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Billionaire Wines

Joining the 1%? Here’s How to Stock Your Yacht

When you need 12 bottles of Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée stat, text this number

Chrissie McClatchie By February 15, 2022
illustration of wines being shipped by speedboat
Illustration by Jessica Cruickshank

No one is immune from the global shortage of Champagne it would seem, not even the world’s one percent. “More and more people are getting richer, but they are not making more Champagne,” says Claire Mottershaw. “So we’re stocking up aggressively.” 

In her line of work, running out of Champagne is akin to being cleared out of sparkling water. Last year, she says that she sold a figure over 1,000 bottles of Dom Pérignon alone.

Along with her husband Paul, Mottershaw is the owner of the VSF Group, one of the oldest names in this niche but highly lucrative business of supplying wine to super yachts. 

Expensive wine on expensive water

The Mottershaws’ French Riviera base, home to a significant portion of their 29,000-bottle inventory, is equidistant from the yachting meccas of Cannes and Antibes. In opposite directions along the coastal highway, Monaco and Saint-Tropez are within easy reach. It’s a 24/7 business, especially during the “season,” or the months from May to late August when harried yacht crews with tight turnarounds have her number at the top of their WhatsApp frequent contacts list. “A boat just asked for 250 bottles of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs for a party,” she says. Apparently, it’s the Champagne to have onboard right now.

For the yacht supply companies like VSF that are based in the Mediterranean, January to March are the quiet months, with most of their clientele “across the pond,” industry speak for the Caribbean, or further afield in increasingly popular yachting destinations such as the Maldives. After two pandemic years where charters were literally canceled as cases of wine were being loaded onto the passerelle, Mottershaw says there is more than the Champagne shortage to navigate as she prepares for this season. “Some of the producers we work with are saying they lost up to 80% of their harvest last year in Sancerre, or that they have no more Pouilly-Fumé this year,” she explains.

At the same time, early indications suggest 2022 is shaping up to be one of the best years for yachting ever, as increasing numbers of people turn to charter as a safe form of vacationing. This means a lot more competition for that case of Baron de L, the prestige Pouilly-Fumé from Domaine de Ladoucette in France’s Loire Valley — and one of the quintessential super yacht wines.

Money buys narrow taste

Despite the trends that each season brings — 2021 was the year of sipping tequilas like Don Julio 1942 and Casa Dragones — the core list of must-have drinks onboard remains anchored in familiar names. “The characteristics that super yacht wines share is that they are all known labels,” says Mottershaw. 

Another South of France-based yacht wine supplier agrees. “Billionaires are unbelievably conservative,” Helen Brotherton, the owner and sales director of Fine Wine Works says. 

While those with the means to buy a yacht or spend upward of $150,000 for a week’s holiday aboard can be of any nationality — the USA and Russia lead the rest of the world in terms of ownership — even Fortune-500 CEOs and oligarchs are united in their tendency to play it safe with the onboard wine list. 

“They just want the tried and tested First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, Super Tuscans, Champagne,” Brotherton continues. If New World wines are requested, Californian reds such as Opus One and Caymus Special Selection, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc like Cloudy Bay are often as adventurous as it gets.

“Like with other luxury assets, such as cars, watches, and handbags, it’s all about being seen to be buying and drinking the best,” Brotherton continues. The rest of the industry may be battling ever-shrinking margins, but in the ultra-high net worth bubble, if a wine is too cheap, it won’t sell — no matter how good it is. “I once suggested a cracking third wine from an estate and the yacht said no the first time,” Brotherton says. “I reworded my quote and doubled the price and sent it back. And they went for it.”

Of course, if there was ever a wine made for swilling on the deck of a super yacht in the Mediterranean, it’s Provence rosé. “Even before it became popular, rosé was always in yachting,” says Mottershaw. But as the array of “drop dead wonderful pink wines,” as Brotherton describes the category, grows, the list on super yachts remains unchanged. “What do we sell? Domaines Ott and Château d’Esclans,” says Brotherton, who came to the industry from the U.K. wine trade. Many believe that Sacha Lichine, the owner of Château d’Esclans, was inspired to create his top-end cuvée Garrus after discovering the yachting thirst for the local drop.

“A chief stew reached out for a list of the world’s most expensive wines and spirits, an expansive request where we were told money was no object. . . We needed security vehicles to take it to the private jet.”

Nothing is too much trouble

It’s the rare yacht owner or charterer that orders their own wine, however. In fact, they usually remain anonymous and are referred to only as the Principal. Instead, the yacht’s crew, particularly the chief stewardess, are the primary point of contact, passing on requests that can range from the sublime to the ridiculous. “For the honeymoon of a social media founder and his supermodel wife, we were asked to supply a very specific sparkling wine from Australia,” says Brotherton. After a series of midnight phone calls to the vineyard, owing to the time difference, she was able to secure an allocation. “To make it worthwhile, we had to ship a pallet.” The yacht took every last bottle.

Other orders are the stuff dreams are made of. “A chief stew reached out for a list of the world’s most expensive wines and spirits, an expansive request where we were told money was no object,” says Jessica Dunnett, who, with her husband Ed, owns and operates Onshore Cellars in Antibes. “We sent back a unicorn list, including suggestions such as 12 bottles of 2001 Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux and the Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection.” The order was confirmed for 145 bottles with a total value of just over $3.4 million ex-VAT — or around $23,000 per bottle. “We needed security vehicles to take it to the private jet,” she says.

Jessica and Ed bring an insider’s perspective to the job, having met and worked as yacht crew themselves. Their background, she says, gives them a huge advantage. “Not only do we fully understand the pressures facing the crew, but we also understand the mentality of yacht owners, having worked for so many,” she says. Across yachting, no is a word rarely uttered and these professionals will go to the ends of the earth to please their clients — quite literally. “We were asked to source one particular bottle of Macallan. It was the last in the world and in Hong Kong,” says Master of Wine Liam Steevenson, the CEO of Global Wine Solutions, a super yacht supplier based in London. “It took a very urgent long-haul flight to pick it up — I have never been so happy to see my suitcase come around the baggage carousel.”

For Steevenson, one of the few MWs in yachting, “there is nothing normal about the industry.” “We can’t operate at the pace of the normal wine trade, as we would fail to fulfill every order if we did,” he says. “It’s not an industry that understands the concept of weekend or night time closures!” 

A client base that is always on the move is also the source of many a headache. “Perhaps the yacht will only be in port for one day or they have had a last-minute charter, so time scales are extremely tight and important,” says Dunnett. When guests are on board, a yacht may be in Saint-Tropez for lunch, with plans to set sail for Corsica to arrive in time for dinner, giving the shortest of windows for delivery. “I was so focused on meeting the yacht’s tender to hand over their wine that it was only once it was pulling away and I turned back to walk to the car that I realized I was the only person in clothes on what was a nudist beach,” says Brotherton, when she found herself in such a situation.

As more and more players decide to try their hand in the market — some with legitimate qualifications, others with little more than a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection — those who already have a foothold aren’t planning on going anywhere. “It’s so exciting selling — and sometimes tasting — the world’s greatest wines,” says Dunnett. “What’s not to love?”

Since much of the attraction of these wines is their rarity, this increasingly difficult Champagne market means the fun for these professionals is only just beginning.