Importers

A Guide to Becoming a Wine Importer

What you need to know to get started—from setting up operations to growing a portfolio

illustration of someone carrying boxes across the ocean
Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

When I was first learning about wine, a wise man told me to always turn the bottle around and note the importer. His logic was that, if you liked a certain wine, there was a good chance you’d enjoy other wines from the same portfolio. This approach served me well in my early years, and I quickly learned to chase the brands that bore the badges of Rosenthal, Lynch, Chadderdon, and Wasserman, among others.

Distribution is largely invisible to the end consumer. Brands and portfolios swap allegiances all the time, but the import stamp is by law part of the packaging, which binds the quality of the wine with the reputation of the importer. And the last decade has seen a proliferation of small and medium importers set up shop, country-wide.

Why the sudden surge? It might be in response to the rampant consolidation among American distribution houses, with smaller brands getting lost in the shuffle and seeking more intimate representation. It could also be due to the sharp rise in—and demand for—boutique production from all over the world, especially outside of classical regions. But it might also simply be this: compared to other industry entities (restaurants, retail, wineries), the barrier to entry is less foreboding. Aside from the opening product purchase, the fees are relatively reasonable, no brick-and-mortar presence is required in most states, and it is possible, at least for a little while, for the more masochistic to handle the workload alone. Indeed, many of today’s best and most important import labels started exactly that way, as scrappy startups and one-man (or woman!) shows.

Of course, getting established is one thing; staying in the game and developing a reputation is another. For the purposes of this article, I interviewed the owners of five different companies, from various parts of the country, on the perils and pleasures of building and running an import portfolio. The operations range in terms of breadth of focus, size, and business model, but all were established within the last 10 years.

The Pathway

Camille Rivière was burned out. After seven years of hustling in the New York wine industry, the Paris native moved back to France. She didn’t have much of a plan, which was actually the plan. “One day, I went into a wine store and walked out with a few bottles of natural wine from the Languedoc. This was new to me; my previous five years at Frederick Wildman were all focused on fine and rare wine.” Camille was energized by what she tasted and went to visit the producers. When she returned to New York a few months later for a wedding, she brought some bottles with her. “I was weighing the possibility of maybe becoming a broker or an agent and wanted opinions on the wines.” She spoke to an importer, who assured her that Languedoc wines don’t sell. Undeterred, she called up a few of her best old accounts, seeking more direct feedback. Her first visit was with Jean-Luc Le Dû, who ordered 25 cases on the spot. “Before I could think, I said, ‘Okay, no problem!’ Then I left the store and asked myself, how the hell am I going to do this?

Like Camille, Paolo Cerruti came from a distribution background. Paolo, who hails from Piedmont, moved to the US in 2001, where he worked for restaurants, and then for Italian wine importer Vinifera in Chicago. After a few years, he had gone as far as his job could take him, and his entrepreneurial instincts began to itch. “I mentioned to winemaking friends back in Italy that I was looking to start my own business and soon had a group of five wineries lined up.” Paolo borrowed a small sum from his family, which covered the startup costs, but he still needed to arrange extended terms with his opening producers. Having set that up, he founded Beivuma in 2007.

Nadia Dmytriw began selling wine in the Bay Area in 2008. Initially, she repped multiple books, one of which was the small French importer Joli Vin. Nadia was Joli Vin’s first employee, and within a few years, she was brought on as partner. When the founder of the company moved to France, Nadia took over operations. Soon it became clear that her partner was seeking an exit, and she offered to buy him out. When that fell through, they agreed to dissolve the company, and Nadia moved many of the brands and salespeople over to her own outfit, Floraison Selections, which she launched in 2017.

