After working in her “dream job” at Skurnik Wines & Spirits, an importer and distributor based in New York City, for nearly a decade, Valerie Masten, the company’s vice president of national sales, is embarking on a new adventure. Today, Masten publicly announces her shift to the supplier side of the industry as the president of Hoxie Spritzer, a Los Angeles–based producer of dry-wine spritzers.
Masten has spent most of her career working in wine wholesale, much of that time selling Skurnik’s international portfolio of wines. A native of Atlanta, she fell in love with wine while living in Italy in 2001. In 2002, Masten moved back to her hometown and began working at the restaurant chain Houston’s, where she gained more knowledge and experience with the beverage trade. In 2006, Masten joined the Atlanta-based distributor Quality Wine & Spirits (which was subsequently purchased by the New York–based importer and distributor Winebow) as a fine-wine on-premise sales representative, where she first had the opportunity to sell the Skurnik portfolio to local accounts. When offered the opportunity to work on Skurnik’s national sales team as a national portfolio representative in 2010, Masten leapt at the chance. By 2013, she was promoted to national sales manager, and in late 2014 she became Skurnik’s vice president of national sales.
Spurred by an interest in low-ABV and alternative alcohol formats, Masten is ready to take on a new challenge in this newly created role at Hoxie. SevenFifty Daily spoke with Masten about her motivations for joining the Hoxie team, how her wholesale experience and skills will carry over to the supplier side of the industry, why wine spritzers are booming right now, and the future of the category.
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SevenFifty Daily: Tell us about Hoxie. What attracted you to working with this company specifically?
Valerie Masten: So many things! I met Josh Rosenstein, the creator and cofounder of Hoxie, at Outside Lands [an annual music and arts festival held in San Francisco] in 2015, the same year that Hoxie was founded, and I was so impressed with how delicious the spritzers were. He was in the wine tent along with a bunch of great, independent local wine producers, but Hoxie was the thing I really wanted to drink—it was the perfect thing for an outdoor festival. Josh is a really talented chef, and he is dedicated to making a delicious beverage that is low in alcohol. His main goals are keeping it dry, natural, and clean, so there are no added, junky chemicals—just all-natural extract, botanicals, fruits, and flowers. Southern California produce is the inspiration for many of the spritzer flavors [like Watermelon Hatch Chile and Lemon Linden Blanc]. We also care about sustainability—Josh launched cans in 2016, and the company made a big shift to using only sustainably grown California wine over the past year. The plan is to move into organics in early 2020.
What will your immediate and long-term responsibilities and goals be in your new position?
I will be doing a bit of everything—developing our sales and marketing strategy, building sales and distribution infrastructure, building a sales team, and taking on some operational responsibilities as well. It’s just been Josh, with some administrative and social media and public relations help, up to now, so I’m going to be a real partner in the business. I’m taking equity in the company, which is a huge draw because I’m really putting myself into it. We’re building the entire team from scratch.
I’m so excited to learn all aspects of the business. I’ll learn more about direct-to-consumer marketing and sales, plus a lot about operations and production from start to finish. Not only does Hoxie dictate how all of the winemaking is done, but Josh also creates all of the recipes and does all of the blending at the winery. We also have some exciting things ahead, including creating some special, limited bottlings out of the Los Angeles tasting room we’ll be opening in spring 2020.
Why shift from the importer/distributor tier to the supplier tier?
This is a huge step for me. I’m essentially leaving what has been my dream job—working with the wines, resources, and amazing talent at Skurnik. I’ll be going from having full support from a company like Skurnik—portfolio management on every level, a compliance department, a full administrative team to process orders, and design and events teams—to building the whole thing from the ground up at Hoxie. But Josh has spent a lot of time on brand building, and the Hoxie brand is really solid, which is why it’s time for me to come on board as the next step.
Recently, I’ve been extremely curious about low-alcohol and alternative alcohol formats. We’re so much more conscious about what we’re putting into our bodies now, and that includes alcohol. Personally, I had my own health issue last summer, and to figure out what was wrong, I became hyperaware of the things that I was eating and drinking. It had a big impact on how I was living, and I’ve had renewed curiosity about what’s in everything that we eat and drink. Hoxie is all about transparency, which is really important to me.
What will be challenging about shifting from working a range of wine brands to a single product?
Going from working with more than 150 brands or producers to a single product is a big shift. But the exciting thing is how broad the market is for something like Hoxie—and the opportunity to work on this microlevel with one brand is really fascinating for me. Being able to dedicate all of my focus and drive to this one brand is going to be a total shift in how I operate. When you have a whole portfolio of brands, you can pick and choose your tactics and targets, and when something doesn’t work, you move on to another strategy. With Hoxie, I’m going to have to find a way to speak to every kind of person that we’re working with. I’m in a unique position to do this because I’ve been involved with growing some pretty difficult categories, like the German and Austrian wine segments. I think I’m pretty adept at selling challenging things, and that’s what I’m most excited about at Hoxie—digging deep and building a brand with a broad potential audience.
What strengths and skills from your work within the importer/distributor tier will help you succeed in your new supplier role?
My core competency is sales. That is the backbone of success in my role at Skurnik, and that will carry over to success with Hoxie. I know how to build a really talented sales team, and I know how to speak to people about really challenging categories. My experience is also really wide—I know how to position brands like The Pinot Project, which has a much broader application, but I also speak the language of premium, artisanal products. I also understand the distribution model in the U.S. because I work with tiny, family-owned distributors in some markets, and large distributors like Southern Glazer’s in others. So I think my experience is pretty unique, coming from the import side.
Why do you think wine spritzers have seen such a resurgence over the past five years or so?
I think it has to do with millennial curiosity as well as the breaking down of the perception of what is “a good thing” to drink—it doesn’t matter whether it’s a bottle of wine, craft beer, or hard seltzer, as long as you like it. White Claw has actually been incredibly impactful to changing perceptions in this way—people have less of a hang-up about the traditional and are more open to different styles and formats. I think we’ve realized that we’re ushering in a new era in which people don’t need the traditional bottle with the cork to enjoy alcohol, so there is a lot of room for creativity and innovation here.
Where do you see wine spritzers going in the future, and what will be the category’s biggest challenges?
This is a pretty new category with lots of room for growth, and we see a ton of opportunity. In terms of challenges, the category is still extraordinarily unknown and a bit colored by the memory of sweet wine coolers like Bartles & Jaymes. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. People, especially millennials, are really eager to know what is in everything—they are looking for transparency, and they really care about what they’re drinking. I think this consciousness of drinking is going to result in the successes of the really good spritzers, seltzers, and other alternatives out there. These low-alcohol beverages, like Hoxie, match our dedication to being spiritually and physically fit.
What are your long-term goals in the beverage industry?
I want to be as impactful as possible to the industry as a whole, and this is the next step. Right now, my goal is to bring something really fun that is also sustainable, responsible, and delicious to as many people as possible. Hoxie is really primed for growth, and I want to be a part of it.
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.