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.
A fondness for Prosecco and some impeccable timing led Bryan Maletis into the chalky caves of Champagne importing. Maletis owns Fat Cork, a Seattle-based import business with a portfolio of more than 15 producers of grower Champagne, as well as a retail arm and a wine club. Though Maletis’s diverse experience in wine—retail, wholesale, and importing—helped fine-tune his desire to work directly with both consumers and winemakers, a wine club was not part of the original business plan when he opened Fat Cork in December 2010. It was his wife, Abby, who insisted on the idea, and soon after opening, Maletis launched this part of the business—a wine club with premium-quality Champagne that consumers like Maletis himself would join. The club now accounts for the majority of Fat Cork’s revenue and affords Maletis time to nurture the relationships he values most—those with his growers and his customers. The overall business, he says, has been “growing at a rate of about 20 percent per year since 2014.”
SevenFifty Daily: How did you get started in the wine-importing business?
Bryan Maletis: My first job was as a salesman for Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits Merchants in New York City in 2002. I encouraged customers to add a bottle of Prosecco to their order to have on hand just for fun. In 2003, at the ripe age of 25, I took a job with Winebow as a brand manager for Champagne Laurent-Perrier, earning a front-row seat to the business of bubbles and exposure to some of the world’s finest examples. From that point on, there was no looking back for me—and no more Prosecco. I later moved to Seattle, where I worked as a salesman for Young’s-Columbia Distributing, which is now just Columbia Distributing, headquartered in Portland, Oregon. I quickly became known as the Champagne expert to my customers and helped Young’s and Columbia find ways to get more people interested in Champagne. After getting my MBA at the University of Washington in 2010, I drafted a business plan that blended the two things I loved—working with customers and with winemakers.
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Why did you decide to focus specifically on grower Champagnes?
As my personal taste evolved over time, I sought distinctive flavor profiles, which are the hallmark of smaller growers. I wanted both the diversity of taste and of expression that reflect the individual sites the growers work with.
How did you persuade your first grower to work with you?
In 2009 my wife and I just drove around Champagne and knocked on doors. Many people didn’t answer. But many did. I did my research on the growers whose doors I knocked on, too. Many were transitioning generationally, and the growers I started with—including Pascal Redon and Gimonnet-Oger—were interested in making more of their own bottlings. My timing was perfect. They were disposed to listening, and they had the cash flow in place, so they could pull away a bit from the big houses and keep more of their own juice for their personal labels.
How did you land your first account?
I started with my network of colleagues and friends. My first customers were my early mentors in life. Rollin Soles, the cofounder and winemaker of ROCO Winery in Newberg, Oregon and the cofounder and former winemaker of the acclaimed Argyle winery in Dundee, was one of my very first customers; he has been a great promoter, and he has a great network. The business took off when local winemakers would bring my sparkling wines to parties. For them it was old hat to bring a Pinot Noir; it was special to bring a grower Champagne.
What does the structure of your business look like?
We buy directly from growers in Champagne and import here to Seattle, where we store everything in a man-made, temperature-controlled cave. Around 70 percent of our revenue comes from our wine club purchases, though we also sell a bit to local restaurants and have an online store. We have two separate business licenses and permits—one entity as an importer and distributor, and the other as a retailer—which makes the business legal in the state of Washington.
Do you see any big changes in consumer preference with regard to Champagne styles?
Yes—consumers are looking for lower-dosage and site-specific Champagnes, with less of a focus on blends. When I first started, in 2010, the growers thought the American palate only wanted a sweet wine. Now the growers are saying these lower-dosage wines are their best sellers internationally.
What has been one of the most surprising aspects of importing Champagnes?
Climate. In my 15 years of working with Champagne, global warming has had an impact. Quality used to be so variable, but now the harvest has been ripe every year. Producers don’t have to make nonvintage blends or even add as much dosage as they once did.
What is the most important element of your business?
The education that we provide to our customers is essential—it keeps them engaged and is what separates us from the rest. We put all of the geeky details on every bottle, like dosage and disgorgement date, to spark a conversation, keep customers coming back, and teach them about what they are enjoying.
Katie Kelly Bell writes about wine, spirits, and travel for USA Today and for Forbes, Wine Enthusiast, and Modern Luxury magazines. Find her on Instagram @KatieKellyBell.