In our Importer Intel series, we interview importers about how they broke into the business, built their portfolios, and navigated challenges along the way.
Geoffroy Ducroux has transformed a one-man start-up, launched out of a shared office space in New York City, into a successful import business representing some of the most pedigreed, coveted wines in the world. And while Ducroux now has a team to help him place bottles in restaurants, bars, and shops, he still does much of the legwork himself—and still shares an office space.
Before launching Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits in 2011, Ducroux specialized in French wines at Domaine Select Wine & Spirits for a decade, where he advanced from sales rep to regional manager. The Paris-born New Yorker says he naturally gravitated toward the wines of his native country. So when he got serious about starting an import business, Ducroux first traveled back to France to scope out producers, both beloved and unfamiliar, to pitch his services to, before branching out to other countries.
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Through serendipity and dogged determination, Ducroux has secured highly lauded brands along the way, including the Loire’s Benoit Courault, grower Champagne from Vouette & Sorbee, and Catalunya’s Alta Alella, among others. He delivers those bottles to the country’s chicest tables, including Le Bernardin, Blue Hill, and Pappas Bros., and fine-wine stores, such as Astor Wines & Spirits, High Street Wine, and Ruby Wine.
From the beginning, Ducroux was globally minded, driven more by the philosophy behind the label than the region the vines are planted in. Here, he shares how friendships guide his business and which wine-drinking trend escaped his notice until (almost) too late.
How did you break into the importing business?
I worked for several years in New York City as a sales rep, then managed sales in metro New York. At the same time, I sourced French wines for an importer. These positions gave me the tools and the knowledge to start my own company. Time went by pretty fast. One day, I came home and I said to my wife, “That is it.” A few weeks later, I left the company and started my business. The first year was amazing—the feeling of being on your own, building something for yourself. To this day I have that feeling of freedom.
How did you land your first client?
I went to the fairs in the Loire Valley—Le Salon des Vins at Les Greniers Saint Jean in Angers, and La Dive Bouteille in Saumur. This is where I met Benoit Courault and tasted his wines. The next day I was in his vineyards, and we spent almost the whole day together. He trusted me and I believed in him and his wines. A friendship was born there. That’s key: I won’t start importing a winery without these feelings.
How did you sign your first account?
I first started importing and distributing in New York only, but a few years later I diversified my business and sold to other markets, such as Texas with David Mayfield Selections, and California and New Jersey via T. Elenteny. A few more will start in 2018.
Tell us the story behind the first shipment you imported.
I was feeling very lucky that I had signed several clients and managing the consolidation of several pallets of wine from my producers in summer of 2011. It was really exciting to see my project getting closer and closer [to its shipping date]. It was a mixed container mixed of wines from Burgundy, Alsace, Loire, and Champagne. Thankfully, all went very well.
Who was the first client you lost?
I lost a producer because his eyes were too big. Sales were good, payments were made on time, and then—out of the blue—he decided to choose another partner that was really big. Personally, I didn’t think the new importer fit his personality and his wines. But as far as accounts go, I’ve never lost one.
When did you have to hire your first employee and what was that person’s job?
I hired my first employee in May 2013. She was an account manager in New York City. Today we are a team of four, and we are looking to add two more sales reps next year.
What’s been your biggest back office challenge and how did you solve it?
The most important challenge will always be the management of inventory. If you buy too much, it will hurt your cash flow, but if you don’t buy enough, you lose placements and credibility. There is no equation to solve this—the key is to be extremely proactive, ask and listen to your customers, work on a 90-day inventory, have good payments terms, and find a great partner who takes care of the logistics.
What’s the most improbable way you’ve found a client?
It was Nathan Kendall. Our mutual friend Pascaline Lepeltier called me and told me, “You need to meet Nathan. He is a great person and producer.” I trust her judgment so much that I cleared my afternoon schedule. A half hour later, Nathan was sitting in front of me with his wines. We spent the whole afternoon talking and tasting, and again, a friendship started. A few days later, I went up to the Finger Lakes to visit his estate.
Who’s your dream client?
I dream only of finding the special person who is crafting terroir wines. I don’t care where; I don’t think in terms of the region they’re from, I think in terms of the uniqueness of their expression.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Back about five years ago, I didn’t pay attention to rosés. Now, over the past two summers, rosé has been a huge part of our sales. So in retrospect, I wish I’d seen the potential earlier.
How many cases do you move per year?
We don’t release specifics regarding cases, but I will tell you that we represent 40 producers, from Spain, France, Italy, and the United States.
How has your method of getting wine to market changed as technology has evolved?
Things go faster. Buyers and consumers are better aware of what is coming, and it’s easier to create and promote a brand’s image.
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.