Diary of a Wine Importer, Chapter 1

So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Starting a new wine importing business is much like going to the gynecologist. You thrust your wines out there in front of someone you don’t know, you shudder silently while they take their samples and then you wait, nervously, for what feels like years to get the results. They finally call or respond to your email to say that while they liked your selection, they could not find a space for them right now. It is a particular kind of rejection. When someone says they are not interested in carrying your wines, they are saying, quite literally, they do not like your taste. Do I have bad taste? Is my palate wimpy?

The waiting game

How will they react?

When I tell people I am a wine importer, they coo that it must be great to taste wine for a living and lament that they cannot travel so often for work. But it is really the same as any other entrepreneurial pursuit -the hours are long and solitary and you never know if the payoff will ever come. I believe in the wines I am trying to sell and love to tell the winemaker’s story since he or she is not here to tell it in person.  But the fact is, there are so many wines out there on the market now. American’s thirst for wine has grown up and their desire even for off-the-beaten-track varietals is there, but is there really room for another small wine importer? I have to believe there is.

The first person I tasted with was a family friend. We were tasting under the assumption that it was a market test in which to get feedback from an industry veteran, the family friend. I forgot my corkscrew. Then, with my borrowed corkscrew, my hands were trembling so much to get the first cork out that I broke it. I snapped that bad boy right in half. We tasted through the first few wines and I had forgotten to taste from lightest to full bodied so we started with a 14.5% powerhouse and ended with an albariño, with a mishmash of ABVs and styles in between. I had my perfectly calculated Excel prices prepared onto a pdf to which the family friend recommended that I either round up or round down because no retailer would know what to do with a $5.21 or $9.38 price point. What pricing tier was I going for?

I used to be a wine buyer for an online retailer in Europe. I was on the other side of the table and I personally did not like when the person with whom I was tasting talked incoherently about facts and figures. It distracted me from the analysis. In my inaugural tasting, the one I described earlier, I mostly kept quiet at first. But there were too many long silences between our swirling and gurgling. So instead of sitting terrified that he would hate everything, I shook my hands of their shakes and started to tell the stories of the wines he was trying.

When I feel that the tasting is going well.

When I feel that the tasting is going well.

I lived in Spain for a number of years and used to bike through wine country on the weekends. Often my partner and I would end up running into one of our winemaker friends and have lunch with them. Or we’d pop in for a barrel sample and be on our way. If we weren’t biking we were otherwise involved in the daily promotion of the local wine industry. These were the details that should move my wines to sell.

Most of the winemakers were working class farmers who just happened to be producing something that can be shipped halfway across the world and enjoyed for a $12 BTG promo. Of course, in between Ob/Gyn visits I was wise enough to look up BTG and discovered it meant by the glass and is one of the most widely used acronyms in the beverage industry. I am not even comfortable writing LOL in a text, but I guess if I want to sell wine I’d better get on board.

I am being selective. I have two tastings this week with two very important restaurants. I have eaten at these establishments and respect what they are doing. I can even imagine one or two of my wines on their list. If they want to talk BTG or distributor FOB, or TCA, or DOC, or OND I am game. If they ask about differences in vintage, I’ll be prepared. If they want to know where the winemaker spent his last vacation, I’ll make it up. I’ll offer suggestions for pairings with their star dishes. This time I will swallow my fears and not allow the silence as protagonist. The products do not sell themselves and I have to remind myself that I am representing my gals and guys back in Spain who would love to see their wines drunk so far afield as Portland, Ore.

It's too quiet...

It’s too quiet…

This is the first chapter of what I expect will be many. I figured I would have to do five or six tastings before I ever made a sale. So, until then, can you buy me a drink while I am still pre-revenue?

Five Things To Remember As A New Wine Importer:

  1. Always bring a corkscrew.
  2. You know your product better than anyone, so talk about it and sell it. Only iPhones sell themselves.
  3. It is hard to sell unknown regions. Try that much harder.
  4. Make clear what your philosophy is.
  5. Price matters. Get the best wine in your category for the best price.
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