Luck and opportunity often arrive together; the trick is spotting them. For Zev Rovine, a waiter turned boutique wine importer, a pivotal moment of that sort occurred in the early aughts, when he was working the floor at the popular New York City restaurant Butter. One night the manager told the waitstaff that the person who sold the highest number of specials would earn a wine course at the American Sommelier Association. Rovine hit the floor hard that night, clinched his prize, and fell in love.
He saw the class as an opportunity to expand his horizons through wine. He began reading and tasting everything he could get his hands on. “I got turned on to natural wine by reading Kermit Lynch,” Rovine says of his early ventures into serious wine.
At 24, with a few years of study and savings under his belt, Rovine headed out West in 2005 to Park City, Utah, to partner in a wine bar called The Spotted Frog. While it closed just a few years later, the experience proved to be a stepping stone on the path to Rovine’s future success. “I knew I had to be my own boss,” he says, “and obviously, I had to work in wine. I also wanted to be back in New York.”
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Park City was the place where Rovine cemented his love of wine—and where he formed relationships that led to his most important future partnerships. One of those relationships was with Evan Lewandowski, who was 21 when Rovine hired him. Lewandowski started as a barista at The Spotted Frog, but his role expanded to encompass bartending and other duties; he is now the winemaker at Ruth Lewandowski Wines in Salt Lake City, and Rovine handles his distribution.
Transitioning to the Supplier Side
Rovine undertook his first venture into wine distribution in 2008. He scraped together enough cash to buy a few pallets of already imported Spanish wine through Fruit of the Vines, Inc., an importing and wholesale distribution company based in New York City, and made his first sale in January 2009. It didn’t take him long to realize, however, that this way of doing things wouldn’t be viable over the long term. Says Rovine, “It wasn’t competitive, because the wine basically went through two markups.”
In 2011 he embarked on an R&D trip to Europe. There, he forged relationships with French producers such as Domaine Matin Calme, Caves Jean Bourdy, and Domaine Dubost, all of which he still represents. He began importing the wines and distributing them through Fruit of the Vines.
As Rovine built his book, he found himself being drawn almost exclusively to natural producers. “I started traveling up to Montreal on a regular basis to explore the [natural] wine community there,” he says, “and discovered it was way ahead of New York’s community, and had been for years. I wanted to offer the passion for natural wine I saw in Europe and Canada to more people in New York.”
But a problem was that Rovine had limited cash flow; in addition, the intangible character of natural wine itself made it necessary to hand-sell the product. “It’s unclear to consumers what natural wine is,” he explains, “and there is no official certification. In the case of his wines, he says, ”Wine with a Rovine Selections label on it is made with certified organic grapes, without additives.”
Some of his producers, though, do add sulfur “as insurance,” Rovine says. He explains, “If [a wine] ends up in a warm environment during shipping, a little sulfur can help stabilize it and protect it from oxidation.” Rovine says his winemakers never exceed 40 milligrams per liter, about one-fifth of what many other commercial producers add.
Meeting the Challenges
It turned out that hand-selling small-batch wine ended up aligning with Rovine’s business plan, and it allowed him to grow his profit margin by investing every cent back into the product line.
In addition to seeking out unknown natural wines at remote wine bars and trade shows, Rovine buys wine from friends like Lewandowski, who credits Rovine’s hand-selling approach for his success. “I still remember vividly the first day he took my initial three wines into the market [in 2011],” Lewandowski says. “I sat anxiously on my couch to hear how his first appointment went. [He sold] a case of each to Patrick Cappiello at Pearl & Ash [in New York City]. I nearly died.” Overall, he says, 75 percent of the markets to which he exports or distributes have come through his work with Rovine.
Rovine points out that by 2013, his portfolio was 100 percent natural wines, which means he’s been contending with a “torrent” of new wines ever since. “True natural wine producers have to do it in very small batches,” he says. “Our biggest producer has 20 hectares. On average, our producers have five to eight, so we often get a shipment of 600 bottles from a winemaker, sell out in three weeks, and then have to wait an entire year for more.”
