Scaling Up

Building an Import Empire with a Family Winery Portfolio

Quintessential Wines bucks tradition by working solely with family-run wineries around the world

Rep tasting events. Left photo: Barry Ibbotson. Right photo: Kim Longbottom. Photos courtesy of Quintessential Wines.

From the very start, Quintessential Wines forged a new path. Father and son Stephen D. Kreps Sr. and Dennis Kreps founded the import, distribution, and sales and marketing organization based in Napa, California, in 2002. While most successful importers at the time focused on a region, a grape, or a particular philosophy of winemaking, the Krepses went in another direction: representing wineries all over the world, producing every kind of wine.

While that scope may sound impossibly broad, they narrowed their selection by a different criterion—they focused solely on family-owned and family-operated wineries. Steve Sr. says they were confident that their family-centric ethos would be enough on which to build a successful company. “The type of wineries we work with is very specific,” Dennis adds. “The businesses must be owned and operated by multigenerational families—that’s key, the family still has to operate it. We also want to work with wineries that are making business decisions not based solely on fiscal goals but on what’s best for their family and their vineyards long term.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of their contemporaries were dubious about their mold-breaking globalist vision. “When we got started and we shared our vision for the company, industry leaders—many of whom I respected—told us it wasn’t possible,” Dennis says. “They said, ‘You can’t be global; it will never work. You need to specialize in one country, maybe two.’” 

That advice, intended to dissuade the Krepses, had the opposite effect. “I really took offense, to be honest, with the notion that it couldn’t be done,” Dennis says. “I knew, and my dad knew, that we weren’t taking a shotgun approach. We had a very specific vision, one that was actually narrow in scope. It just didn’t fit the blueprint of what was happening in the market at the time.”  

But the winemaking families they first approached understood and embraced the Krepses’ globalist but family-oriented mentality. “Since the moment I walked into the Quintessential office, with shorts on, without an appointment, and coming back from a wine tasting in Napa, it has been a very honest and open relation with them,” says Javier Murúa, owner of Bodegas Muriel in Rioja, Spain.

Building the Framework

Steve Sr. and Dennis started out in the wine business by following a similar path, but they say their strengths are complementary rather than overlapping. Steve Sr. started out in 1973 as a sales rep and merchandiser; in 1988 he founded a wine brokerage company for premium and ultra-premium wines. He then formed another import and marketing company before Dennis and he founded Quintessential.  

Dennis got his start in 1991, also as a sales rep and merchandiser, and then moved over to distribution. “Even though we have similar backgrounds, our strengths are different,” Dennis says. “My father is very good at motivating salespeople and distributors. He’s a people person. My strength is organization—making sure all the details happen.”  

Initially, the Krepses wanted to work with 8 to 10 wineries they could comfortably bring to market themselves. They first took note of which countries, though they produced a lot of wine, were underrepresented in the U.S., then determined which wineries were family run, and finally, narrowed the brands down based on such considerations as the wine’s quality, the team’s chemistry with the winemakers, and the brand’s potential in the U.S. market. 

Soon they were humming along, successfully breaking ground in new territories, and comfortably accruing accounts. Then, in 2005, Steve Sr.’s other son, Steve Jr., who had built a career as a commercial pilot but always felt the pull of his family’s single-minded devotion to wine, joined his father and brother, initially as a sales rep in California. He was soon managing sales for California, but when Quintessential’s wholesaler for the state backed out of their business relationship, he decided to turn what could have been a crisis into a coup.

Moving Into Distribution

Steve Jr. persuaded Dennis and Steve Sr. that if they themselves became distributors in California, they would not only solve their short-term problem but the long-term issues the crisis had put into focus. “At first it was by far the worst thing that happened to us as a company,” Dennis recalls. “It was our wholesaler for California, one of the biggest wine markets in the country, and we were distributor-less.”  

The Krepses used this disruption as an opportunity to take a step back and reassess how their business was performing overall. They decided that their core philosophy—working with family-owned and -operated businesses—would remain unchanged. But their approach to getting the wines to market would have to change if they wanted to flourish. “Being a distributor’s top priority in a large market like California is impossible, and they’ll never know our brands like we do,” Dennis says. (Also, becoming a distributor in California is more straightforward than in other states, where additional licenses and permits are required.)

Instead of relying solely on distributors, Quintessential reps began hitting the streets themselves, reaching out to retailers and on-premises accounts. “We realized just how important it is,” Dennis says, “to take the stories of the wineries and their families directly to the consumers and retailers ourselves.”

Expanding the Business

To support the hands-on business model, the company has now built up a staff of 78 people, 60 of whom focus on sales. For these salespeople, training is key: Quintessential invests significant time training its staff, working with them on sales calls, and helping them strategize to get face time with buyers. Though headquartered in Napa, Quintessential operates a satellite office in New York City. Both offices are staffed with professionals who handle logistics, compliance, accounting, and other “back office” duties, as well as marketing and public relations. But most of Quintessential’s staff spend their time on the road, meeting with buyers.