What became Grand Cru Selections started in the mid-2000s as an idea between three friends: Ned Benedict, Robert Bohr, and Roy Welland. At the time, none of them had any wholesale experience, but Ned and Robert were seasoned New York sommeliers and Roy’s substantial wine collection was the foundation of Cru restaurant, which he owned. Their initial motivation to import and distribute wine was bound up in both cynicism and confidence—they simply thought they could do it better. “Like lots of buyers, we thought many wholesalers were run by a bunch of pencil-pushers, non-wine people. We’d get a group of, like, four guys at the bar to sell us some California Merlot. Why did they need to send so many guys?” Still, their vision remained theoretical for years. In 2002, Ned left his post as wine director of Aureole and went the retail direction, taking up the mantle of Burgundy buyer for Zachys. “Back then, we thought the internet was going to destroy the three-tier system. Not instantaneously, of course—more of a gradual erosion. And while that has happened a little bit, it seems the wine wholesale business is very tenacious.” The push to execute on their long-held dream came after the economic crash of 2008. “[It] really rattled the fine wine market, which affected both Zachys and Cru. It seemed like a good moment to change.”

Stephen Roussos’s pathway to importing is perhaps the most unusual. As a PhD and professional herpetologist, Stephen had no experience in the wine industry. But as a native of Greece, he did have an appreciation of Greek wine and was frustrated by the lack of quality options in the Texas market. He enlisted his wife, Caraline, and mother-in-law, Patty, and they began to put the pieces together. Their first step was to canvas the local markets, interviewing wine buyers as to their perception of and interest in Greek products. They then traversed Greece itself, putting together a small list of producers that they used to launch their company. In March of 2016, their first container hit land, and R&R Selections was born. In the time since, the partners’ wine knowledge has grown exponentially, but its lack was never much of a hurdle. In fact, Stephen’s experience shipping venomous snakes across national borders left him well prepared for the paperwork and red tape involved in the international shipping of that significantly more popular poison, wine.

Getting Started

Though her staff and portfolio were near copies of her previous company, Nadia had to start from scratch as far as systems and infrastructure were concerned. Some parts were frustrating, as when her bank of 20 years refused to grant her a meaningful line of credit, but other aspects were positive. “I changed both accountants and accounting software and was able to streamline and refine some processes. For example, this sounds really basic, but I’m now able to use the same software to manage my inventory, issue POs [purchase orders], create invoices, and receive payments. Formerly, these things would be tracked on isolated spreadsheets. Now, it’s easy for me to see the overall financial picture of the company.” This is both time-saving and savvy, as it helps her avoid mistakes such as over- or under-ordering. Such things are essential to Nadia, who established her company without any outside investment, making cash flow management her biggest concern.

Nadia set to work rapidly, but starting a company from scratch takes time. “Because all the certification and the licensing took so long, there was a lot of pressure on me from the growers. To keep them happy, I needed to be able to pull the trigger and get wine on the water.” She was assisted in this by her friend Cory Cartwright of Selection Massale. Cory imported Nadia’s first container under his license, and made sure that the back labels listed Floraison in addition to Selection Massale. Nadia’s transport company also stepped up. “They knew me from my time at Joli Vin and asked, ‘What can we do to support you?’” The company worked with Cory to arrange the pickup and consolidation of Nadia’s products. “I knew I had both friends and friendly competitors in the industry, but I did not think they would stand up and help me out the way they did. That was huge.”

Camille also leaned on friends to get started. Her first call was to Zev Rovine, a fellow small importer who walked her through the basics of QuickBooks and made a few key introductions. “I paid one lawyer $465 to start my business, which only took 45 minutes on the phone.” She was also pleased to discover that, at least in New York, there are a handful of companies that specialize in assisting small endeavors like hers. Camille uses Fruit of the Vine to import and distribute her wines, which results in a back-label double-billing. Fruit of the Vine also handles all logistics (consolidation, shipping, warehousing, and delivery) and most of the administrative work, including invoicing. Of course, these services all cost money, but Camille finds the time saved to be well worth the added expense. “The only thing I need to do is create FDA numbers for the grower and register the labels. That can also be tricky because many of the small, natural wine producers I work with aren’t so good with computers. I have learned to snag the label when I taste with them in France, and then just scan it at home.”

When Stephen and his family were getting started, their biggest source of insecurity was not knowing how the Texas market would respond to Greek wine. So before they even brought in their first container, they paid a considerable sum to air-freight several cases of samples to Texas. They spent weeks presenting these wines to a variety of sommeliers and wine buyers, and tweaked their initial order based on this feedback. Even still, they brought in too much wine. “We got great feedback, but the placements weren’t necessarily guaranteed, and we didn’t know how fast things might sell.” Luckily, they took their time before reordering. “We brought wine that we thought was going to be gone in a couple months, in which case we would have needed to have another container on the water right away. Thankfully we waited, as that would have been too much too soon.”