Supply, though, isn’t his biggest challenge. “Because natural wine is such a pure product of the vineyard, it’s variable,” Rovine says. “Every wine is a little different every year and [is] the combination of a thousand tiny decisions. I try to visit every winery [in my portfolio] every year and taste everything.” He finds that tasting every wine yearly, and noting the differences from the previous year’s lineup, allows him to serve both his producers and his buyers better.
Rovine’s buyers—like Henry Glucroft at Henry’s, a wine shop in Brooklyn devoted to natural wine—appreciate his rigorous approach. Glucroft explains that as natural wine has become trendier, “lots of people are rushing to join the party, even big wineries,” and the overall quality of the offerings has been diluted, which is why he has come to depend on Rovine’s well-curated book.
“It would be impossible to be a natural wine retailer without representing his selections,” Glucroft says. “Whether it’s good everyday natural wine from producers like Les Tètes, Sikelè, Les Deux Terres, or Burgundy splurges from Maison en Belles Lies, the wines have done very well with my customers.”
Currently, Zev Rovine Selections offers wines from seven countries and 90 winemakers, up from just three winemakers in 2009. In 2010, Rovine doubled his year-over-year sales, and in 2011 he doubled his sales yet again. Since then, growth has ranged from 25 percent to 40 percent annually. In the beginning, when his budget was tight, he couldn’t conceive of hiring anyone else. It wasn’t until 2011 that he was able to hire his first employee; he now has a staff of nine, six of whom work in sales.
The availability of Zev Rovine Selections, which now sells in 30 states, has run parallel to the increase in product offerings. The company started out in New York, then added Massachusetts a year later. Over the next few years, all the states along the Eastern Seaboard trickled in, and by 2012, California was on board.
Expanding the Business
Erin Sylvester, a California native, came to Zev Rovine Selections in 2013 after working on the floor and as a service and beverage director at top restaurants, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in and around New York City. She says that she made the jump to sales because she didn’t want to wear an apron for the rest of her life. Sylvester starting selling to on- and off-premise locations in New York, and Rovine says he watched in awe as her “genuine passion for hospitality, and love of taking care of people,” swiftly made her his top salesperson. (Arriving with a collection of contacts at some of the restaurants with the most sought-after wine lists in New York helped Sylvester, too).
“Amy Atwood was repping our book in California, and she was doing a phenomenal job,” Sylvester recalls. “But she had so many other importers [that] our relatively small selection of natural wines constituted just a tiny sliver of her book.”
In an effort to raise the profile of the Rovine wines in California, Sylvester pitched the idea of a westward expansion to Rovine. He loved it. In 2016, Sylvester officially set up the business in Los Angeles as Sylvester Rovine Selections. She is the majority investor, with Rovine and Laurent Bonnois of Maximilien Selections. Almost the entire Zev Rovine Selections book is now represented in California by the company, with a handful of exceptions that already reside in other books.
“Operationally and technically, we are separate companies,” says Sylvester. “But we work together, travel together, and make decisions about new wineries we’re bringing on together.”
So far in the Golden State, Sylvester operates in L.A., and there are two full-time salespeople in San Francisco. They telecommute now, but Sylvester envisions an office space in a few years, probably in L.A. “Something is happening in L.A. right now,” she says. “The wine scene here is changing so fast, and it’s very focused on natural wines. I’m constantly inspired by how incredibly open and thoughtful the buyers here are.”
Thoughtful care defines every relationship Rovine and his team develop. “Zev is special because he follows his good taste with wine and relationships,” says the producer Frank Cornelissen, whose wines, cultivated in volcanic soils on Mount Etna, have garnered great interest in natural wine circles and beyond. “He is our sole importer in the U.S., and in a short time he has expanded our reach considerably.”
By leaning into his passion for natural wine and drawing on his innate ability to bring people together and build strong relationships around that passion, Rovine has been able to scale up a small business into a coast-to-coast operation.
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.