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.
Raised in Paris, Olivier Rochelois grew up in an environment where wine was a commonplace. “My family was appreciative of it but not fancy,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a cellar that we pulled old bottles out of.” Warm, simple memories of drinking around the dinner table are ultimately what led Rochelois in 2011 to launch Petit Monde Wine Merchant, based in Portland, Oregon, an importer of French wines—and now Italian as well—primarily from small producers who embrace organic or biodynamic principles, including Champagne Pascal Doquet, Arnaud Lambert’s Domaine de Saint-Just in the Loire Valley, and Sergio Arcuri in Calabria.
Rochelois, who moved to the U.S. in the 1980s to attend Clark University, pursued a management career after earning an MBA from Northwestern University. He worked for Nike as a strategic projects director, and as a consultant for the likes of Schwab and Wells Fargo; he didn’t consider the wine industry a viable path until years later. SevenFifty Daily spoke with Rochelois about translating his business savvy to the wine realm—and how fostering enduring relationships in both his country of birth and his adopted home in the Pacific Northwest has made Petit Monde a successful part of both places.
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SevenFifty Daily: How did you break into the business?
Olivier Rochelois: I had been educating myself on wine out of curiosity for years. Then, when I was at a professional transition and wanted to reinvent myself, I started thinking about creating Petit Monde from scratch. I wanted to reengage with France, to show that it is not only a place of luxury but of regional identities, with craftsmanship and real people behind it. One retailer in Portland, Corkscru Wine Merchants, was interested in my endeavor. This was a key relationship in getting started. In general, I learned by doing. I traveled to France and visited vineyards. I approached people one by one, and I grew the business one account at a time. I wanted to do it myself and go through the tribulations of taking a wrong turn.
What does the structure of your business look like?
We direct-import wines from about 50 French producers and 20 Italian ones. The vast majority of our wines are organic or biodynamic, but that is not a requirement. Our roots are in Oregon—Washington, where we expanded to, is a work in progress. We are not looking to go national. We want to stay focused. I have two reps in Portland and two in Seattle. I traveled for more than 10 weeks a year over the first three years, and now I try to bring my reps with me to visit producers, after they’ve spent a little bit of time with the company, to develop their own impressions, relationships, and narratives.
How do you think your unconventional career path has shaped this venture?
The methodology and outlook that come with consulting probably inform how I go about many aspects of running a small, fast-paced company, but the story I tell myself is that this is so very different in that the decisions and risks are mine to take. I think my contribution is that I function well on both ends—the origin of the wines and the marketplace—and can help bring them closer together. I like my role as a translator, storyteller, and curator.
What is one of the benefits of working in Portland?
It’s open and relaxed. A lot of the buyers don’t have 25 years of high-end restaurant experience and are willing to try new wines. I was a one-man band for a long time, doing everything from deliveries to selling. I would show up with too many wines to taste people on because I was so excited. I was doing it all face-to-face, so as the Frenchman running around like a madman, I became a part of the community.
How do you find the producers you work with?
To a large extent, as one connection develops, it ignites others. You’re in a relationship with these folks and they recommend you. I spend a lot of time on the ground in France and Italy, seeing as many people as possible in the regions I’m interested in. I look for the small, good shops in town and start talking to locals, and people see pretty quickly that I really love what I do.
How does the evolving perception of French wine affect your business?
My first appointment to look for producers was in the Loire, and from the beginning we pushed a lot of appellations that are less well known in the U.S. We don’t have any wines from Burgundy, and we don’t have a lot of Bordeaux. If anything, we’ve avoided the well-established wines because they are well traveled or don’t fit my values, whether because of the price or the attitude. Even more than consumers’ interest in any particular region, the interest in sparkling wines has surpassed my imagination.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d love to grow our portfolio to around 100 producers and make the team maybe 50 percent bigger while maintaining the original, loyal staff. Building the brand is important to me. When people see our logo on a bottle, I want them to say, “That’s Petit Monde, so it’s probably pretty good.”
Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.