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.
Mass-market Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are frequent requests from the average American consumer these days, but Fabrizio Pedrolli, who came to New York City and started selling Italian wine through Vias Imports in 1983, was determined from the beginning to champion the small producers and indigenous grapes of his home country, even before it was fashionable. As an importer nationwide and a distributor in the states of New York and New Jersey, Vias now features 71 Italian wineries in its portfolio and represents all of Italy’s regions. Vias also distributes a portfolio of 54 French wineries in New York and New Jersey and represents 17 producers from Austria, Argentina, Spain, California, Washington, New York, Lebanon, and even Armenia.
Still based in his home region of Trentino, Pedrolli is thinking about the future of Vias—his nephew, Federico Zanella, has been training as a brand manager in New York since early 2017, and the company will expand to a bigger office with an on-site cellar this month—but he is primarily focused on the business in its current state and the wine market in general right now. SevenFifty Daily spoke with Pedrolli recently in Vias Imports’ midtown Manhattan office as he reflected on the past 36 years of wine business and trends—and what’s next for this influential Italian importer and distributor.
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SevenFifty Daily: How did you break into the business?
Fabrizio Pedrolli: I became a sommelier with the Italian Sommelier Society (AIS) a long time ago, in 1969—to give you an idea, my membership card number is somewhere near 100. Now they have more than 50,000 members. I was also the first Italian secretary general for the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI), and I spent 9 or 10 years tasting and teaching about wine until I decided to come to the U.S. to sell wine in 1983.
How did you land your first account?
Initially, I came to New York to sell wine because of a very close friendship with the owner of Goldstar Wines and Spirits in Queens, the late Lou Iacucci. He wanted to introduce all of the most important producers of Italian wine to the U.S. So really, he was my first customer. Over time, we started to sell wine to other accounts as well, and we held our first tasting in a New Jersey church, with Iacucci taking orders in the back.
Tell us the story behind the first shipment you imported.
When I started selling wine in the U.S., I had five producers: Aldo Conterno and Broglia from Piedmont, Castello dei Rampolla and Avignonesi from Tuscany, and Maso Poli from Trentino-Alto Adige. Because I had been teaching with the sommelier society for almost a decade, I had the chance to meet all of the most famous producers in Italy as an educator, so it was easy for me to find some to bring to the U.S. Plus, Maso Poli was a close friend of mine from where I live in Trentino. Within one year, there were 30 wineries in our portfolio.
Which Italian wine regions were popular then, and how did you start bringing in wines from other Italian regions?
Tuscany and Piedmont were the most important, which has not changed all that much. But in just two or three years, we had the vision to bring indigenous varieties from outside these regions to the U.S. It was difficult at the beginning, since we were just selling to Goldstar, but then we began expanding just a little bit to Italian restaurants. Many of these restaurants were run by Italian immigrants, so that opened the door—they were familiar with wines from southern regions like Calabria and Puglia, for example. Now we cover all the regions of Italy, always with small producers.
Why are indigenous grapes important to Vias’s philosophy?
From the beginning, our philosophy was to follow the specific territories and terroirs of Italy, focusing on indigenous grape varieties and being very specialized. It remains the same today—I insist on having indigenous grapes rather than international ones. Especially today, wines made from international grapes in separate regions don’t taste remarkably different. But if you use the original grapes of a territory, it will make a wine unlike anywhere else.
Why did you decide to expand the portfolio beyond Italian wines?
Commercially, if we wanted to enter into American restaurants with international wine lists, we needed to have more than Italian wine. But we maintained our focus on small producers and indigenous grapes, even outside of Italy. Commercial wine is another story, but it’s not our story.
How have you seen trends in wine drinking evolve over time?
Now the story is completely different because the Internet makes it easy to understand and know the whole world. People are drinking better, are more curious, and are more informed about wines. At the beginning, wine was only there to have something to drink, to pair with food. Now consumers—especially the young people under 30—enjoy discovering something about the wine itself, ideally with a great price.
Which Italian wines do you wish that consumers would pay more attention to?
Right now, the consumer normally drinks more red wine than white. But as American cuisine changes to blend different styles and incorporate more Asian influences, for me the future is in the white wines. The aromatic whites—like Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Kerner, and Sylvaner—all work well with these kinds of foods, and they satisfy the curiosity of young wine drinkers.
How do you work with the producers in your portfolio?
My job is really in Italy, not here, since my role is to build and maintain relationships with our producers. We only take on wineries that we know and are proud of, so before we start working with any producer, I visit the winery, speak with the winemakers, and observe the processes in the vineyards. We create a team with the winemakers, helping them understand what will succeed in the U.S., and this helps them become leaders in the market. They are a part of our story, and we are a part of theirs.
What is the process like for bringing wines into the U.S.?
Every wine we import must go through a tasting at our offices in Trentino. Even if we already work with a winery, or if a producer makes two or three different bottlings from the same vintage, each wine must be evaluated by our team. We also have a partnership with the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige that enables us to do a technical analysis of each wine. Once a wine is shipped to the U.S., the responsibility for the wine and its quality is on us, not the winery.
How do you react to losing a client?
It has happened before that a small winery starts to make money, and their production changes drastically. This often comes with a generational change too. When the winery grows, it is not able to produce the same kind of quality. Once they receive high scores and win competitions, large importers say, “Come with me! Join my company!” But it’s okay because the winery has already changed so much. We then find other wineries with niche production that we can launch in the market.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew then how the market would evolve. The fashion now is for importers to buy different companies so that the portfolio becomes bigger each year. Big companies have reached out to buy my company, and why? It’s to reinforce their image by creating a fine-wine division. But for our wines, salespeople need to explain a story, and it’s hard to find professional people who know about wine in this kind of business environment. This happens with distributors too; some of the small distributors that we started with became big—it completely changes their philosophy. For this reason, I think that this situation is more dangerous than anything for our business. The professionalism of the entire market goes down.
How do you see the business evolving over the next decade?
Beyond moving our offices to a new floor next week, I don’t know! I hope to move forward, always with the same philosophy. We hope to grow, but not exponentially, since we are a specialized company. Yes, it is a business, and we do have 70 people in the company now, but we are not selling washing machines. We need to educate on new wines and new ideas, bringing the authentic taste of Italy and other regions to the market. To do this, we want to keep Vias with one owner. We are a family business that is now being passed down to the next generation—my nephew, Federico.
Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.