Wine for the rich and/or famous

Sonoma winemaker Jesse Katz

The adventures of three who keep slebs' cellars well stocked. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Sonoma winemaker to the stars Jesse Katz pictured above.

Wine advisor Douglas Blyde’s initial job for his first big client, seven years ago, involved flying on a private jet from Farnborough to Perugia with Liz Hurley. ‘That set the tone for the rest of the week’, he told me recently over a light lunch at Vinoteca, King’s Cross.

The client is Evgeny, now Baron, Lebedev, the Moscow-born, English-educated media owner, whose homes include the early-18th-century Stud House in Hampton Court Park outside London and a pair of grand neighbouring properties in Umbria. Blyde was there at a much-reported Umbrian party attended by Boris Johnson. His comment? ‘Tony Blair’s a nice guest, not bombastic.’

Blyde shares a birth year with Lebedev, the unpromising 1980 vintage, and still looks rather like an earnest schoolboy. By the time he was 14, such was his interest in mixology that he had built a full-service bar complete with fridge and shelves in his bedroom in Cambridgeshire. It’s still there. He subsequently worked at a local vineyard, Majestic and Vinopolis, the short-lived wine tourist destination by London Bridge, all the time amassing wine knowledge. Of course to be a wine advisor or consultant, you don’t necessarily need infinite wine knowledge, you just need good contacts and a bit more knowledge than your potential clients.

But Vincent Gasnier, another UK-based wine consultant to well-known folk, mainly footballers, has not only proof of his knowledge in the MS after his name, but the additional advantages of a strong French accent and a ready smile. He was brought up in the Loire Valley and got his big break working for the late Gerard Basset at the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester.

When I met up with Gasnier in the latest London Soho House in Aldwych he described Basset, quite justifiably, as ‘the big daddy of us all’, referring to the international sommelier community. Basset, through sheer grit and over six attempts, became the World’s Best Sommelier in 2010. When Gasnier joined his team in 1996 Basset was practising for the Best Sommelier of Europe competition via a punishing schedule of blind tastings which Gasnier aided and abetted. Gasnier is particularly proud of having advised the gentle Basset to be more extrovert in his presentation – a fact noted in Basset’s self-help memoir Tasting Victory (reviewed here). The training was so intense and of such quality that the following year Gasnier went on to become the youngest-ever Master Sommelier.

Gasnier, vintage 1974, another poor year, went on in 2001 to be recruited by founder Nick Jones to be Soho House’s wine man, but his big break into wine consultancy came the year before when football manager Graeme Souness, a Hotel du Vin regular, offered to fund Vincent Gasnier Wine Consultancy and gave him a raft of useful contacts. Gasnier’s website boasts testimonials from Souness, football commentators Alan Shearer and Jamie Redknapp and broadcaster Kirsty Young (Mrs Nick Jones).

‘Graeme opened so many doors’, Gasnier told me, adding disarmingly, ‘and my passion for wine was so intense initially that I forgot to make any money.’ The demands of the ever-expanding Soho House group have become so great that he has thinned out his list of clients to only the most rewarding. ‘Soho House is my bread and butter. The private clients are the fun.’ When we met last month he had just returned from an all-star (wines as well as participants) extended party in Monaco. (Lockdown doesn’t seem to affect billionaires, their guests or their staff.)

According to Gasnier, ‘the problem with private clients is that they get the wrong advice and trust the wrong people. Then they stock up on the wrong vintages. Or forget about their wine. Or drink the wrong vintages first.’ Tut, tut.

He likes to find his clients a wine they can’t find somewhere else, which facilitates his approximate 30% mark-up. He sees as ‘a bit of an enemy, which is why I never mention it to anybody’. But he does provide a comprehensive service, having the wine delivered, arranging it in his clients’ cellars, and ensuring their computerised cellar records are up to date. ‘They send me their menus and I can match them to what they have in their cellar. It all makes them look like they’re on a pedestal.’

I got the impression that Gasnier’s clients tend to go for the big names, whereas Blyde sees it as his mission to steer his clients, who include the Earl and Countess of Weymouth and several stars of finance, into pastures new. ‘Even with Lebedev’, he says, ‘I’m proud to have taken him from St-Julien [a particularly solid red bordeaux choice] into a situation where he was delighted we were serving Kit’s Coty English wine and several different South African Chenins and Canadian Chardonnays.’ As we parted, he squinted down at a text from Lebedev asking for some Glenelly, Lady May, a Cape red made by the ex-owner of Ch Pichon Lalande in Bordeaux.

Blyde’s clients aren’t interested in buying wine en primeur that won’t be delivered for a few years, apparently. ‘They want wines they can put immediately into their immaculately temperature-controlled cellars so they can see what they have.’ He has fingers in many pies, including a wide range of spirits and speciality coffees, and his services can include finding florists and pianists for important entertaining.

In the US Jesse Katz of Aperture Cellars in Sonoma, son of accomplished wine photographer Andy Katz, is the go-to winemaker if you’re famous and want your very own wine. A bottle of the blend he made for uber-agent Shep Gordon fetched the highest price ever for 75 cl of wine: $350,000, in a charity auction organised by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse in 2017. His first custom cuvée was for the 2012 wedding of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel – who, he reports, were extremely interested in what went into it. He got the commission because he grew up in Colorado and was a ski buddy of Jessica’s brother, also called Justin.

This led to interest from the likes of TMZ and People magazine, which of course led to orders from an array of the rich and/or famous, including Ellen DeGeneres and sportsmen such as Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and ace skateboarder Tony Hawk. Katz told me on a recent Zoom call that sales of such wines at auction have raised a total of $1.4 million so far for charities, mainly children’s but gorillas’ for DeGeneres.

So satisfying celebrity wine requirements has its benevolent side.

Record prices for wines

These are prices at regular commercial auctions rather than charity auctions.

Most expensive 75-cl bottle of wine

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1945 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru burgundy sold to an Asian private collector for $558,000 including buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s in New York on 13 October 2018.

Ch Lafitte [sic] 1787 Pauillac held this record for many years, having been sold to Christopher Forbes for £105,000 at Christie’s, London, on 5 December 1985. The record survived much longer than the wine itself as the cork shrivelled and fell in when the bottle was exhibited under strong lights.

Most expensive impériale (6-litre bottle) of bordeaux

Ch Cheval Blanc 1947 St-Émilion, Premier Grand Cru bordeaux sold to a private collector for 298,500 Swiss francs at Christie’s, Geneva on 16 November 2010.

Most expensive methuselah (6-litre bottle) of burgundy

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru burgundy sold to ‘a private Asian collector’ for $297,600 at Sotheby’s, New York, on 19 June 2020.

Most expensive private wine collection

The ‘Tran-scend-ent Wines’ collection belonging to ‘a man in his mid 40s in real estate/finance’ sold for a total of US$30 million at Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, on 29, 30 and 31 March 2019.

Although whisky has now overtaken wine …

A bottle of The Macallan 1926, cask 263 sold for £1.5 million at Sotheby’s, London on 24 October 2019.

A bottle of Yamazaki 55-year-old Japanese whisky sold for HK$6.2 million at Bonhams, Hong Kong, on 21 August 2020.