Paolo is intricately involved in the minutiae of his operation. He found legally establishing the company and obtaining federal and state licenses to be relatively easy and cheap, but spends a great deal of time sweating the logistics. Initially, when he was only buying a few pallets of wine at a time, he relied on shipping companies to consolidate his order together with their other small clients. This was an essential service for the young startup, but the expense was considerable. These days, Paolo fills his own containers, each of which houses approximately 1,000 cases of wine. He uses some of the money saved to employ a broker, who interacts with customs and handles much of the paperwork, though Paolo still calculates the weight of his combined orders and ensures that they will fit in the container.

His location adds an extra layer of complication. “Many importers only use reefers [temperature controlled containers] in the summer months, to save money. But in Chicago, the winters are so long and intense that we need to use them then, too.” The cost of this is significant. “When you order the container, you must be sure to have money in your pocket, because when it comes to the dock, you have about four to five days to pay. Each reefer runs around $15,000 in just shipping and taxes, with taxes accounting for about a third of that.”

Warehousing was another issue. “Illinois has a kind of upside-down system, because to obtain a distribution license, you first need to procure a warehouse. And the liquor control board will physically inspect your warehouse space before issuing your license.” Happily for startups, many warehouses offer a grace period after signing, in case the licensing falls through. As with shipping, Paolo’s initial small volumes of wine were problematic. “It is possible to be a small guy in a large warehouse, but you lose a lot of control, and there are a lot of fees.” In addition to basic rent, it is not uncommon for warehouses to charge multiple handling fees per case and require considerable paperwork. This can be a drain on the limited free time of a small business owner. “I would have to submit a sample request form the day before I needed the bottles; spontaneous selections were not allowed.” Now that Beivuma has grown, Paolo occupies his own warehouse, and is able to come and go (and snag samples) as he pleases.

Growing the Book

For many small or newly launched importers, cash flow can be one of the most difficult things to manage, especially if there was no outside investment. Often, so much of the initial profits need to be reinvested into the company that drawing a salary—never mind paying employees—can be a challenge. Camille Rivière didn’t pay herself for two years and earned income by giving bike tours through the wine regions of France; Stephen is still working to get all three founders up to full salary; and Paolo subsisted on very little for the first several months. Of course, one of the best routes to better profits is a bigger portfolio, but expansion is also cash intensive. How fast one grows, and in which directions, has a profound impact on the financial health of the company.

Over the past decade, Paolo has grown his portfolio step-by-step to around 40 wineries and 250 wines. Nearly all of his producers are Italian and tend to be small family operations whose wines carry medium-to-high price tags. His decision to work with mostly higher-end wine was deliberate. “Smaller production and higher quality is better—you spend less on shipping and delivery, and you make more money. If you focus on cheaper wine, instead of one case of Barolo you have to sell 20 cases of Pinot Grigio to make a penny.” That said, he recognizes that lower price point wines are important both for by-the-glass programs and for expanding his business beyond urban centers. “It’s a challenge to find good lower-end wines, though. At a certain point, there’s no talk of quality, only price.”

Paolo also contends that lower-end wine is often produced by bigger companies, which can quickly drop an importer if it doesn’t meet quantity expectations. He prefers to cultivate long-lasting relationships. He does this, he says, through regular communication and assuring clients he will sell their wine in the right way. “For example, I picked up a winery that was formerly represented by a big company who was constantly closing it out because they weren’t selling it properly. You see this product on the shelves for cheap, and now I am bringing it in and the price will be higher. So I explain this problem to the winery and assure them we will work it out.”

Peppered throughout his portfolio is a small group of non-Italian brands, including selections from Oregon, California, and Australia. Though Beivuma very much identifies as an Italian import house, Paolo finds that these producers add complexity to his range, and a degree of financial stability as well. “The dollar/euro conversion can take a big slice out of your profits if you aren’t careful.” When Paolo began, a euro was worth $1.43. Now that has dropped to about $1.20. “Every time I see the euro go down, I open a bottle of Champagne. Two weeks ago, it went down by 8%, and I rushed and paid a bunch of bills. When you pay large bills, 8% is significant!”

