How to Make It As a Small Wine Importer

As wine retailers and sommeliers continue to seek out up-and-coming regions, the number of small, independent importers is booming. Megan Krigbaum on how these "little guys" are changing the market, and how they got started.

When I was first getting into wine, I, like many before me, became an avid player of Spin the Bottle. At tastings, in wine shops, at restaurant tables, I was constantly turning wines around to see the back label. This game of investigation revealed the importer, giving subtle clues about the style of what was in the bottle. And for a good stretch, I felt pretty in the loop with the small guys: Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, traditional French and Italian wines with purity; Louis/Dressner, avant-garde naturalist producers; De Maison Selections, off-the-beaten path discoveries from Spain; Rare Wine Co., seminal Old World winemakers.

But then, starting a handful of years ago, I found that more often than not when I’d spin, I’d come full-stop: Who the hell is that? Names that I’d never seen before, like Zev Rovine, José Pastor, Acid Inc. and, more recently, Selection Massale, Camille Rivière and Coeur Wine Co., were inhabiting a substantial amount of shelf and wine list space—each a small but mighty presence. Not only were the importers new to me, but the wines and producers were, too.

Whereas, ten or 15 years ago, to be small meant anything other than Southern Wine & Spirits and its behemoth brethren, in today’s Golden Era of imports, that scale is much wider, with big at one end and small, smaller, smallest at the other. Largely, the success of these smaller businesses stems from intensely committed buyers at both the restaurant and retail level, an ever-growing interest in natural and more obscure wines and, crucially, a few importing logistics companies—like T. Elenteny and Fruit of the Vines—that are helping to make importing small amounts of wine much easier by handling administrative services for freight, customs and shipping.

After the honeymoon period of discovering those first wines, the dream model—fly to France, rent a car, knock on doors, find the next Coche-Dury—so perfectly set forth by Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route is hardly a reality.

“There’s been a real rise in sommeliers that are into off-the-beaten-path regions and retailers that champion smaller producers,” says Eric Clemons, owner of Coeur Wine Co., which imports wines from France, Italy and Spain exclusively to New York and New Jersey. That these buyers are receptive to working with a large swath of suppliers—some sommeliers say they buy from 40 or 50 different importers in a year—is a sea change from the way things used to be, when restaurants and stores relied on just a few importers. The smartest buyers see the opportunity found in this diversity, despite the extra work.

“[Small importers] have continued to bring me new discoveries from almost-forgotten corners of Italy,” says Shelley Lindgren, of Italian restaurants A16 and SPQR in San Francisco.  “I was lucky to find the three Etna Rossos we carried when we first opened; now, we carry dozens of excellent styles and producers from Mt. Etna.”

The crazy thing is that Etna feels almost mainstream at this point, which sits these new upstarts in a bit of an arms race to find the next great region and as-yet-unknown producers for discovery-hungry buyers before anyone else does. Plenty are placing bets on the Savoie and southwest France, while other are looking to producers who are upsetting the status quo in places like Chile and South Africa.

Yet no matter how intense the competition has become, the model still holds that if you’re going to be a wine importer, you will probably find your start in a couple of bottles that you bring home in your suitcase from Europe. That’s how Jenny Lefcourt launched her natural wine-focused company, Jenny & François Selections, back in 2000 while studying in France.

“I fell upon a little tasting in the Loire, the Dive Bouteille, which at the time was probably only ten or 15 producers,” says Lefcourt. “Now, that same tasting has grown to over 100 producers, with thousands of people around the world coming to taste.”

She realized years ago that the natural movement had expanded outside France, so she expanded her business, too. Jenny & Francois now brings in more than 60 producers from Italy, Spain, Austria and, most recently, the Czech Republic—from areas that produce the sort of cool-climate, high acid wines Lefcourt has always chased since she first fell in love with Loire Valley whites.

But after the honeymoon period of discovering those first wines, the dream model—fly to France, rent a car, knock on doors, find the next Coche-Dury—so perfectly set forth by Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route is hardly a reality. Importing and distributing wine requires a huge sum of money up front, patience to wade through the thicket of United States importation laws and an unwavering commitment to pounding the pavement to sell wine.

“People get confused as to what they’re doing in the wine business,” says André Tamers of De Maison Selections, which is celebrating 20 years of business. “They think starting a distribution company is about going to Europe and having lunch, but it’s about having a truck.”

Fifteen years into this importing revolution, these new little guys keep turning up with new places, winemakers and wines. And at this moment when there’s a new portfolio popping up every couple of months, it only stands to reason that Spin the Bottle will become more of a stats game, along the lines of knowing a baseball player’s batting average and all the teams he’s ever played for. But it does seem that this new crop will continue to push all aspects of the industry for the better. “The little guys keep us one our toes,” says Tamers. “We’re making a newer, better website and always looking over our shoulder to make sure were in the right places.”

Here, five importers who have gotten their start in the last ten years, and what they’ve learned in the process.

