Jamie Ritchie wouldn’t know where he was and what he’d do without his gavel. He explained: “In 1994, as part of Sotheby’s 250th anniversary celebrations, I was given a wooden gavel. It has been the only gavel I have ever used. It has required some occasional re-gluing as the head has flown off into the audience a couple of times! The trend nowadays is for auctioneers to use gavels without handles, but I prefer the heft of the handle.”
Ritchie heads Sotheby’s global wine business and is the chief auctioneer at its charity auction events. There will be an auction of rare Scotch whiskey and the first The Distillers One of One will be held at Barnbougle Castle on December 3, 2021. After entering into a six-year partnership, proceeds will contribute to a fund set up by The Distillers’ Charity, focused on helping disadvantaged young people in Scotland by ‘transforming their life chances and empowering them to create positive change’.
In October, The Dalmore will place its No 6 Collection of rare Scotch whisies under the hammer at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, with a portion of the proceeds going to the nonprofit V&A Dundee.
Ritchie has turned the iconic auction house into a multi-channel international wine merchant. He joined Sotheby’s of London’s wine department in 1990, after studying business law at London Metropolitan University. His first job was managing Brinkley’s Wines in Hollywood Road, London SW10 and he later enrolled at Harvard Business School’s Executive Leadership Programme.
The famous auctioneer has built Sotheby’s into the pre-eminent global player in fine wine and spirits, setting up the first wine auctions in New York (1994) and Hong Kong (2009) and opening retail outlets in both cities. In 2020 Sotheby’s sold $45m worth of wine and spirits online alone.
Hammersmith-born Ritchie, who grew up in Chippenham in Wiltshire, started buying wine by the case when he was 17; It was some Marques de Caceres Rioja.
He says: “I was lucky enough to get a sports bursary to Millfield for tennis and cricket and remember playing against former England no1 Andrew Castle as part of my ‘interview’ process. Of course, he won, but not by as much as he would have done in his prime!”
Ritchie is now based in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, close to Sotheby’s office and his son’s school, the Lycee Français de New York.
He commented: “I have been very lucky. There have been so many amazing experiences. Like selling, in 1993, 75,000 bottles from the Princes von Thurn und Taxis in Regensberg, offering so many direct from the winery sales from wineries such as Chateaux Haut Brion, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild, selling Trascendent Wines at $30 million in 2019, The Cellar of William I Koch at $22 million, The Philanthropist’s Cellar at $16 million and selling the first barrel of En Primeur at auction from Chateau Palmer 2015.”
Ritchie has been the auctioneer for the world record prices for a bottle of wine (Romanée Conti DRC 1945 from The Cellar of Robert Drouhin for $558,000 in 2018), and for a bottle of spirit (The Macallan 1926 60 Year in The Ultimate Whisky Collection in 2019).
“I am very proud of the launch of the range of Sotheby’s Own Label Collection in 2019 – an affordable range of very classical wines that show the typicity of the grape varieties and micro-climate from each specific region from where they are made,” Ritchie told me.
He has no doubt of the most unfortunate moment in his career in fine wine auctions. “At our inaugural LA auction, when changing auctioneers, the microphone fell off the rostrum and landed on the neck of a Nebuchadnezzar of Mouton Rothschild 1975 and a lady in a white trouser suit in the front row ended up wearing most if it – we decanted the rest through a coffee filter and it was superb!”
He doesn’t have a favourite wine. “I enjoy the diversity and quality from so many great producers and regions. My favourites are the most recent great bottles that I have been lucky enough to enjoy. And, I believe that it is the occasion and who you are sharing it with that is as important as the wine,” Ritchie explained.
Ritchie and his gavel also work at charity auctions. Sotheby’s has been named as the auction partner of the Hospices de Beaune – the world’s oldest and perhaps most renowned charity wine auction. The 161st annual barrel auction is due to take place on 21 November at the Halles de Beaune.
He said: “There is no greater honour for our international team than to organise the most famous and oldest wine auction in the world. Since 1859, this sale has been closely watched for the pricing for the new vintage in Burgundy, acting as an economic gauge for the region. We all look forward to Les Trois Glorieuses and working with Ludivine Griveau.”
