Operations

Direct-to-Consumer Importers Carve a New Niche

A new kind of online wine club features international imports delivered to a customer’s door

Bryan Maletis opening a bottle with a sword
Bryan Maletis of Fat Cork. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Business Journal.

These days, the term “wine club” conjures up the image of a computer screen. Whether the club is run by a tastemaker such as the New York Times, a savvy marketer like Winc or Firstleaf, or a family-run winery, the process is simple: point, click, deliver, drink. Online wine clubs eliminate guesswork for consumers, but the Internet shopping experience is an impersonal transaction.

Now a couple of direct-to-consumer (DTC) merchants in the Northwest have quietly built online businesses on an innovative platform: international imports delivered to a customer’s door. Like online wine clubs, they send out shipments on a regular schedule. Like boutique importers, they visit a highly specialized portfolio of producers two to three times a year, in person, to taste from barrel. Like domestic wineries running loyalty programs, they throw festive pickup parties in their tasting rooms. And like on-the-ground retailers, they know the personal preferences of each of their customers.

Scott and Martha Wright began direct importing in 2005 and originally sold Champagnes and Burgundies next to their homegrown Pinot Noirs in their Carlton, Oregon, tasting room. In 2014 they sold their interest in the Scott Paul winery to their business partner so that they could focus entirely on DTC imports; they rebranded their business as the Portland-based Caveau Selections.

“It brings me an immense amount of joy,” Scott Wright says of his current role as an importer-cum-wine concierge. “I love what I do, and I could not imagine wanting do anything else at this point.”

Bryan Maletis launched his direct-to-consumer Champagne firm, Fat Cork, with his wife, Abby, in 2010. Having grown up in a prominent beverage wholesaling family, Maletis has seen every angle of the trade; he started sweeping up broken bottles and loading trucks as a child, and went on to work for a winery in Italy, a retailer and then an importer in New York, and a wholesaler in Seattle.

“As a distributor,” Maletis says, “you’re still a middleman, beholden to the whims of the importer or the producer or the buyer. I liked the direct connections, with the people who were making the wine and with the people consuming it.”

As states continue to lift restrictions on DTC sales, more and more direct-shipping import businesses have sprung up in recent years. These businesses range from boutique curators like Fass Selections to Precept Wine’s Friends and Family program, which sends out occasional email blasts on imports. Large online brokers like VinConnect and Wine Access, too, offer skip-the-middleman prices to savvy oenophiles.

There are operational advantages to eliminating the distribution channel. “I’m not out on the street with a bag of wines, constantly sampling for restaurateurs and retailers,” says Scott Wright. “I’m writing emails to send to our customers around the country, keeping them up to date and sending out offers on new wines we’ve found.”

The forerunner of the DTC import model was Garagiste, declared by the New York Times as long ago as 2012 to be “the world’s largest e-mail based wine business”; it boasted 136,000 subscribers then. In addition, on-the-ground retailers like K&L in California and Corkscru in Oregon offer direct imports and online sales as well as walk-in sales. And then there are hybrids like the Napa-based Milton Road Trading, which besides wholesale distribution offers online sales to consumers.

Caveau and Fat Cork differ from the rest in the simplicity of their business models. Both have zeroed in on French wine regions noted for their small family estates and cultish followings: Champagne and Burgundy. Both focus on consumer education tailored to the aficionado as well as the beginner. Both blend in-person tastings with online sales and club memberships. Both count their small selection of winemakers and their devoted customers as close friends.

Neither Caveau nor Fat Cork runs a retail location. Interactions with customers are infrequent but celebratory and social. While both businesses ship to more than 40 states, both Maletis and Wright have been pleasantly surprised to find that club members fly in from all over the U.S. to attend their release parties. For the customers, quality time with the importer is just as important as the quality-price ratio of the wine.

In addition, Wright leads tours of Burgundy and Champagne every year, limiting each trip to 12 travelers.

“It’s a very personal thing,” says Ron Spangler, a Caveau club member from Williamsburg, Virginia, who frequently joins Wright’s trips. “We visit the winemakers’ homes. Their cellars are in their basements, and we drink a glass of wine on their back patios, overlooking their vineyards. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Besides the convivial pleasures, of course, there are the financial benefits. The typical three-tier model requires the importer to make educated guesses about which wines will sell, and in what quantities, six to eight months in advance. DTC importers can place an order just two or three months out. Both Maletis and Wright can react immediately and directly to demand. It helps that their customers are also friends, who feel comfortable picking up the phone or sending a personal email.

After fulfilling club allocations, “we put out offers on what I know is available,” Wright says. “Customers place their orders, and then I place my order with the producer. A good chunk of the wine is sold on prearrival, so by design we don’t carry a lot of inventory. It’s like selling futures, except that we deliver after three months rather than three years.”

Each importer has also been known to put his own stamp on the product: Wright makes a grower Champagne under the Caveau label in partnership with Sophie Cossy. Maletis occasionally asks a producer for a custom bottling—for example, a zero-dosage Champagne to sell during the summer months.

There are other ways in which these DTC merchants can diversify. Maletis mentions that he’d be open to working with an online retailer such as Amazon, and his wife, Abby, would like to open a Champagne bar that’s more accessible than their Seattle atelier, which is open only once a month or by reservation.

And while they are a rare breed now, look for more DTC importers like Caveau and Fat Cork in coming years. One of Wright’s customers, Paso Robles, California, resident Leigh Oliver, confided to me, “I’d love to see someone do what Scott is doing with wines from, say, Tuscany or the southern Rhône.” Oliver’s wish may soon be fulfilled, at least as far as Tuscany is concerned: Giuseppe LoCascio, the former vice president of portfolio management for Leonardo LoCascio Selections at The Winebow Group, told me that he’s looking into DTC possibilities for Italian imports.

Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including the newRosé All Day.” She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.

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