Scaling Up

The Scale Wine Group’s Approach to Selling Cult California Wines

How three somms leverage industry connections and priority placements in restaurants to promote their unique offerings

Scale Wine
Scale Wine Group. Photo by Angie Lagle.

The mission of the Scale Wine Group—a wholesale strategy and brand management company founded in 2016 by Desmond Echavarrie, MS, and based in Napa, California—is to assist boutique wine brands in navigating the distribution channel and to help them build momentum in the market. “There was a need for smaller-scale wineries in Napa and Sonoma to be marketed nationally and internationally,” says Echavarrie. “I wanted to change the way business was done in Napa and help these world-class wines garner the level of recognition they deserve.”

The company has been on a rising trajectory since its launch. Scale Wine started out selling wines from a few boutique Napa Valley producers in just three states; it now has a presence in 46 states. It has also expanded its reach from the U.S. to four additional countries: Canada, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland. And from January 2017 to January 2018, the company increased its sales from 50 cases of wine to 787 cases—and the number continues to climb steadily.

Echavarrie and his partners, certified sommelier Bryan Lipa and Jason Heller, MS, say they plan to continue to selectively plump up their portfolio and significantly increase the visibility of their hand-selected boutique wine producers on a national and international level. 

Starting a New Journey

Before launching Scale Wine, Echavarrie, who won the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Best Young Sommelier U.S. Competition in 2004 and the U.S. Top New Somm competition in 2011, worked as a sommelier at several notable restaurants, including Picasso in Las Vegas and The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In 2014 he shifted gears and took a position as the director of sales for Realm Cellars, a winery in St. Helena, because, he explains, he wanted to take some of the extraordinary but regionally exclusive Realm wines he’d encountered at the French Laundry and sell them nationally. 

Echavarrie was inspired by his time at Realm, and realized that somms across the country were interested in adding more boutique California wines to their lists. Hoping to champion other unsung small-batch producers on a national stage, he filed paperwork to incorporate Scale Wine Group in August 2016. He’d already discussed his vision with Lipa and Heller, both of whom he had worked with previously. (Lipa had worked at The French Laundry and then as the national sales director at Staglin Family Vineyard. Heller was a sommelier at Bouchon Bistro and then the director of sales and marketing for Dana Estates.) Echavarrie started the company in earnest in September 2016; Lipa came on board in January 2017, and Heller joined in July that year.  

Scale Wine was founded, in part, to serve as a counterbalance against the too-slick hype that inevitably becomes part of marketing wine. So when Echavarrie launched the company, he did so with a hushed restraint that would be more characteristic of an engrossing discussion between a somm and a guest making her wine selections for a tasting menu than the booming zeal and unalloyed enthusiasm that is often employed during wine sales calls. Scale Wine entered the market with just three producers: Shibumi Knoll VineyardsBarbour Wines, and Matthew Wallace Wines.

“Our first wine partners were people I had real relationships with, who shared the vision of a new and better way of connecting people to wine,” says Echavarrie. One of those first clients—Shibumi Knoll—is a producer of premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Echavarrie met the late founder, Don Ross, in 2011 at The French Laundry and quickly established a connection with him and his wife, Joann, and their wines. 

“Don was such an amazing person to know personally—and professionally,” Echavarrie recalls. “He created some of the most revered and beloved wines in the region, and he was so generous with his time and wine; he frequently donated several cases of top-quality wine to a group at The French Laundry that was studying for the Master Sommelier exam.” 

With such sought-after but difficult to find boutique Napa Valley labels, Echavarrie didn’t need to launch an advertising campaign to get attention for his new company. Within a month, his three clients doubled to six, and when Lipa joined, business began to seriously take off. “At first,” says Lipa, “I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it a viable business, because we were operating on a shoestring budget and investing our profit to grow. But within 45 days of [my] joining, we were making money in a sustainable way.”