Unlike with Beivuma, having less expensive wines, especially for by-the-glass placements, is essential to R&R’s mission. “It’s not just about volume and sales; it’s about exposure,” Stephen explains. “Greek wine is not mainstream yet, especially outside of the major cities. If a Greek wine is just available by the bottle, a customer may never order it, but if they can taste it by the glass they will say, ‘Oh hey, these aren’t weird wines at all! These are modern European wines.’ But that first taste is key.”

When acquiring new wines, Stephen and his partners consider several elements. In general, they prefer to work with sustainable wineries that favor Greek varieties over international ones, but they also consider price, quality, the marketability of the brand, and the compatibility of the wines with the middle-American palate. Interestingly, Stephen has one other criteria, born of his experience as an international academic collaborator: communication. “There are a lot of moving parts in an import company, and the wineries need to act as partners, so I look for producers that are responsive and have good communication skills.”

Nadia retained 20 out of 24 of her former company’s producers, all of them French and generally quite limited in production. Though she believes in having a defined identity to one’s portfolio, she’s come to reconsider diversity. “The past several vintages have been challenging in France, weather-wise,” Nadia admits, explaining that a few of her producers in the Loire and Burgundy experienced extreme crop loss in 2016 and 2017. This has proved problematic for the young importer, who is just getting on her feet. “But I believe in the wines, I believe in the growers, so the best thing I can do is to continue to support them in these challenging years.”

That said, with so many of her French eggs in an omelet, Nadia is looking to expand beyond the one basket. But diversity must be planned for in advance. “It is logistically and financially challenging to start a whole new project in Germany, for example,” she notes. Shipping a small amount of German wine to France for consolidation is cost prohibitive; it is far more efficient to bring on multiple German producers that can fill their own container. But finding these producers means time on the ground, food and lodging expenses, and, perhaps most importantly, time away from her market. And while she may one day invest that time and money, her short-term solution to the impending product deficit was to bring on a California producer, which, because of her location in the Bay Area, doesn’t need to be “imported” and can therefore be ordered in small quantities.

By the end of Camille’s first casual day in New York, she had collected pre-orders for 75 cases of wine. Anticipating re-orders, she asked the wineries for twice that, but before the first pallets were even assembled, Stéphane Tissot called. He had a long-standing relationship with Camille from her time with Frederick Wildman and wanted to follow her over the cliff. “I told him, ‘You are crazy, and I can’t afford you—you are a big company.’ But he said he’d give me 120-day terms, so we did it.” This was a major coup for the young company, and infused Camille’s business with a great deal of cachet.

Today, Camille works with 23 producers—all French, all natural—which she has amassed via attending trade shows and through word of mouth. Except for Tissot’s Vin Jaune and a couple of somewhat pricey bottles of Roussillon, most of her portfolio wholesales for under $30 a bottle. Camille believes in a healthy mix of price points and tries to keep 25% of her inventory at around the $12 mark, specifically for by-the-glass programs. “That’s an instinctual number, not a real business number. But I believe that, as a rep, you need to have lots of items that rotate quickly so that you generate cashflow.” The goal, she explains, is to avoid “sitting in front of a pyramid of wine in your warehouse that you are stressed to deplete.”

Unlike the other importers featured here, Grand Crus Selections started out with some serious financial backing, as provided by Roy Welland, whom the partners bought out in 2013. Even so, the original offerings were slim and drew heavily on the combined connections of the three founding partners. “Becky Wasserman was integral in getting us started. She was among the first to approach us and indicate that we might be good at this. When we were ready, she connected us with Liger-Belair, which kickstarted the whole thing.” After locking down La Romanée (a heck of an opening act), their opening portfolio was essentially a collection of friends, such as Wells Guthrie (Copain), Richard Betts (Castle Brands, My Essential Wines, An Approach to Relaxation), and a handful of French producers. “Looking back, I can’t believe we asked people to buy wine. We had an embarrassingly small amount to sell.” To handle logistics such as shipping, receiving, and warehousing, they brought on Elise Pfannenstiel, ex-Zachys, as a partner.

