attractive issues of the wine business:  that things can disappear and bring value to other people–away from the restaurant as well as in the restaurant,” he says.

Chance Help-Wanted Ad Solidified Career Shift

Ritchie realized that he wanted to make a career in the fine wine end of the business. “That meant working for a wine merchant, a broker or an auction house.” He spotted an ad in The Times of London for an administrator in Sotheby’s wine department and got the job.

By 1993, he was auctioning some 75,000 bottles of wine from The Princely Collections of Thurn und Taxis in Germany. It remains the world’s largest wine auction by volume. In the intervening years he opened branches of Sotheby’s in New York and Hong Kong after each locality changed its regulations. Those regulatory reforms, he believes, have “caused a significant change in the price of wine.”

The New York changes broadened the market enabling “collectors to immediately sell their wine at market price…It enabled a much wider array of people to buy, invest, trade, enjoy wine. And from that point on, the American wine collector became the least price-sensitive from ’94 through mid-2008.”

Six months before Lehman Bros. collapsed in September 2008, Hong Kong eliminated all tariffs on wine. “The Asian buyer became the least price-sensitive and remains so today,” he says.  “Never underestimate the power of regulatory change.”

Auction Business Drivers

With offices in London, New York and Hong Kong and new customers in Asia, Latin America and Russia, Ritchie spends more than half of his time traveling. His team of about 35 “are all passionate about wine” and handle the $70 million to $90 million in annual sales the auctions generate.

The auction business is generally driven by the three Ds: death, debt and divorce. In wine “you add a fourth D–doctor’s orders.” While those factors certainly help to supply wine to Sotheby’s, so, too, do the decades of doing business with the same collectors.

“Many people, who may have started out as clients, have become friends. And that has been a natural progression throughout life. A lot of my friends buy and drink wine,” Ritchie says.

He sees the biggest opportunities for Sotheby’s in its retail operations in New York and Hong Kong, where the stores are separate from the auction side. They are also different from most other larger shops in that “we only sell wines that we like to drink and enjoy,” Richie says.

“I’m a strong believer in our ability to grow that business and I think right now is a very interesting time with Amazon buying Whole Foods. The changes in technology are affecting every business” and he sees them as opportunities.

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Published on August 8, 2017
Topics: A Day In The Life