So, You Want To Be A Wine Importer

So, you went to Uruguay or southern Italy on vacation, and you found the most amazing small producers that no one is bringing into the US. After some dreamy pillow talk with your significant other you’ve decided you should start a small import company. Congratulations! I hope you have a lot of money to lose. Here’s a little advice to help you get started – probably worth what you paid for it.

Door leading to the legendary Neal Rosenthal's warehouse
Door leading to the legendary Neal Rosenthal’s warehouse

In my job as wine retailer, my colleagues and I taste wine with lots of small import companies, and I occasionally find myself thinking, oh no, this poor guy is going to lose his shirt. Signs of Failing Importer Syndrome include still having inexpensive white wine from 5+ vintages ago in your book and having to hire sales reps who look like they’re sleeping in their cars. Seriously, I’ve recently been shown 2009 Pinot Grigio with a straight face. These companies seem to disproportionately specialize in Italian wines, probably because Italy is such a lovely, romantic place for a vacation. I get it. After a week in Rome I was trying to figure out how to live there. But then I came to my senses. Stay rational, people. Everyone fucking loves Italy.

Now, I’ve never run an import company, so the ins and outs of how to secure and fill a container, how to deal with a warehouse, and all of the other logistical disasters that will keep you up at night are not my area of expertise, but here are a few things I have observed that make for an import company that actually sells wine.

Start at the bottom. Yes, I know you tasted an amazing, foot-trodden Syrah made from half a hectare on the top of a mountain in Bolivia, but what you really need is wine that will sell for $8-15 retail for floor stacks in stores that will require your retail customers to re-order every 1-2 weeks. Similarly, you need to get on the by-the-glass list at restaurants. Most restaurants and bottle shops would only sell a few bottles a month of that mountaintop Syrah, but if you can find a clean, accessible, delicious wine that sommeliers can sell for $12 a glass at a healthy markup that will make them money, then you stand a much better chance of getting that Syrah in the door.

Network. Whenever I ask successful importers how they built their portfolio, they almost always say that they ask the producers they already work with who else they like in the region/country. I would imagine this tactic would work even with producers you don’t work with yet. Ask people whose wine you already like what else you should taste. Sounds simple, but I meet a lot of people in the service industry who think they know it all, or want everything they sell to be guided by their unique palate and whims. The best skill I’ve ever learned to cultivate in my work has been the ability to identify who knows what they’re doing, and then shut up and listen.

Learn to Taste For Flaws. Have you ever taken a formal wine tasting class? If . not, please stop reading this right now and sign up for one. It’s really important to be able to taste in an objective way and to know how to spot all the flaws that can screw up the product you’re going to be selling. You should of course be able to spot things like cork taint, but it’s also important to be able to spot more subtle issues, like if a wine is teetering on the edge of being oxidized (we might call this ‘tired’ in industry shorthand), or if a rosé is being pumped full of CO2 to hide the fact that it’s a bit overripe and blowsy without a bit of barely-perceptible spritz to perk it up. The kind of tasting you do for buying purposes isn’t very romantic or even fun a lot of the time, but it’s really important and can keep you from making bad decisions that you’ll have to look at stacked in your warehouse for months or years.

Hire Experienced Sales Reps. People can be taught about wine, but it’s much harder to teach professionalism and a good work ethic. Hire sales reps with experience, who know how to do basic shit like follow up, show up for appointments with customers on time, not get drunk at said appointments, and ask for the sale in a nice but eager way as though they actually give a crap. This is harder to find than you might think. Don’t hire your spouse/girlfriend/cousin/wife’s friend’s college-aged daughter you’ve daydreamed about sleeping with (and don’t hire her to ‘do your social media’ either. You don’t need a fucking Snapchat account).

Maybe Crack a Book. Start with Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch and Reflections of a Wine Merchant by Neal Rosenthal (a national fucking treasure and an example to us all of how to run a successful business with passion and integrity). Reading Between the Wines by everyone in the wine business’s favorite crazy uncle Terry Theise is great, and I also love Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, which is about the restaurant business, but really is relevant to anyone with customers. If you can get past the little bit of cheese factor it will really inspire you toward better, more generous service. I revisit it when I feel myself getting too cranky.

PS: A word about rosé. If you’re looking at wine from emerging wine regions, producers will want to show you their rosé because everyone wants to get in on the pink action, and I don’t blame them. Unless something dramatically changes in the next few years, rosé needs to retail for $15 or less if it doesn’t come from Provençe, it needs to be paler than canned salmon, and it needs to come in a clear bottle in packaging that appeals to the kind of woman who Instagrams her first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season. I really wish this wasn’t true, but it is unfortunately still the commercial reality. Rosé also needs to be from the current vintage. Yes, I know, your rosé ages so well. There’s so much structure. Seriously, if you try to show me some brick-colored, muddy rosé made from Pinotage grown in Mongolia from 3 vintages ago that comes in a weird, green-tinted bottle I will probably never make another tasting appointment with you again.

I hope this caffeine-fuled rant has been somewhat helpful. Happy hunting! Better you than me.

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