From Classical Music to Classic Wine: Meet Sotheby’s Vanessa Conlin MW

Most fine wine lovers will know of Sotheby’s as one of the world’s most renowned wine auction houses, with a history that extends over more than 250 years. Yet it’s also on the cutting edge of wine sales, with hybrid auctions, a range of private labels, and an expanding e-commerce offering. And now, it’s growing its retail arm.

Enter Vanessa Conlin MW, the newly appointed Global Head of Wine Retail, an expert in the finer things in life. She has poured wines, advised people on wine pairings and immersed herself in wine e-commerce.

She’s also sung the role of Musetta in La Boheme. Because before she was a wine professional, she was an opera singer.

From Puccini to wine passion

Conlin grew up in a musical household; her father is a conductor, and her mother an opera singer.

“I have a Master’s degree in music,” she says. “I went to Manhattan School of Music in New York City.”

Conlin believes wine and music have much in common. “There’s almost a performance — the whole opening of the bottle,” says Conlin. “And hearing the words that people use to describe it are similar as well: harmony and balance.” Wine, like music, also awakens the senses and brings people together in a collective experience, “yet we all walk away with something different and individual.”

And, of course, both can inspire deep-rooted passion. Like the time Conlin decided to take a wine class. “An amateur Wine101 class. And I just remember coming home and I had pages of notes.”

She’d caught the bug, and kept taking classes, including the WSET program. Finally, she decided to change careers.

“That really meant starting over, at the very bottom,” says Conlin. “I took a job at a retail store on the Upper West Side, for essentially minimum wage, just to be around the buyer, to listen to her talk, to be in the tastings, and to really learn about the business.”

Eventually, she became the buyer and manager of Pour Wines in New York. “I loved the buying, the selection, introducing people to new things. Getting to know them through their purchasing.” Conlin says that people would often come in carrying grocery bags and say, “I bought this fennel and these chicken thighs,” and ask her to recommend a wine match. “It was always this kind of fun puzzle to figure out what people would enjoy.”

To learn more about vineyards and wine production, Conlin moved to the Napa Valley,  “and that’s where I started the MW program.”

There, she worked for luxury estates Arietta Wine and Dana Estates, before finally moving to fine wine e-commerce site Wine Access, “which is where I’ve been for last six years.”

Conlin, who became an MW in 2020, will now expand Sotheby’s retail arm. “There is an overlap with some consumers in terms of auction buyers and retail buyers,” she says. “But there are a lot of people that aren’t auction buyers who still want to buy wine now they’re collectors.”

The auction and retail arms were combined under the name ‘Sotheby’s Wine’ in 2009; the company says it offers a “full range of buying and selling services across both channels, and are able to sell in any quantity at a fixed price and for immediate delivery, in addition to our regular auctions”.

“We have a team of wonderful team of specialists in New York who sit down with you, understand your preferences and put together a list,” says Conlin, “so you can come in at any level or price capacity and custom build a cellar.”

And, of course, there is the digital store.

Insights from wine e-commerce

Prior to the pandemic ,wine e-commerce lagged behind other consumer sectors. “What the pandemic taught a lot of people, is that you can have fine wine delivered to your home. It expanded the customer base,” says Conlin.

She adds that the simple act of adding more wine to the mix also grows the fine wine market. “At Wine Access, the major categories for us were Napa, Cabernet, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont Champagne — the regions you would expect. But when we offered them, we had huge success with wines from Armenia.”

E-commerce data can also produce a fine-grained portrait of who is buying — and what. In general, says Conlin, “we’re often seeing that people right now aren’t buying as often or as much, but they’re buying up, so they’re drinking better wine.”

Different cohorts buy differently. “GenX is a huge driver right now, becoming very important,” she says. “In my experience, scores were very important when selling to baby boomers. “I saw much less interest from younger generations — GenX to an extent, millennials not really.”

And millennials, surprisingly, often prefer shopping at physical stores. Fortunately, Sotheby’s New York has a wine shop in the lobby.

Bringing people into wine

Something that Conlin has learned from music is that complete novices need an easy way to crack unwritten codes.

At the opera, for example, audience members must learn that it’s bad etiquette to make any kind of noise — and that it’s better to pre-order the interval drinks than queue up at the bar. Wine also has rituals to navigate and secrets to uncover. “What am I supposed to do with the cork when they put it on the table? Am I supposed to pick it up?”

Conlin says the way through is to understand the role of social currency — or influence — when talking about wine, which is where social media comes in.

 “Social media is huge, whether it’s coming from the trade peer recommendations, or celebrity endorsements online,” she says. “I think younger consumers are engaging in video content, social media, digital marketing,” so that’s where to reach them.

Above all, Conlin’s learned that the secret to selling wine is “all about listening to the consumer and presenting the best, most seamless customer experience you can. Everyone wants things to be as easy as possible.”

Her goal at Sotheby’s is “to provide that absolute luxury experience, no matter where you’re located,” she says. “I want the retail experience to be the destination. It’s not just a store. It’s a place to learn, discover,  to connect with other wine lovers — so many people don’t know that we have a retail arm, and I’m excited to bring that to life.” FC.