Echavarrie attributes the company’s ability to scale up quickly to the quality of the product they were offering to accounts. “Shibumi Knoll was previously unavailable outside of Napa,” he says. “Now it’s in nine states and three countries. It’s offered in restaurants like Eleven Madison Park [in New York City] and Alinea [in Chicago] simply because we introduced [them to] this amazing Chardonnay from 45-year-old vines that no one’s ever heard of. It’s now being recognized as an absolute American treasure.”  

Building a Buzz

Winemakers say they were willing to partner with Scale Wine from the get-go because they shared similar objectives. Elan Fayard, the proprietor with her husband, Julien, of Azur Wines, is one such producer. She explains that because Azur is a brand that produces premium dry rosé, it needs a hand-sell. “Our wine is different than the standard conception of rosé,” she says, “and Scale Wine has been able to communicate that and place us in restaurants, and even in states, like Georgia, where we wouldn’t even have thought to market ourselves.”  

Stephanie Jones, the co-manager with her sister Heather Jones Melvin and her father Rick Jones of Jones Family Vineyards, says that she appreciated Scale Wine’s approach because, while similar to the one her family employs, it was more business-oriented. “For the past 20 years,” she says, “we have been a brand and team with no one but family managing our business. We wanted to expand our reach, and while we talked to several companies, Scale stood out immediately.” 

Jones explains that the background Echavarrie, Lipa, and Heller had as sommeliers made her family feel confident that they could serve as ambassadors, connecting buyers to the Jones Family Vineyards story, and “build momentum that way, instead of just focusing on volume and boxes sold.” Scale Wine, she says, has opened several new markets for the brand, including key placements at Solage resort in Calistoga and numerous accounts in Las Vegas. 

Dylan Amos, the sommelier at Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, speculates that Echavarrie, Lipa, and Heller have achieved rapid success because they understand what works for a wine program and because they still feel connected to the floor themselves. “They’re selling us beautiful, back-pocket wines from small, high-quality producers that they know will deliver an experience our guests are looking for,” he says, “and that make us look like rock stars in the process.”

Leveraging Momentum

Before Heller officially joined, the trio of somms had worked out a strategy for increasing brand acquisition, the number of states they were able to sell those brands in, and the accounts they had in each state. While many wholesalers with multiple partners silo their duties into sales, operations, and logistics, each of these three partners does a bit of everything. “All three of us come from the sommelier world,” says Heller, “with a network of friends and former colleagues spread around the country. That opens a lot of doors.” 

Those doors open both for winemakers and for the accounts. Each partner has about seven brands for which he serves as “point guard.” Most of the brands were personally recruited from the sommeliers’ circle of contacts, Heller explains. But when one of them is traveling, which is frequent, that person introduces the entire portfolio to potential buyers, while giving special attention to the accounts he’s personally responsible for.  

“Every time they are in town, I know I’ll discover something exciting that must make it into our program,” says Higor Valle, the sommelier and wine educator at D’Amico’s The Continental in Naples, Florida. “Through them I got to know Purlieu, Nicholson Jones, and many others that have a special place on our list. Purlieu’s Le Pich has become one of our best-selling reds.” 

Looking Ahead

The biggest challenge for Scale Wine thus far has been logistical, and it will be going forward because in addition to its sales growth, market expansion, and increasing number of producers, Scale Wine’s success can be measured by priority placements in important restaurants. 

“We haven’t brought on a new brand in a while because before we do, we need to ensure our domestic and international distributors will pick them up,” says Echavarrie. “Part of increasing the chance of that has to do with partnering with more brands that produce 5,000 to 8,000 cases a year, not just a few hundred.” 

This year, Scale Wine is also opening up an importing channel. The company currently represents 23 domestic wines and one Champagne. “We wanted to complement our California wines with rare finds from Europe,” says Lipa. “It’ll allow us to help accounts find exceptional grower Champagnes and unique wines they still may not be familiar with. We hope that a more diverse portfolio will help us increase our number of priority placements.”

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.

Most Recent