Andrew Bishop conceived the idea for the Oz Wine Company in 1999 over one too many drinks on a soul-searching, post-divorce journey through Asia. Bishop’s résumé included stints in a rock band and as a bartender, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the road to Oz’s current business model—importing fine wines from 10 countries and distributing them in Massachusetts—was circuitous.
What Bishop lacked in professional experience he made up for in perseverance. He started by importing wines from Western Australia. Now he imports and distributes wines from around the world, wholesaling them in Massachusetts only. And since 2004, his company has averaged a 12 percent growth in revenue each year. Amid a blur of changing details, his philosophy of “finding terroir wines” hasn’t budged an inch. From Sicily’s pioneering Benanti on Mount Etna, to Oregon’s highly regarded Belle Pente in Willamette Valley, the common thread running through Oz’s portfolio of 150-plus wine selections is each label’s commitment to the land and the people who grow the grapes. Most of the wineries represented in his portfolio have been operated by the same family for generations and adhere to organic and biodynamic growing practices.
SevenFifty Daily talked with Bishop about how he found investors early on, pivoted during a downturn, and bounced back to run a profitable business today.
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SevenFifty Daily: How did you get into the business?
Bishop: By accident. For years, I worked in various front-of-house positions—server, bartender, manager, et cetera—at restaurants in Boston. My first real wine gig was at a restaurant called Les Zygomates, Boston’s hippest and, at the time, newest and most serious wine bar. This was from 1994 to 1999. I caught the wine bug there. One of the owners, Lorenzo Savona, took me under his wing and allowed me to taste with him and the sales reps. My passion for wine just grew from there. But after five years, I was burned out from the restaurant industry and I was getting divorced, so I decided to leave and travel to Asia for some soul-searching and R&R. I had no plans other than to get away for a while. That’s when things got interesting.
Is that how you ended up launching your own company?
Yes. The seeds were planted during my travels when I met up with my former stepfather and his friends, who were doing very well in Hong Kong. These folks were into drinking wine, but they were not very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the industry. After multiple bottles one night, they started talking about how cool it would be to start their own winery, and I saw an opportunity. I talked them into hiring me for a few months to check out the possibilities. I traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and California to meet people and check out the scene. After extensive research, we concluded that a great winery required more than an ex-bartender and friends with cash to make great wine. But I alerted them to a niche in the market—the absence of wines from Western Australia—where there was a real opportunity.
How did you finance the company initially, and how did you narrow your focus?
I started an import company with $60,000 in seed money from these investors. I incorporated as Oz Pacific Wines in 2000. The name came to mind on a drunken red-eye flight from Hong Kong to Perth. I was flying over Australia, or Oz, and it struck me as the perfect name. In 2000 the Australian wine scene was super hot, but it was predominately importers who focused on Southern Australia’s power wines, all of which were dominated by huge fruit bouquets and were high in alcohol. I decided to find wines that were closer to what I liked: European-style wines with more elegance and sense of place. I focused on Western Australia since very few importers were working with wines from that region, and I sensed there’d be a market for them.
How did you build your portfolio?
I lived in Fremantle in Western Australia for about 11 months and searched all over, tasting wines. I pretty much tasted every wine in Western Australia and cultivated a small portfolio from producers in Margaret River, Mount Barker, Swan Valley, Great Southern, and Perth Hills.
Tell us about your first shipment.
In 2001, I blindly sent a container to the U.S. and started calling wholesalers in various states to see if they were interested in picking up my book. I got really lucky because I didn’t have anything officially in place, but I visited potential customers in each of the markets I was interested in—Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Texas, and Massachusetts—and sold all 1,200 cases in about nine months.
What was your strategy for moving the wine after the initial shipment?
I had no experience with that part of the business. My only prior experience was bartending skills, and interactions with wine sales reps when they tasted with Lorenzo and myself at the restaurant. But as a good bartender, I became a good judge of character, a skill that pays dividends in every arena, especially for entrepreneurs. I recalled sales reps who made a good impression on me when I used to attend tastings with Lorenzo, and I formulated my approach from there. Coupled with my passion for these wines, places, and the people making them, that actually turned into a solid foundation for success.
As a new national importer, I hit the road to help distributor reps sell my wines. I found that was pretty much the only time the wines sold, because my wines confused the typical consumer of Australian wines. When I wasn’t traveling, I helped my friend in Ipswich, Massachusetts, make furniture so I could make ends meet. Over the next two years, I managed to create a viable market in six states, and I was able to pay back the guys in Hong Kong by 2003.
What was your first major setback?
I had remarried, and the business was surviving but not growing. In 2004 our first son was born. I had to decide whether or not to try to make this a viable company. The Australian wine market had not grown as much as I initially thought it would, and I also wanted to come home every night to see my family. So I decided to abandon wines from Western Australia and focus on the original cooler-climate wines that I had always loved from Europe. I bought wines from a few national importers and set up my wholesale company in Massachusetts. I dropped the “Pacific” and kept the “Oz,” because some people knew us by that name. After a couple of years wholesaling these other books, I decided that I wanted to get back to working directly with producers, so I started in France and have since worked my way through Italy, Portugal, California, and Oregon. I still buy some wine from national importers, such as Brazos Wine Imports for South American wines and De Maison Selections for great Spanish wines. But besides those guys, it’s mostly direct relationships.
How did you land your first client?
I think it had to be Jeff Moss at Moss Brothers in Margaret River. He was a tough nut to crack. He was a much older man who started the winery many years prior. I was young, casual, and American, so he put me through the ringer as far as checking financials and grilling me about how I would sell his wines. I didn’t blame him since I had no experience! But I convinced him that I would sell his Verdelho and Shiraz in the U.S. very well, and I did.
Who was the first customer you lost?
I lost my first and best retail account because I asked them if they planned on paying their bill, which was one week overdue (and, as it turned out, was only late because an invoice had been lost in transit). I was immediately thrown out of the account. They let me back in after two years. The owners are people I hold in the highest regard, and today they are still the only account I continue to personally call on. They won’t let me send another rep. I’ve since learned how to ask for money in a more diplomatic manner.
When did you have to hire your first employee, and what was the job?
The first sales rep I hired is still with me today—Martin Langer. He’s been with Oz for more than 11 years. He was an assistant buyer at Fine Wine Cellars of Chestnut Hill, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, which, sadly, is no longer in existence. He and the main buyer there liked my wines. He took the position of head buyer after about one and a half years, and then later called me to see if I was hiring. He knew my book as well as I did. I now have a sales staff of seven people and a total of 16 employees.
What’s the most improbable way you’ve found one of your clients?
I’d have to say it was Jean-Marie Rimbert from Saint-Chinian. I was invited to an importer trip to France many years ago. These are all-expenses-paid trips put on by export connector companies like the Adhesion Group, and although the trips are very nice to be invited to, the wineries they focus on are all industrial. There was a tasting in Montpellier, and Jean-Marie crashed it. He asked me if I wanted to taste his wine sur la table (under the table). When I tasted his Saint-Chinian, I decided to bail on the tasting and to go into Montpellier to drink at some wine bars with him. We’ve been working together ever since.
Who’s your dream customer?
A dream client is someone who tastes one of our wines, says this is a “hand sell,” and then actually hand-sells the wine.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I’m not quite sure. I’ve gone through life learning things mainly from my mistakes. I suppose if I’d had some import and wholesale experience prior to launching Oz, I wouldn’t have purchased 100 cases of a great Mount Barker Riesling that had an awful label. That one almost put me out of business from the get-go.
What advice would you give other distributors starting out?
Run your business as a way of life. And don’t waste your (or anyone else’s) time.
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.