According to Alexander Joerger, the director of wine, beer, and spirits purchasing at Cost Plus World Market, an Alameda, California-based retailer with 259 units, Quintessential’s personal touch is one factor that sets them apart from other importers. “On all levels I find them to be smart, innovative, and engaged with their suppliers and their customers,” Joerger says, “which sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many others struggle with this.”

Quintessential’s sales approach varies from state to state depending on the local laws. For example, in some states, the company’s salespeople play two roles: they participate in ride-alongs with their distributor’s reps to market the wines, and they’re allowed to sell wines directly to on- and off-premises accounts, with wine coming from distributors’ warehouses. In several states, only distributors can make sales calls.

The wines Quintessential represents span the spectrum of price, as well as geography and style. At the upper end, there are the highly rated Attilio Ghisolfi from Piedmont, Italy, and Gustave Lorentz from Alsace, Germany, but there are also value-priced brands like Georges Duboeuf Cru Beaujolais and California’s Leaping Horse. “It’s not about acreage, varietals, or even prices,” Dennis says. “We have ultra-premium wines, and we have bargains. We will import 100 cases from one particular low-volume producer and well into the thousands from another. We work with people because we like their personalities and we like what they’re doing.” 

Valentin Bianchi cave cellar. Photo courtesy of Quintessential Wines.

Ted Carmon, the vice president and senior director of wine for BevMo, a Concord, California-based retailer with 165 stores, says he appreciates the price spread of Quintessential’s wines. Their “global product selection is unique, and the range is also terrific, from opening price points to high-end wines at $100-plus a bottle.”

Quintessential has racked up “nice, but not extreme, double-digit growth” every year since its founding, Dennis says. Last year, Quintessential sold more than one million cases of wine. They have 38 wineries on board, and they turn down four to five wineries per week that are vying to get into their book.   

It’s clear that the Krepses have minds that work like spreadsheets. Their approach to data measurement and goal-setting sounds like an ambitious blueprint for information systems management. “We really break down every single element,” Dennis explains. “We look at and evaluate each brand in each market. We look at markets and channels. On-premises versus off-premises, sales of each brand in independents versus chains. We evaluate velocity. And from there, we decide what to pull back on, what to promote, and what to change.”  

While it’s tempting to imagine that the Krepses’ admittedly meticulously tracked metrics removes the human element from the equation, in speaking to their partners it becomes clear that their focus on data only complements their devotion to people.

Winemakers credit the Krepses’ level of attention to detail for their brands’ success in the U.S. market. “I’ve been working with Quintessential for over 10 years now,” says Kim Longbottom, the owner of Henry’s Drive Vignerons in Padthaway, South Australia. “They have always welcomed me into the market to work alongside their sales team. This is something that we both hold in high regard as the key to long-term business in the U.S. market.”

Quintessential develops a U.S. marketing plan for each of the brands it represents, allowing its winery clients to focus on what they excel at—growing grapes and bottling wine. “Quintessential is not just an importing company; it is a family,” says Luca Bosio, the owner of Luca Bosio Winery in Piedmont, Italy. “They take care of all aspects of importing, distribution, and marketing; they help build brands, and they take care of the whole portfolio of a winery, not just the best-selling wines.”

Connecting with Consumers

These days, Quintessential is focused on getting in front of consumers to drive demand for its brands and products. “We do as many events that focus on the consumer as we can,” Dennis says, which can mean tastings at grocery stores, liquor stores, and charity events. “Anywhere we think will be the right demographics.”  

And social media has been a driving force for brand awareness. What started as a flirtation with Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of social media two and a half years ago has evolved into a well-developed marketing channel. Quintessential posts many times throughout the day, sharing photos of its vineyards and winemakers, promoting tastings, and linking to articles about its brands. One employee is devoted exclusively to managing Quintessential’s social media, with two others assisting as needed.

The company also arranges a massive meet and greet for its winemakers every three years, called the Quintessential Road Show. On the six-city tour, representatives from each of the company’s 38 wineries meet customers of all types. Wake-up calls begin at 4 am, and each day’s minutes are precisely accounted for, with trade shows, meetings with distributors, retail tastings, and wine dinners, until bedtime. “We usually reach about 6,500 consumers on each tour,” says Dennis, “and yes, it’s a lot to schedule and manage, but getting consumers to meet winemakers and build that connection is so worth it.”

Now, as the Krepses’ mold-breaking business is reaching 16 years of age, Dennis is glad that he and Steve Sr. went with their gut. “Now I look back at the advice people gave us when we started out, to focus on one or two countries,” he says, “and so many of those importers they pointed to are out of business.” Quintessential Wines, meanwhile, is flourishing, thanks to its idiosyncratic approach to curating terroir-focused wine made by families from around the globe.

Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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