Rare wines: How Thatcher Baker-Briggs became the go-to guy for impossible-to-get vintages

Former sommelier Thatcher Baker-Briggs will circle the globe to track down the rare wines that you want

As Wais Jalali neared his 49th birthday last year, the collector with a 60,000-bottle cellar spread across 11 countries didn’t have the wine he really wanted. Jalali – only the third American to be knighted by the prestigious Burgundian wine society Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin – had one bottle in particular from France’s most coveted region on his mind. As the date for his birthday party at Michelin-starred Aubergine in Carmel, California, approached, the chairman of the private equity firm Cerebrus enlisted a former world-class sommelier turned private-wine consultant, Thatcher Baker-Briggs, to scour the globe in pursuit of a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1943 La Tâche.

Baker-Briggs got to work. He tapped his network to find not just any 1943 La Tâche but one of genuine provenance in a market filled with fraud, and one cared for well enough to have stood the test of time. A private collector on the East Coast had the DRC in his possession. After querying the owner, Baker-Briggs had the wine packed and shipped to his San Francisco offices to inspect it more closely. It passed muster and Baker-Briggs’ team drove the bottle three hours south to Carmel to hand-deliver it to Aubergine’s wine cellar in time for the big night. Most important, the La Tâche met Jalali’s standards, too. “It was phenomenal,” he says. For the US$20,000 (S$26,964) he paid, it needed to be, and that’s why he turned to Baker-Briggs.

“He has a very good palate, and he’s a gentleman. A lot of people in the wine world are fake – they pretend to be something they’re not. People like me who have been collecting for a long time appreciate a straight shooter,” Jalali says. “There’s only one other person out there that does what Thatcher does in terms of sourcing rare wines you can trust.”

Baker-Briggs left his career as a sommelier in restaurants to hunt wine for the most discerning of connoisseurs, such as Jalali, but also build up and manage cellars for collectors in need of advice. His business, Thatcher’s Wine Consulting, has found purchase among an elite set of oenophiles because even in our on-demand digital economy, there are still exceedingly elusive treasures that aren’t a click away. And at just 30 years of age, he’s already built the network and palate to track those rarities down.

Thatcher Baker-Briggs Sommelier
Traveling through France, Baker-Briggs builds relationships with winemakers that help him get allocations for his clients

Baker-Briggs’ path to wine started in the kitchen. He began his restaurant career at 13 in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, washing dishes before moving to the line to cook. When he was 18, he learned that legendary English chef Marco Pierre White’s former executive chef had a restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, so he headed west.

His ambition later led him to San Francisco in 2011 to cook at Daniel Patterson’s two-Michelin-starred Coi, where he connected with servers over wine, throwing himself headlong into learning about it and found an obsession that eclipsed his passion for food. In 2013, Baker-Briggs helped a friend in Toronto reboot their restaurant. He worked 16-hour days but devoted any time off he had to wine. “I was studying in the basement for 12 hours, opening ridiculous amounts of bottles, trying to get my knowledge to a point where I wasn’t embarrassed to have a conversation with someone about wine, and it just stuck.”

Coming back to San Francisco in 2014, he worked the floor at Saison gaining an invaluable on-the-job education in elite wine, which went even deeper as he became head sommelier at Tokyo’s ultra-exclusive Takazawa. Inside the 10-seat restaurant, the wealthy clientele indulged. “At Saison we were completely spoiled – people were drinking DRC and ’59 and ’82 Bordeaux – and I didn’t think there was any way we could drink this well, but Takazawa made Saison look bad,” Baker-Briggs says with a chuckle. “We were opening DRC at least once a night there.” He made relationships with diners as well, to the point where some of them flew him to their homes around Asia to show off their cellars.

Returning Stateside he rejoined Saison and eventually took over the beverage director role for the restaurant group, opening Angler outposts in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. But a request from a Saison regular made him think a new career path was possible. In 2019, the client asked if Baker-Briggs could assist with building their collection. So he started not just helping them track down a bottle but also curating their cellar based on his knowledge of their wine preferences. And after someone else asked him to do the same thing, he came to understand there was a need for such a service.

“It’s one thing to build a cellar that has a few thousand empty slots for wine, but it’s another to know what producers to buy, what vintages and, when they show up to your house, how to handle them,” Baker-Briggs says.

The journey to acquire fine wines can be labyrinthine, where you’re tapping your social circle, getting a tip on when another collector is liquidating their cellar, looking to auctions and always wondering about the wine’s provenance. And then on the retail side, it can be difficult to secure the best. “It’s very hard to get allocations of some of this stuff – maybe you’re buying all of these other things with the hope of getting the wines you really want,” says Ryan Nagle, one of Baker-Briggs’ clients. “You end up with all this junk from the seller because you’re trying to get something else from them. When you work with Thatcher, a lot of that starts to go away.”

Nagle, the 39-year-old managing director at Sequentis Capital in Boston, met Baker-Briggs through a friend and fellow collector in Beantown. After hitting it off right away, they began working together, with Baker-Briggs assessing Nagle’s collection and preferences. They formulated a game plan from there. “I realised I needed to source a little bit more of that higher-end Burgundy because I was buying it and then drinking it and not building a cellar around it,” Nagle says. They hit up auctions to bulk up his inventory there, but then also planned for the future, stocking his cellar with young wines he’d drink years down the road. And in the meantime, Baker-Briggs suggested other wines to enjoy now for daily drinking.

Nagle also wanted to have the kind of cellar he could share with others. And that meant sourcing wines that weren’t necessarily tailored to his palate alone. “If the cellar was just for me to walk downstairs and grab something for dinner, yes, I would have 99 per cent Burgundy,” Nagle says. Whether it’s dinners for boards he sits on or business relationships or meetups with friends, he wants to bring wines the people he’s joining will love. “The cellar becomes a resource, because wine is a social lubricant and such an amazing way to bring people together,” he says. “Thatcher has an amazing skill to meet people where they are and also push them a little out of their comfort zone.”

And in the dynamic world of wine, Baker-Briggs is offering valuable intel by traveling himself and gathering information on the ground. “Wine changes so rapidly – the producers, the winemakers, everything changes, even if the dirt underneath really hasn’t,” Nagle says. “He’s incredibly good at keeping on top of that, and he’s an independent thinker—he’s not just going to get wrapped up in what a handful of collectors who can move markets are thinking, he’s got his own palate.” That allows him to avoid the groupthink that happens in the wine world to steer people toward unexpected value.