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.
Mat Garretson has had a front-row seat to the wine revolution in the United States. Most recently the founder of Négoce, a midsize importer and distributor based in Bloomington, Minnesota, Garretson has held many roles in the wine and spirits industry. In 1981 he got his first job, as a clerk at a liquor store in Atlanta. Over the next 15 years, he managed, then owned, a series of wine stores and businesses. In 1997 he founded Garretson Wines in Paso Robles, California, with his wife, Amie. By 2008, the winery was producing 15,000 cases a year for 46 states, and their wines were sold overseas. But he felt he was traveling too much. And then the market crashed.
For personal and financial reasons, Garretson decided to close up shop at the winery that same year and move to Minnesota, with the intent to launch his own importing and distributing operation. His first step in that direction was to take on the management of the on-premise sales department and then the fine-wine sales division at Quality Wine & Spirits in 2009. While Garretson was preparing to launch his wholesale venture, his friend Dave Perkins of High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, proposed an alternative plan: Garretson would oversee the fledgling distillery’s sales and marketing efforts. Garretson accepted the offer, joining High West, and seven years later in October 2016, High West was sold to Constellation Brands, affording him the opportunity to revisit his plans in the wholesale market. Garretson saw a niche, created, he says, by the “widespread consolidation of the wholesale beverage trade” and by the fact that many of the giant wholesalers offer larger, already established brands of wines and spirits.
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He launched Négoce in August 2017. Translated from the French, the word literally means “commerce,” or “trade.” The company’s tagline is “Disturbing the universe, one bottle at a time,” and that’s exactly what Garretson means to do—disrupt the market with a fresh influx of overlooked, smaller-scale producers. SevenFifty Daily discussed with Garretson how he hopes to capitalize on his roller-coaster ride through the industry and bring small-to-midscale wine, spirits, and beer producers to buyers and consumers thirsting for something different—England’s award-winning sparkling wine Ridgeview, for example, and whiskey from Denver’s beloved Leopold Bros.
What inspired you to start a new company at this stage in your career?
It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. It was fun building High West into a strong craft distillery, and it taught me a lot about the spirits industry, but I knew that we were going to sell High West in 2016. After it sold, the timing was right for me to start Négoce.
I can’t think of another distributor who’s owned or managed operations at every tier in the industry, in both wine and spirits. I see opening Négoce as a natural extension of my career and hopefully, the final chapter in it.
How did you land your first client?
This business is all about relationships. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know some of the world’s best winemakers, distillers, and importers over the course of my career. When I decided to launch Négoce, I made a list of producers that I felt were doing great things and had potential in the Minnesota market. I can’t point to one “first” client, but I will say that every single person I contacted to be a part of our portfolio said yes. We launched Négoce with nearly 100 distilleries and over 250 wineries in our portfolio. Roughly 80 percent of them had never been in this market before—it was a great point of differentiation for us. It makes me happy to look at our portfolio and know that every one of our hundreds of producers is a friend.
How did you sign your first account?
Before we opened our doors, I met with more than 70 of our market’s leading buyers and owners. There’s been no independent wholesale startup in Minnesota that’s launched with the number and type of offerings we’ve brought to the market, and I felt it was important to let them know not only what was in our book but how we wished to differentiate ourselves from the competition. In the end, much like our producers, there wasn’t really one “first” account, but rather a core group of accounts that signed on all at once. That’s been very rewarding.
When did you have to hire your first employee and what was their job?
Again, it wasn’t one but many. To be successful in the wholesale business, you not only need a portfolio of producers that the market wants to purchase but a sales team that the market trusts and truly wants to do business with. Priority one was to hire a sales team that had both the relationships and the experience. I’m happy to say we recruited just such a team of nine salespeople … and continue to look for others to join our team.
What was your biggest back-office challenge and how did you solve it?
What often kills startup importer-distributors is the back of the house—falling down in logistics, not having the correct order and inventory software, lacking insurance, and not having a person focused on human resources. About a year before we opened our doors, I was contacted by my former colleague Ryan Schwartz. Ryan and I had worked together when he was a partner at Quench, the Arizona distributor for my wines. Ryan sold Quench and moved to Texas to launch Victory Wine Group. He and I share the belief that the current—and developing—wholesale environment provides a great opportunity for strong, midsize, full-book distribution in most markets. Ryan and his partners had developed Palomar Beverage Company, which provides back-of-house support to companies just like the one I was launching. Bringing them in as partners was one of the smartest things I’ve done. Palomar has provided us with back-of-house resources that most small to midsize distributors can only dream of having.
Who’s your dream client?
A producer who crafts the finest expressions of their category or region—and is looking for a true partner in Minnesota.
What areas of your business are you looking to grow this year?
Since we’ve only been open for six months, our plan is to develop our overall business. This means earning the business of an increasing number of accounts, as well as strengthening our relationships with existing customers.
Négoce has made events central to its mission—has that been key to the success of your business?
About 80 percent of our portfolio, including wine and spirits, is new to the Minnesota market. Given this, it’s critically important that we provide opportunities for the market to get to know these producers. I am also a firm believer in the idea that you have an obligation to improve the industry that you’re a part of. Providing educational opportunities to our market in the form of events is something we’re compelled to do. It’s more than a selling proposition; it’s “sending the elevator back down.”
Is one sector—wine, spirits, or beer—vastly outperforming the others in your book?
We have a very balanced sales approach that has resulted in wine and spirits being at parity. I suspect that as we grow, we will see our wine-to-spirit ratio settle around 60:40. Beer represents less than 5 percent of our volume. While there is some long-term potential to grow this category, it’s currently an adjunct of other business for us.
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.