Though they continue to distribute the Wasserman book in New York and New Jersey, Grand Cru prefers to import directly whenever possible, and occasionally buys other import portfolios. In 2011, they purchased Willette Wines, a small but prestigious book, retaining founder Liz Willette for a number of years. Similarly, last year, they purchased Daniel Johnnes Selections and brought him on as a partner.

In its near-eight years of existence, Grand Cru’s portfolio has swelled to include 120 producers with presence in 15 states. Though that may seem fast, the growth has been careful and deliberate. “The goal is to not have any dogs in the bag,” Ned explains plainly. “We simply don’t want to have wines that anyone has to sell.” But at the same time, he recognizes there is a pressure to keep salespeople happy, and that’s often achieved through an influx of new items. “That is a very traditional arc for a lot of companies. You get just big enough, and then you start adding things you don’t need just to keep things fresh. So maybe you start to cut corners; maybe you add that extra, redundant Sancerre. It’s a slippery slope.”

“We are fundamentally a relatively high-end wine company,” he confesses, admitting that even their value items are fairly up-market. “Post-2008, Beaujolais has become a real thing. We have a real Loire book now. And we sell a ton of grower Champagne, because that is a bargain.” As a company, their approach to inventory management is very much in keeping with the sommelier mentality. They adhere to a few basic rules: “Keep your BTG stuff going, your allocated wines flush, and don’t get caught with any dead weight.”

Growing the Staff

Floraison is self-distributed inside California. Nadia handles most of the sales personally, but she has employed two part-time people in LA, and one in the Bay Area. To pay them, she offers straight commission along with the freedom to rep other books, similar to the model under which she first worked as a salesperson. “I used to fantasize about taking over the company and putting everyone on payroll and offering insurance. But then you realize that it doesn’t quite work that way financially.” That said, she is less than a year into owning her own business, and still holds that up as her goal. “I’m actively working toward that, but it’s a process and not a switch. It’s going to take a lot of time, education, and creative thinking to find a better way to move forward.”

Many importers or distributors will compensate their employees through a combination of salary and commission. Paolo employs three full-time people in Chicago, and offers them half-salary plus commission. Camille worked alone for the first five years and only recently brought on a salesperson. At first, she put him on full salary, but when he hit a baseline of sales, she switched him to pure commission; she also provides healthcare. “I hired him knowing it was going to take maybe eight months or a year for him to start generating profit, but I was able to structure it so that I didn’t lose money with him, either. Even if you’re only breaking even, the gain is increased exposure, which pays off in the end.”

Camille also found that taking on an employee forced her to get more structured, and manage her own time in a way that made room for things like weekly meetings. Equally important was finding someone she trusted, as she didn’t want to spend an unnecessary amount of time managing someone. Ned Benedict feels similarly. Today, Grand Cru employs 15 full-time people, all salaried. While they keep personnel intentionally lean, they are now at a size where they’ve added retirement programs and an HR department. “Basically, it’s the beginning of a bureaucracy, which I don’t love,” he admits. “[That is,] things that are not about the buying and selling of wine.”

Expanding Reach

One way to please producers and sell more wine is to expand to other states. That, of course, introduces a new level of complexity, especially given the fragmented nature of the American wine industry.

In addition to self-distributing in New York, Camille sells a limited portion of her portfolio to a distributor in California. But though she has a list of 10 other states that are interested in carrying her products, she hesitates to expand further. While many of her producers are simply too small to supply additional markets, she also has legitimate business concerns. “If I sell to distributors in other states, not only will I lose the distribution margin, I also become a financer. Distributors often have between 60- and 90-day terms, and in the meantime, I have to pay my producers, bills, and employee. That money can be blocked for months.”

Paolo’s hesitation to expand is also financial, but of a different sort. “It’s expensive to sell your wine into other states. You need to spend time in those markets, which introduces travel costs.” Because of this, he is eyeing the states adjacent to Illinois for expansion.

Grand Cru Selections self-distributes in New York, but in 2014 began to sell to distributors in other states. Since that time, their expansion has been extremely methodical, and a couple of bad experiences quickly taught them that finding the right partner is paramount. “We are careful. We’ve passed on easy sales because the fit was not perfect. That’s the most important thing. Within our 15 states, we sell wine into Oklahoma and Vermont not because they are huge markets—they aren’t—but because we have great partners there.”

