In our Importer Intel series, we interview importers about how they broke into the business, built up their portfolios, and navigated challenges along the way.
In a market flush with importers focusing on terroir-driven wines, Charlie Woods sets Bonhomie Wine Imports, based in South Orange, New Jersey, apart from the rest with a laser focus on finding value in otherwise expensive categories. Through his travels, Woods found an appreciation for wines with a sense of place and, in turn, found his own sense of place in the wine industry.
Because he had already been working in the restaurant world, pivoting to wine was an easy transition. When he moved to Boston in 1989 for school, he says the restaurant industry “took over his soul.” Woods cooked at numerous places, including the now-shuttered Providence in Boston and Union Square Cafe and Al Di La in New York City, but became increasingly interested in wine.
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Woods began working with such New York importers as the now-closed Vineyard Expressions and David Bowler Wine, and he eventually set out to create his own company, starting Bonhomie in 2008. He let passion lead and made decisions based on what moved him—namely, small, terroir-driven, traditional estates in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and the United States. In 13 states, Bonhomie currently sells over 150 wines from more than 30 wine estates, many of them unexpected finds that offer high-caliber wine at a great price. Woods recently spoke with SevenFifty Daily about the philosophy behind Bonhomie, the challenges that come with getting a new business off the ground, and what’s next for this 11-year-old company.
SevenFifty Daily: What was the impetus for starting Bonhomie?
Charlie Woods: The travel bug—I biked alone through France and Spain in 2000—was a big element in leaving David Bowler Wine to start Bonhomie back in 2008. It’s a side effect of wanting to be more closely connected to the source of the wines. I wanted to better understand the wineries’ challenges, process, and decision making. I chose the name Bonhomie for my company because wine is ultimately about connecting people. When you open a bottle, you are drinking the story of the wine—you now have a bond with the winemaker, the land, and the traditions that it came from.
Why is it important for Bonhomie to focus on terroir-driven wines?
The company that I began my wine career with, Vineyard Expressions, placed terroir at the forefront. I learned to identify elements in wine that masked the core elements of the wine. Most prominent was the overuse of oak, which at that time was bragged about by industry folks, who would laud a wine’s “200 percent new oak” or “maximum toast.” I despised this type of winemaking and the critics who extolled the virtues of those wines.
What is a core tenet that has shaped your company?
We are really focused on Burgundy and Champagne, and those were the first two regions I sought out when I began to line up suppliers. These are regions that fetch very high prices, and most of their wines are considered luxury wines. My intention is to find value within categories.
A wine like the Domaine Petitot Les Vignottes Côte de Nuits-Villages is emblematic of this ethos. It’s not a Premier or Grand Cru, but it’s a crazy value because the vineyard lies across the street from the famous Premier Cru vineyard Clos de la Maréchale, owned by the Mugnier family. The wine that the Petitots make from the parcel of Les Vignottes costs around $36 in a store, while a bottle of Mugnier Clos de la Maréchale would range from $90 to $150. It’s insane. We are not score fanatics looking for the obvious—we want to find amazing wines that have great value.
Are there any particular challenges you had to overcome while building your company?
I started Bonhomie in January 2008. I started researching and dealing with compliance licensing, and feeling pretty confident, in June I started ordering wine. I was hoping to start selling in the fall since it’s the best season for wine sales. Well, the economy took a nosedive—the stock market was crashing, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and everyone was nervous about the economic downturn. Here I am, trying to start a company right in the teeth of this vicious downturn, and all my wines are coming in. This is another example of why I look for good wine at good prices. I’m not going to say it was gangbusters, but I’m still here to tell the tale. We’ve been growing at a rate of 7.5 percent a year since 2008.
What is changing in the wine trade right now?
I think everyone is a lot more open minded these days, especially in New York. The sommelier community is full of creative people who give life to wine lists, and there are so many independent shops. Retailers are a vanguard of creativity, promoting winemakers, regions, and types of winemaking with a story—they have to be creative in order to differentiate and compete, and in turn, they open the minds of consumers.
This is part of what allows us to add producers like Left Foot Charley, a really amazing winery in northern Michigan, to our distributor portfolio. They have great sites on Old Mission Peninsula, which is a marginal growing area—without the lake, there would be no way for Vitis vinifera to grow. It’s a place where people are dedicated, and are crazy to be making wine, but Left Foot Charley makes distinctive Riesling, Kerner, and Blaufränkisch—and we get to sell them.
Do you have your sights on any other, lesser-known or overlooked wine regions or styles?
All of them. We are looking to branch into Slovenia and Croatia, we’re headed to Chile in July, and we applied to be taken to the Republic of Georgia with Wines of Georgia. We are excited to diversify and to find wonderful things from all over. We are casting a wider net and are open to everything.
What about Bonhomie are you most proud of?
Our collaborative work environment. Employees are as important as I am in shaping the portfolio, so I’m proud to be an employer who respects employees and wants them to grow, thrive, and be happy. People don’t leave Bonhomie unhappily.
Carrie Dykes is a contributing social media editor for SevenFifty Daily. She is also a writer and wine judge who is based in the Hudson Valley, New York. When she’s not immersed in WSET Diploma studies, you can find her foraging, traveling, or beating the drum for Virginia wine. Her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Chronogram, Winetraveler, and Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, among others.