Life on the road for a wine importer is a nonstop seesaw of ups and downs caused by language barriers, tariffs, duties, business relationships, and shipping logistics—not to mention relentless travel schedules.
And then there are the acts of God. Just after Robert Parker described the debut vintage of the micro-release Ribera del Duero Pingus in 1995 to be “one of the greatest and most exciting wines I have ever tasted,” the cult red became even more cultish. According to the website of Rare Wine Co., the Pingus importer, “a ship carrying the entire U.S. allocation of the 1995 broke up in high seas off the Azores.”
Turns out, just about every importer has had a ’95 Pingus experience, if not quite so dramatic. SevenFifty Daily asked pros from around the country to share their most hair-raising, embarrassing, and, in retrospect, comical stories from the road with us.
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“A couple of years ago we received the shocking news that a container—in its entirety—had been stolen in the middle of the night, along with our annual single installment of the oh-so-coveted Champagnes of Jérôme Prévost. It was at a very congested time at the port, and the heist had been complex. We had no choice but to send emails to our customers who had been (im)patiently awaiting their Prévost allocations, alerting them that the container was stolen and unlikely to be recovered. While there were a number of other wines on the container—many of which were time-sensitive glass pours—the Prévost Champagnes were by far the most emotionally charged bottles in the mix. Suspicions were high, some customers doubted the validity of the stranger-than-fiction story, and I was completely dumbfounded. Wildly, the container was found three days later, abandoned on the side of a road somewhere in New Jersey, with just a few cases of Bordeaux Blanc stripped from the first pallet by the container doors … The incident remains among the more bizarre and mysterious ones in my career.”
—Whitney Schubert, French brand manager, Polaner Selections
“It’s late one afternoon in 1985. I’m driving my Lancia down a quiet road surrounded by vineyards in Erbusco, Italy. Just around a curve, I’m stopped at a police checkpoint. The officer walks up to me, requests my driver’s license and insurance, and then asks to see my international driver’s license. I’ve never had one of those.
“‘But they rented me the car at Hertz with my California license!’
“The officer shoots back, ‘Sure they did, but that doesn’t mean you can drive it.’
‘He orders me out of the car, asks me more questions, and is reaching for his citation book when he spies all the cases of sample bottles I have in the backseat. At this point I’m expecting to be arrested right then and there for something or other. But he spots Ca’ del Bosco and says, ‘My sister works there!’
“‘What’s her name?’
“‘Antonella with the dark curly hair who was wearing a brown leather jacket at lunch today?’
“Needless to say, I didn’t get a ticket from the cop, who loved the idea of an American coming to his small village for wine. I later ran into him again in different circumstances. He recognized me, but he wasn’t in his uniform, so I didn’t recognize him. He reminded me about that traffic stop and we both laughed.”
—Brian Larky, chairman and founder, Dalla Terra Direct
“Well, one of the biggest insider jokes in the wine business is that all of our family and friends think our buying trips are like vacations. And while we often have amazing, beautiful experiences on these trips, they are often about extremely long days, with a few mishaps along the way. For example, after a wonderful day in Beaune, we were all looking forward to dinner with a top Burgundian producer. But as they say, it only takes one bad mussel … After dinner all eight of us were literally running for our hotel rooms, and I spent that night passing out Imodium pills to all who came crawling to my door. The next day we had to spend hours in a van together, all of us still completely sick and clutching our stomachs, driving through the hilly switchback roads of the Mosel. And of course, because we’re wine pros, we still had to attend multiple wine tastings and meals that day as well.
“… And last year, on another trip, we were driving through a small French village full of narrow, winding roads, and we were lost. We saw another car drive ahead of us down a lane, so we followed it, only to discover that the lane was getting narrower and narrower. Suddenly, our side mirrors were scraping the houses alongside us. We could not move forward, nor could we open our doors to escape. It took an hour to slowly back down the lane, incurring several scrapes on the car and a few broken door tiles and banged-up mailboxes as we went. We apologized profusely to all the neighbors, and left bottles of wine as apologies. We felt more like characters in National Lampoon’s European Vacation than wine travel professionals.”
—Amy Atwood, founder and owner, Amy Atwood Selections
“At many points over a typical summer, the town of Nierstein, Germany, experiences periods of high humidity, exacerbated by its position along the Rhine. One of my shippers is located in Nierstein and loaded a container for me one muggy day in August. After the ocean voyage, the teamsters who opened the container were less than delighted to be dive-bombed by ravenous little skeeters, carrying who-knows-what exotic illness (there was a health scare over a serious illness transmitted by mosquito bites at the time). They quickly shut the doors and refused to off-load that shipment until the insects were either exterminated or found by the Board of Health to be ordinary bothersome mosquitoes—not the kind that carry St. Vitus’ dance or whatever the worrisome condition was. As best I recall, this stalemate lasted nearly a week.”
—Terry Theise, owner, Terry Theise Estate Collections
“It was 1973—my first wine-buying trip to France. I had just turned 32 and did not yet speak French. My previous life had not prepared me for my new métier. My parents liked booze—the harder stuff. And to my mother, frozen TV dinners had been the greatest innovation of the 20th century. I spent two nights in Paris recovering from the long SF-NY-Paris flight. My first meal was in a typical Parisian bistro near the Place Saint-Michel. I had never eaten raw oysters. They arrived on the half shell, and they were rather large (but of course I didn’t know that oysters came in different sizes). I took up knife and fork and began the awkward process of cutting off bite-sized pieces—laborious because the shells were not a flat cutting surface and there was all that liquid to cope with. When finally I had downed 12 of the delicious little beasts, my waiter came to pick up the plate. He stopped, stared, and after five or six heartbeats, during which his eyes grew larger, I heard him say one word: ‘Massacre!’”
—Kermit Lynch, founder and co-owner, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant
Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé 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. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.