AI Selections

Location: New York City and 14 states
Who: David Weitzenhoffer and Laura Supper

David Weitzenhoffer, a former wine director at NYC’s Felidia, launched this company with Laura Supper (a coworker at the restaurant) in 2007, after spending several months in Piedmont and realizing that there were a lot of great wines that just weren’t making their way to the States. He started out by bringing in obscure varieties, like refosco, and obscure regional wines, like Rosso Conero, and sold them mostly to restaurant contacts. Weitzenhoffer figures his company is a little bigger than small at this point—with 20 salespeople selling 60-some producers in 14 states. This growth has brought its own new level of competition: “Until you’re a certain size, you’re irrelevant to the larger importers, who want something that they can scale.” Only recently have other importers started to show interest in his producers. His first import, Vignai da Duline from Friuli—a producer Weitzenhoffer describes as “the blueprint for wineries he wanted to work with”—recently went to none other than Kermit Lynch.

Calling-Card Wines: High-elevation Chianti Classico from Monteraponi, high-acid whites from Zidarich in Friuli and Van Volxem in the Mosel, ruché and barbera from Dino and Paolo Dacapo in Piedmont.

Avant Garde Wine & Spirits

Location: New York City
Who: Geoffroy Ducroux

Paris-born Geoffroy Ducroux only sells his wines in New York City—“The goal is to always be a direct importer, not to sell to distributors in other states,” he says. As a one-man team, he’s able to run his business out of a WeWork shared office space near Madison Square Park and visit all of his clients personally. On a good day, he’ll have six or seven appointments, riding on the NYC bus system from one to the next. Ducroux worked in sales for importer Domaine Select for ten years before quitting, heading to France for a month and coming home with a dozen producers onboard for his new importing business. He’s confident he started at the exact right moment: “If I’d waited another year, I wouldn’t have found as many producers with such pedigree and such a following, like Benoit Courault in Anjou,” he says. Now, it’s harder to find these small greats because so many other people are on the same hunt; some of his biggest discoveries have come from following blogs and French newspapers, rather than spending loads of time in Europe.

Calling-Card Wines: Vivid Burgundies from rising star Fanny Sabre in the Côte de Beaune, cremants and focused whites from Alsace’s Valentin Zusslin, grower Champagne from Vouette et Sorbée in the Aube.

Camille Rivière Selection

Location: New York City
Who: Camille Rivière

After managing high-end accounts for mega importer Frederick Wildman for five years, Rivière called it quits to go home to France and rejigger her life. While on vacation, she discovered natural wines for the first time and spent the next two years absorbed in vineyards around the country. Since 2012, she’s pulled together a portfolio comprised of a couple dozen teensy natural producers. “I’ve had distributors from Arizona, Michigan, etc., say ‘We want to distribute your wine,’ but I don’t even have enough for my clients in New York,” says Rivière. “My dad said to me, ‘Why don’t you bring in bigger domaines?’ But if I do that, I’ll lose all legitimacy.” Finding the right producers she wants to work with isn’t the difficult part—she’s in France tasting a couple times a year—but what she struggles with most is sussing out the buyers that she thinks will do a great job with her wines. When prospective buyers reach out, she makes sure “that they have temperature-controlled storage, that they have people on staff who can talk about these wines and that they don’t have ridiculous markups.”

Calling-Card Wines: Affordable reds from Languedoc’s Clos Fantine and Mas Coutelou, Jura cult favorites from Stéphane Tissot.

Coeur Wine Co.

Location: New York City and New Jersey
Who: Eric Clemons

After working up the ranks at importer Skurnik wines for ten years (Skurnik, over the past 25 years, has spawned numerous others, including Polaner, David Bowler and, most recently, Schatzi), Clemons launched Coeur in 2014. “When Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal started their companies, they didn’t have the internet. They had to be fluent in French and knocking on doors. But now it’s so much easier to be in touch with people from the far corners of the world.” Today’s competitive arena makes it so that it’s important for Clemons to constantly be in the market selling (he only has two other salespeople). He relies a lot on the advice of his producers when it comes to picking up new ones. “When you work with a person that you really like and trust, it’s really valuable when they send someone your way,” says Clemons. He’s found that a lot of producers he’s connected with are around his age (33) and taking over the reins from their parents.

Calling-Card Wines: Biodynamic, old-vine Beaujolais from Yann Bertrand, outstanding chenin blanc from Saumur-Champigny’s Château Yvonne, sherry from the nearly 200-year-old Bodegas Gutiérrez Colosía.

Selection Massale

Location: San Francisco and New York City
Who: Cory Cartwright and Guilhaume Gerard

In 2009, Cory Cartwright left his career as a video game designer to team up with Guilhaume Gerard, who, at the time, was an owner of Terroir wine bar in San Francisco, to start what began as a direct-to-consumer wine importing company. The two changed that model to mainly sell wholesale after quickly realizing how big the demand was for natural wines from small producers. Cartwright says that selling wine, in general, has changed: Buyers don’t want to work with big companies and salespeople in suits—they want to have a personal relationship. Same goes for the producers; with each one, he and Gerard “have been to their homes, spent days with them, know their kids and their husbands and wives, tasted the wines on site.”

Calling-Card Wines: Pét-nats from the Loire’s Frantz Saumon, vibrant Chinons from Jérôme Lenoir, Burgundies from cult favorite Céline and Laurent Tripoz and the sensational alpine wines of Domaine Belluard.

Photo: Camille Rivière in her home/office.