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.
When a company’s founder uses adjectives like “ludicrous,” “impractical,” and “ridiculous” to describe his business, red flags may justifiably go up. But in the case of vom Boden, the founder, Stephen Bitterolf, has built a successful business in a very specific part of the wine market—a deeply geeky niche, loaded with thorny logistical problems and scale challenges. It’s one where fortunes are not made but are sometimes squandered. And that’s just the way Bitterolf likes it.
“Have you ever known someone who collects stamps?” Bitterolf asks. “Everyone likes a pretty stamp. But philatelists can sit and stare at one stamp for hours, think about where it’s been, what it signifies on a larger scale than just the space it occupies. That’s how I feel about wine, especially German wine.”
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Bitterolf found his calling through a series of happy accidents. He came to New York City more than a decade ago to get his PhD in Northern Renaissance painting, and while contemplating Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve, he discovered that wines from the region where it was created offered equally compelling opportunities for deep consideration.
“Wines from Germany and Austria, even the Loire Valley, were so unappreciated at that point,” Bitterolf explains. “I began collecting wines, but in the most humble sense of the word. I was conscientious and intellectual about what I was doing, but I didn’t have the resources or the space to do much beyond exploring some of the great, underappreciated German Rieslings.”
With the goal of expanding his ever-growing body of knowledge—and funding his consumption—he landed a job as a salesperson at the newly opened Crush Wine & Spirits, one of New York City’s sleekest wine stores at the time. This was in the summer of 2005, which Bitterolf sees as a turning point not just in his own life but in the culture of wine appreciation in general. “This was when what Robert Parker said about wine was considered the inviolable truth,” he says. “Most things were affordable, except for Bordeaux. Burgundy was hardly the collectible treasure it is today.”
With his background in art history and his genuine passion for wine, Bitterolf soon became part of a new sales philosophy, based not on points but on education, exploration, and the situating of wines in their cultural context—all elaborated by means of of a few hundred words in Crush’s email newsletters. “We’d decided to share the context behind the wine at Crush,” he says. The impact of the emails was immediate, as Crush’s e-marketing coincided with the increasing awareness of, and interest in, lesser-known wines.
Planting the Seeds
Eight years passed swiftly, during which time Bitterolf developed relationships with importers, distributors, and growers, especially those who dealt with German wines. In 2012 “a very small importer confided in me that he no longer wanted to import wines,” Bitterolf recalls. “I quickly realized that without him bringing the wines here, they wouldn’t be available.”
The importer then personally gave notice to his growers. As word spread, Bitterolf was surprised by the level of interest other importers suddenly displayed in the previously underrepresented region. That interest spoke volumes to Bitterolf about the growing potential for German wines in the U.S. market.
Soon thereafter, Bitterolf traveled to Germany, where he cemented the relationships he had developed with winemakers and offered to import their wines. He started small, with four producers: Weiser-Kunstler, Dr. Ulrich Stein, Peter Lauer, and Julian Haart. “To me, they are rock stars,” says Bitterolf, “but in reality, they are all small producers who aren’t well known outside Germany.” While Bitterolf speaks humbly, his championing of these producers has helped raise their profiles to the point where Lauer has become quite celebrated, and the other three have become cult producers with serious followings.
Growing the Business
In German, “vom Boden” means “from the soil.” Bitterolf’s guiding philosophy is that every bottle should speak of the soil it was grown in, the year it was harvested, and the winemaker who bottled it. The less intervention, the better. The winemakers Bitterolf chooses to work with all staunchly share this philosophy.
From the get-go, all of vom Boden’s wines found places on the shelves of wine stores and on restaurant wine lists, thanks to Bitterolf’s contacts in the industry. But a stand-alone business can’t flourish with just four small producers in its portfolio.
Scaling up happened as naturally and fortuitously as the founding of the business. “People had this shiny-new-penny mentality when they saw vom Boden,” Bitterolf recalls. “Within a year, I was distributed in several key states, including California, Texas, New York, and Massachusetts.”