R&R Selections is solely an importer, and of all the challenges of running an import label, Stephen says distribution management is the most difficult. “We initially hired a very small distributor in Houston but soon realized we needed better representation in the other parts of the state.” Stephen pulled his portfolio and went with a larger company, but soon outgrew even them. They have since changed hands again, this time aligning with a national distributor, as R&R is currently in five states with plans to expand further. Even so, Stephen admits that size is not the only determination of quality. “We still work with a few small companies in certain states, and the right distributor can certainly be better and sell more wine than a big distributor, but finding the correct match can be a long road.”

The first thing that Stephen does before expanding into a new market is hire a lawyer in that state. “I have an education, and I can read government documents, but so much of the law is vague.” He has found that some states are easier to navigate than others. Open states are not a problem, for example, but franchise states can be tricky. In those instances, any wine brought into the state must be registered with an importer. By extension, if any of his wines had been previously sold in said state, he must petition the former supplier to release the registration to him, even if the wine has been out of the market for years. “This is why it’s important to have someone on the ground, as each state is its own entity and has its own quirks. In Oklahoma, for example, it’s still technically legal for dentists to buy and sell alcohol out of their offices. And in Texas, you can still shoot someone for stealing your horse!”

Standing Out

Ultimately, surviving the startup phase is about making good business decisions. But in this increasingly competitive market, it is also often about standing out from the crowd. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, both small and large. Camille ingratiates herself to her producers by paying at the point of purchase. “This is important to me, and was a goal of mine from the beginning. It means so much to the producers, who are often small families and have already had to pay for their labor, glass, [and] fruit.” This one trick of accounting serves to win Camille long-term loyalty and also makes her portfolio attractive to new brands.

She also has decided to embrace the limited production of her producers and build that into her sales technique. Instead of trying to stretch her limited cases (usually 10 to 20, and occasionally as high as 50) between vintages to provide regular supply, she sells each container as a kind of flash sale. “Selling wine used to be about building brands and continuity, but now it’s about staying fresh.” Her customers have grown used to this and are aware that if they don’t buy immediately, they will likely lose their chance. “When you look at the movement of natural wine all over the world, it’s pretty insane. There’s a very high demand and very little amount. So I do the presale from the boat, allot very small allocations, and then just blast the wine out when it arrives.”

Stephen and his wife are both former professors, and teaching is their strength. As such, they tend to focus on markets that haven’t had a strong exposure to high-quality Greek wine. They set aside a good portion of their time to educate their distributors and do market work directly. They also require that their producers spend time in the United States doing tastings, dinners, and events. This has the double advantage of making more direct connections with the consumers and teaching the producers about the reality of the American marketplace. This way, they get a feel for what the market can bear, which improves communication, tempers expectations, and avoids misunderstandings.

One of the way Ned Benedict and his partners set their company apart is through a creative approach to social media and customer interaction. Their website is full of short, well-executed video interviews with winemakers that help build a bridge directly between the producer and the buyer or consumer. “One of the things that’s different now in the wine industry versus 15 years ago is that you are an importer, but you are also a marketer. No one’s sitting around and waiting for their Parker review anymore. You’ve got to create your own content to sell your merchandise.”

They have also turned their limited experience with wholesale to their advantage. “We are more of a wine-oriented company than a business-oriented company. We basically just reverse-engineered our experience as sommeliers,” he says. The strategy has served them well. Toward this end, Ned deliberately seeks to avoid the things that use to irritate him as a buyer, such as receiving the wrong order or wrong vintage, and tightens the corresponding systems.

Reflecting on his career change, Ned says, “There was a natural antagonism of importers and wholesales that I felt as a buyer. I was constantly asking myself, ‘Why am I paying this guy? What do they do?’ Well, I now know that it’s a lot of work, and is both labor and money intensive. It’s methodical, but perhaps not the sexiest story.”

He pauses and adds with a laugh, “Gone are the days of Kermit Lynch blazing through the forests of Provence, sword in hand, riding his horse up to the steps of Tempier. I mean, there are good parts for sure and we still have fun, but it’s not exactly On the Wine Route.

– Written by Kelli White

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