The history of the Hospices Civils de Beaune began in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and Guigone de Salins to fund the building of the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital. Today, the Hospices Civils de Beaune includes the hospital centres of Beaune, Arnay-le-Duc, Seurre and Nuits-St-Georges. Production from the vineyards is sold each year at auction which began in 1859. Each year the Hospices de Beaune supports an additional charity by donating the profits from the sale of a pièce of wine, known as the ‘President’s Pièce’. The proceeds from the sale of the all the rest of the wines are used to maintain the hospital’s heritage and to modernise its equipment and buildings.
Ritchie told me: “I have had the pleasure of working with so many other great charities that raise funds for incredibly important causes. I work very closely with The American Heart Association’s annual Hearts Delight weekend and auction. I have been the auctioneer since its inception 22 years ago, never having missed a year, and we have raised millions for the AHA. My children have attended most years and joined me as auctioneers.
“The Perlman Music Program was founded by Toby Perlman in 1994 and the faculty is led by maestro Itzhak Perlman which provides unparalleled training to talented young string players. I am currently working on a new initiative supporting The Roots Fund, which is an important development.”
Proceeds from the The Philanthropist’s Cellar auction went to Standford’s REAP program that supports education in rural China.
This year has been exciting one for Ritchie and his team. The first online spirits-only auction for Sotheby’s New York included a Cognac bottled in celebration of rapper Jay Z’s 50th birthday and a 1967 Macallan with artwork from Sir Peter Blake.
But it’s the development of Sotheby’s own label collection which Ritchie believes, over time, will be the most rewarding. He explained: “It offers quality and value for money. Our Chablis, our Sancerre, our red and white Burgundies are all exactly what you would expect from a very good producer in each region. The range is aimed at providing affordable drinking for anyone who wants to enjoy classic wines that offer great value for money and want to be reassured that the wines are high quality for the price
“They are produced by our friends whose wines we know, like, respect and admire. The latest addition of six new wines make the collection more complete, filling in some gaps that are very popular. The Sotheby’s Champagne is our perennial best seller and we are excited to add a classic Rose Champagne. We were also missing a Provence Rose. Our Cotes du Rhône from Stephane Ogier has more structure than most, as it has a high proportion of Syrah.
“Selecting our original range for the launch, we travelled for a week through France and ran out of time to visit Italy. This time we made up for it by adding a classic Pinot Grigio made by Attems and we wanted two Tuscan wines, a classic Sangiovese Chianti, which comes from Castello di Nippozano, and an excellent everyday Tuscan red from the team at Ornellaia.”
Ritchie believes the digital platform is the platform of the future. He said: “Last year we were 90% live auctions, and this year we will be 30%. Fifty percent of bidders are under 50. 30% are new millennials. We’ve been attracting a much broader, younger market across all their international markets. When I joined the company in 1990, the average age was 65.
“In the auction business we talk about the drivers for supply being death, debt, divorce, and in the wine and spirits auction business there is the added question of “doctors’ orders, where people have to give up drinking for their health. We have had to add a fifth ‘d’. For dislocation.
“Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased both death, debt, divorce and dislocation which means more collections have been on their way to auction.”
He added that the “majority of wine we sell comes from people who have acquired too much. People just wake up one day and realise they are never going to consume the wine they have purchased. Restaurant cellars are also having to be sold.”
The role of the white gloved auctioneer has changed. Ritchie remarked: “The auctioneer is mostly announcing the prices bid online while still using some traditional methods of encouraging and soliciting more bids. It’s probably 20% of their traditional role.”
Burgundy remains the top seller. In 2020, by sales, the most popular producers are Domaine de la Romanee, Lafite and Leroy.
Ritchie finishes our conversation: “Long ago, I calculated that if I lived until I was 70 and drank a bottle of wine every day, I would have 20,000 great experiences. I was pretty sure I would drink those 20,000 bottles, so I decided that I had better learn something about it. There are two ways to enjoy wine: work in the business or earn enough money to buy it. I chose the former.”