Word spread as producers in Bitterolf’s portfolio told others about his company. “Vollenweider was my next acquisition,” Bitterolf says. With its sought-after status and accolades, Vollenweider was an important step on vom Boden’s road to becoming a well-respected German importer.
But an arguably more significant coup was Bitterolf’s first hire, John Ritchie. “I approached [Ritchie], who I half-jokingly, half-seriously thought of as my foe at Chambers Street Wine,” Bitterolf says. “I had a lot of respect for him. And luckily, he didn’t hold my time at Crush against me, and he agreed to carry vom Boden’s wines from the beginning. And then we actually became really good friends.”
In 2015, Ritchie left Chambers Street and joined vom Boden as a full-time national sales rep. He’s now based in Minneapolis and has helped vom Boden expand significantly and steadily year by year. Currently, vom Boden reaches more than 20 states through 16 distributors, up from four states in its first year.
The growth hasn’t been achieved without challenges though. “I’m so proud of the work we’ve done, especially in California and Oregon,” Ritchie says. “But because we offer such a niche product, our buyers have to be extremely invested,” meaning that there may be substantial delays between ordering a product and receiving it, and buyers may turn over during that time.
Keeping It Personal
“What I do is quality over quantity,” Bitterolf says. “I work in scales that a sane person wouldn’t consider doing. I have a few producers that I import just 27 cases from a year. It’s borderline laughable because it’s the same amount of work to import 10,000 cases versus one case.”
Bitterolf isn’t a formally trained sommelier. But he knows what he likes. And what he likes happens to be found on small patches of land where families have been growing grapes for hundreds of years. “What is consistent across the board is a deep respect for land, tradition, and time,” Bitterolf says. “That’s what creates the x factor that has me coming back for more.”
Bitterolf’s portfolio now features 17 producers, including one from France (Migot), one from New York (Bellwether), and two from California (Maître-de-Chai and Stirm). Of the wineries vom Boden works with, the largest “by a country mile,” says Bitterolf, has less than 40 acres under vine. Most have between 4 and 10 acres, and vom Boden is on track to move about 12,000 cases this year. While Bitterolf wouldn’t share revenue figures, both he and Ritchie say they’ve enjoyed steady, double-digit growth annually since the company was founded.
But massive growth is not the goal, Bitterolf says. While “earning enough to keep the lights on” is key, his business model is aligned with the human-scale wineries for which he created the business in the first place. “In 40 years, it would be great if we could double or quadruple in scale and still stay honest,” Bitterolf says. “But if we grew any more than that, we wouldn’t be human scale anymore.”
At Bellwether, winemaker Kris Matthewson, looks at its partnership with vom Boden as essential to its success. “Vom Boden has one of the most impressive lists of thoughtfully made German wines in the country, so when we had an opportunity to be a part of it, we jumped on it,” says Bill Barton, Bellwether’s owner.
Marty Winters, cofounder of California’s Maître-de-Chai, echoes Barton’s sentiments. Winters founded the winery with Alex Pitts in 2012, determined to produce decidedly un-California California wines. Winteres and Pitts focus on classic varieties, like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a minimalist viticultural and winemaking approach. Vom Boden represents the winery in New York.
“Stephen’s book is based on small producers who are responsible stewards of their land,” Winters says. “All of the wines in his portfolio are extremely humble in terms of production methods and the size of their production, but the product is outstanding. And that’s Stephen himself in a nutshell.”
Winters appreciates that Bitterolf—despite living in New Jersey with his wife and two children—takes the time to hand-sell every brand in the New York market. And “he goes everywhere,” Winters says, “and knows all the somms, from Michelin-starred vegan restaurants to rustic pizza places in Brooklyn.” Bitterolf claims that his customers are just “the people I’ve been drinking wine with for years. The somms, after all, are wine geeks just like me.”
But that challenge is part of the mission for Bitterolf, who runs his business in a manner that inextricably intertwines his life and his work. The all-in mentality is by design. And he plans to keep it that way. No one in vom Boden’s portfolio is in wine to get rich quick. What they’re producing is created to enrich the lives of those who partake in it—a reward in and of itself.
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.