Curiosity drives much of the discovery process for new wines and new wine regions, both for ardent consumers and trade professionals. It seems we are all hard-wired to constantly be asking, “what’s new?” and “what’s next?”
Providing answers for those two questions gives wine importers both joy and trepidation: joy for having the opportunity to discover what wines have the potential to attract major consumer sales for a reasonable period of time, and trepidation because matching a wine source to the American market represents huge investments of money and time, and necessitates some luck.
When it comes to selecting a new region or grape variety to import, the holy grail is finding wines that over-deliver quality for the price, have great backstories, are different from what’s on the market (but not too offbeat), and have sufficient supply to be scaled up if they catch on. But sometimes importers are confident that the wine, if properly marketed, will attract consumers simply by offering something new and exciting to try.
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SevenFifty Daily asked U.S. importers which wine regions and grape varieties they believe will see significant consumer sales in the coming months—and what factors can determine a category’s success.
Traditional Wines of Georgia
Georgian wines have been easing into the American spotlight for the past decade with trade activities being underwritten by its national government. Though Georgia has a great story, being the putative cradle of winemaking, its traditional varieties remain fairly obscure in the U.S. and its wines are mostly produced by small families in small quantities.
“I went on my first visit there in 2018 and tasted a lot,” says Peter Weygandt, the founder of Pennsylvania-based Weygandt-Metzler Importing. “There were a lot of problematic wines, but I found three I thought were really good. They caught on quickly, especially in the New York market” because of the high quality to price ratio. Georgian Mamuka Tsereteli, now a U.S.-based businessman and academic, established the Maryland-based import company Georgian Wine House with friends in 2005 and now imports more than 20 wineries with distribution in 23 states. “We’ve been riding the natural wine movement,” he says. In 2020, Georgian wine imports to the U.S. passed one million bottles annually.
Sicily, Led by Etna’s Volcanic Wines
Although Etna has been a niche wine source for some time, increases in investment and better quality have caught the eyes of major importers. “Over the past 10 to 15 years, the Etna region has gotten broader attention from the industry for producing wines of minerality, depth, and elegance, particularly from the Nerello Mascalese grape,” says Ian Downey, the EVP of Virginia-based Winebow Imports, noting Etna now has over 150 producers.
New York-headquartered Wilson Daniels has imported three Sicilian brands, says its president Rocco Lombardo, and it recently added a fourth, Idda, when it signed on Piedmont-based owner Gaja in June. Greg Doody, the CEO of Vineyard Brands, located in Birmingham, Alabama, says, “Etna is new for us, and wines from its volcanic soils are fantastic.”
Northeast Italy’s One-Two Punch
Doody is also bullish on Italy’s northeast. “We love Alto Adige, and I’m super excited about its Schiava wines,” he says, pointing to their light, fresh style. Next-door neighbor Collio “also has huge potential in the U.S. market,” he says. “You can make a Pinot Grigio there you can be proud of.”
Bill Terlato, the CEO of Terlato Wine Group, agrees, saying he would like to replicate what his family did in the 1980s with the Santa Margherita brand in Veneto with other regions of northeastern Italy. “With 2,040 acres in Colli Orientali, we have the scalability needed for brand growth,” he adds; Terlato currently produces a Pinot Grigio from the region through its Terlato Vineyards brand.
Eastern Europe’s Local Varieties
Jenny Lefcourt, the CEO of Jenny & François Selections in Manhattan, became one of the leading East Coast importers and distributors of natural wines over a decade ago. Now, she is concentrating on Eastern Europe. “Driving along the border of Slovakia and Hungary,” says Lefcourt, “and seeing small houses with a vegetable garden, a row of vines, a field of fruit trees, a field of wheat—there is a diverse landscape unlike anything you find in well-known wine regions these days.” Lefcourt is particularly excited about the quality of the region’s indigenous grape varieties, such as Dunaj, Alibernet, and Devin.
English Sparkling Wines—the Next Grower Champagne?
According to Julia Trustram Eve, the marketing head of Wines of Great Britain, the U.S. is the fourth-largest export market for U.K. wines, whose production reached 9.3 million bottles in 2021—much of it premium sparkling wine. Ronnie Sanders, the CEO of Vine Street Imports in New Jersey, handles four U.K. brands and says its sparkling wines are fitting into the price niche above Cava and Prosecco but below Champagne—the niche grower Champagnes occupied a decade ago. “English sparkling wines are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than comparable Champagnes,” he says, “and now there are Champagne shortages, increased prices, and shipping delays.”
Burgundy on the Loire
Weygandt says that he is still finding value regions in France after all these years. “The younger growers making Pinot Noir in Sancerre are creating wines on the same level as the village wines in Burgundy, and Burgundy prices continue to go up,” he says. “We’re buying as much as we can, and it’s selling on the shelf at between $26 and $30 a bottle.”
Chile’s Traditional Grape—Pais
Smaller importers often lead the way in opening up new areas, and Lizzy Butler, the Argentina and Chile specialist for California importer Vine Connections, believes her company is doing that for Chile’s traditional grape: Pais, or Mission, which was brought to the Americas by Spanish missionaries. “Pais and old-vine Semillon are still being grown by small families in Chile, and we like to think we’re not only selling classic, traditional wines, but also preserving a way of life,” says Butler. She also says there are small, neglected, old-vine plots of various varieties across the Andes in Argentina waiting to be marketed.
South America Beyond Chile and Argentina
Beyond these big producers, two other South American countries are now exporting considerable amounts of wine to the U.S.: Uruguay, whose production focuses on Tannat, and Brazil, which is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and sparkling wine. Mika Bulmash, the founder and CEO of New York-based Wine for the World, has been marketing Brazilian sparkling wine for eight years. “With its quality and selling price of under $35, demand is exceeding supply,” she says.
Is it a Keeper?
What drives success with a new wine category in the marketplace? Quality and price are obvious factors, but how a region is marketed and the resources allocated are just as important. Government funding from the source region or country always helps.
The personal touch is also key. Doody says the family winegrowers in the Vineyard Brands portfolio love to come to the U.S. to sell their wines. “They meet with the trade and the press and host wine dinners,” he says. Bulmash loves for competitors to sell wine from the same region together: “A rising tide, you know.”
But Weygandt says he has a three-year rule to determine whether a new brand or region is a keeper. “We have no expectations the first year,” he says. “The second year, you want to see some progress. But if it hasn’t caught on after the third year, well…”
Even bottles from flashy new wine regions have their “sell by” dates.
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Roger Morris is a Delaware-based writer who for the past 20 years has contributed articles on wine, food, and popular culture to about a dozen publications in the U.S. and Europe. Currently, he writes for World of Fine Wine, Drinks Business, Meininger’s, VinePair, Wine & Spirits, and Global Drinks Intel, among others. In prior years, he taught writing at Arizona State University and the University of Delaware and was an industry marketing executive.