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Wilson Daniels Wholesale Charts a Course for Growth

The company is opening a Connecticut branch in a bid to hit $40 million in sales this year

Wilson Daniels headquarters in Napa, California. Photo courtesy of Wilson Daniels.

As Wilson Daniels celebrates its 40th anniversary, the company has set a goal for its wholesale divisions to reach $40 million in revenue in 2018. The family-owned fine-wine importer and marketer, based in St. Helena, California, expanded into wholesale three years ago and just announced its latest development: a new wholesale operation in Connecticut as of October 1.

The Connecticut operation will be the third branch of Wilson Daniels Wholesale. The company is fully owned by Wilson Daniels LTD, a subsidiary of Young’s Holdings, Inc., which is headquartered in Tustin, California, and owned by the Underwood family. It’s best known for representing premier, grower-producer estate wines from Europe and the U.S., and its flagship brands include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leflaive from Burgundy, as well as Dal Forno Romano of Veneto and Schramsberg of California. Recent additions include Tuscany’s Biondi-Santi, Russian River Valley’s Arista, Champagne’s Gosset, and Provence’s Château Gassier

The company launched its wholesale business in 2015, servicing New York, and followed that move a year later by adding New Jersey. The move gave Wilson Daniels a stronger East Coast presence. Says Rocco Lombardo, the company’s president, “The East Coast acts as a gateway to Europe, and the Underwood family had a proactive vision of expanding the Wilson Daniels operations to New York [that was] focused on its wholesale activities.”  

Their approach, Lombardo says, is simple—distributing premiere terroir-driven estate wines primarily from France, Italy, and the U.S. to the market.

Wilson Daniels president Rocco Lombardo and co-founder Jack Daniels. Photo courtesy of Wilson Daniels.

Expanding into Connecticut

Selling premium wine to clients with refined palates and bulging Rolodexes can be challenging, given the stiff competition in the luxury wine space. The Underwoods and Lombardo believe it can only be done with focused, one-on-one attention, so they deploy small teams that cover specific territories.

Wilson Daniels Wholesale plans to open its Connecticut doors in October, and it expects the new branch to operate much like its other wholesale arms, distributing some 80 brands. The wholesale businesses operate like startups, their smaller size allowing for more nimble movement and a hands on-approach that would be difficult for a larger, bureaucratic structure.

Lombardo believes that applying a focused, team approach to the company’s sales efforts in Connecticut is integral to meeting the wholesale division’s goals for this year. “Connecticut is a state that usually represents a 3 to 4 percent market share for us, and we are currently under-indexed,” he says, adding that he hopes to “rectify this within the next 18 to 24 months.”   

A team of five has been assembled in Connecticut: one manager and four sales reps. In comparison, the New York team has three managers and 17 sales reps, while the New Jersey team has one sales manager and five sales reps. All three branches report to Lombardo.

About 60 percent of Wilson Daniels Wholesale’s volume in New York and New Jersey goes to on-premise accounts, with the balance going to off-premise, Lombardo explains, and Connecticut is expected to follow that model. Lombardo says sales reps carry about 60 accounts apiece.

David Lombardo, the wine and beverage director at New York-based Benchmarc Restaurants by Marc Murphy, appreciates the company’s personal touch. “They’ve become family,” he says, “and I see them as partners who are consistently going above and beyond to look after the best interests of each of their clients.”

The company is esteemed by many in the industry for its high standards. “Their commitment to quality, regardless of what it takes in their team, is an inspiration and also results in an amazing portfolio of some of the greatest wines in the world,” says Brahm Callahan, a Master Sommelier and the corporate beverage director at the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group.

In 2016, Wilson Daniels Wholesale generated $20 million in revenue. In 2017, revenue jumped to $27 million. In 2018, with continued growth in New York and New Jersey, and the addition of the Connecticut branch and a number of new brands, Lombardo projects that revenue will exceed $40 million. 

Bringing Product to Market

Growing that revenue requires not only creating new sales channels but bringing new products to market. Last year, Lombardo says he spent 240 days on the road, visiting with distributors and producers, both existing and potential. 

“We are pleased with our portfolio from Tuscany,” he says, “and are exploring new estates from communes in Piedmont as well as actively seeking new partnerships in Loire and Burgundy. Specifically, we’re looking for more opportunities to distribute with brands that have equity in the U.S.” Additionally, Lombardo adds, the company wouldn’t hesitate to act if the right opportunity came along to market a new estate, such as it did with Olivier Bernstein

“I will never forget the day that [Wilson Daniels co-founder] Jack Daniels came to taste my wines for the first time in Burgundy five years ago,” says Bernstein of Olivier Bernstein. “We got to know each other and realized that we wanted to work together. It was a great honor for us to be represented by Wilson Daniels, certainly the best brand ambassador able to promote wines as exclusive as ours.”  

In December 2017 the wholesale division of Wilson Daniels announced a partnership with Joanne US, which represents classed-growth Bordeaux. As a leading négociant, Joanne’s inventory features major châteaus and their second-label wines in multiple vintages. These wines are now available to some 2,000 accounts throughout New York and New Jersey. Over the past 24 months, the wholesale division has established a fine-wine portfolio that’s representative of the top growing regions in the world. Today the portfolio consists of nearly 150 family-owned and -operated wineries. 

To mark 40 years in business, Wilson Daniels is embarking this summer on a five-city tour featuring the entire portfolio, including all-stars like Domaine Laroche, Chêne Bleu, Elvio Cogno, and Royal Tokaji.

A selection of Wilson Daniels’ wines. Photo courtesy of Wilson Daniels.

As Wilson Daniels Wholesale grows, the challenge will most likely be to maintain a focus on the premium wines and one-on-one service that have been the foundations of its success. “We have a very long term approach to the Wilson Daniels Wholesale business model, both in the relationships with our supplier partners as well as our growth,” says Kevin Murphy, the company’s vice president of operations. “Connecticut is an opportunity that aligns with our focus of representing a selection of historic, family estates selling to the top accounts of a market, and we’re ready to dive in.”

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.

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