Log In / Join Now

Drinking Out Loud

The Most Powerful Force in Fine Wine Today

It's not the big distribution box movers. Rather, it's the small importer evangelicals

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 17, 2014

"So what looks different now that you're home?" is a question I've been asked repeatedly since I returned to the United States after a three-month stay in Portugal. My answer surprised even me.

My time in Portugal made me realize, more powerfully than ever before, just how vital, and irreplaceable, America's small, impassioned fine-wine importers are to modern wine appreciation.

Now, I've long been aware of their influential role. After all, I've been professionally observing such importers for nearly four decades. The roll call of names (which I'll get to in a moment) will be familiar to any fine-wine lover who's been around a while.

So what changed? Why now, all of a sudden, am I so struck by the phenomenon of the impassioned fine-wine importer?

Simply put, it's because Portuguese wines don't seem to have one. Oh, there are multiple importers of Portuguese wines, all of whom no doubt feel strongly about the wines they bring in.

But merely bringing in wines is no longer enough. It takes more than mere box moving, a lot more, to win over a market as big and as wine-soaked as America's. To move the market, it takes a single-minded passion, a profoundly personal belief in the glory and worthiness of a particular category of wine.

Allow me to offer a few examples which, even in brief outline, demonstrate the disproportionate impact of a surprisingly small handful of enormously persuasive individuals.

A good place to start is with Frank Schoonmaker. I never met him, as he died the same year I began writing about wine, which was 1976. I have met plenty of people who knew him, and I’ve certainly felt his impact, as his legacy lasted long after his passing.

Schoonmaker was the person who banged the drum for the desirability—even the superiority—of estate-bottled wines, most passionately so for Burgundy, although he did also love German Rieslings. He was also the person who, in his role as a consultant to Almaden and Wente wineries, originally proposed and helped persuade California wine producers to desist from using European place names such as Chablis and instead use varietal names such as Chardonnay.

Above all, it was Schoonmaker's single-minded celebration of estate-bottled Burgundies that convinced a new generation of American wine drinkers that wines produced and bottled under a grower's name were more authentic than those from shippers who blended wines from multiple sources. If you want to trace the earliest roots of today's "authenticity movement" in wine, the trail leads to Frank Schoonmaker.

An heir to the Schoonmaker legacy was his former employee Alexis Lichine, who set up a rival company, and Robert Haas, who also was enthralled by Burgundy. (Something about Burgundy seems to have been, and still be, unusually inspiring.) They, too, celebrated estate-bottled wines, which was the Big Idea of the day.

The floodgates opened wide starting in the 1980s. You had Neil and Maria Empson, who proselytized fine Italian wines at a time when that very phrase was, if not entirely unknown, viewed with skepticism. They crisscrossed America selling then-unknown but now-famous producers such as Costanti, Marcarini and, not least, Angelo Gaja, among the dozens of others they introduced to curious American wine lovers.

Similarly, and eventually famously, arrived Kermit Lynch, who transformed a small retail wine store in Berkeley, Calif., into not just a nationwide importing business, but a vehicle for one man's passionate pursuit of what he perceives as the true, the real and the authentic in fine wine. The fact that many of his wines were obscure didn't seem to matter to him. Their beauty was their (commercial) justification. His belief was persuasive—and profitable.

Mr. Lynch was hardly alone in his pursuit of the true and beautiful in fine wine. The ranks were filled—and still are—by the likes of Robert Chadderdon, Eric Solomon, Neal Rosenthal and Robert Kacher, among others.

Others chose to specialize. Steve and Almudena Metzler created what was originally called Classical Wines from Spain (it's now just Classical Wines), which introduced an array of producers, many of them now famous, from a newly transforming Spain that was only just modernizing in the 1980s.

Joe Dressner of Louis/Dressner Selections took yet a different tack. He harnessed his passion for what he considered "natural" wines and pursued producers in multiple countries whom he considered to be creating exceptional wines with a certain type of winemaking purity. In so doing, he generated a near cultlike following of wine lovers. (Mr. Dressner died in September 2011 at age 60, from a brain tumor. His wife and business partner, Denyse Louis, survives him and the company remains a powerful influence.)

Terry Theise is yet another impassioned importer, one who single-handedly sliced off a nice piece of the Champagne market for what are known as "grower Champagnes," and who has also banged the drum for German and, especially, Austrian wines. He too has a lucrative and loyal following.

I'm sure that in this tour d'horizon I've omitted other equally worthy and notable names, and I apologize in advance. But my point requires no further examples, although they surely exist.

In an era of ever-larger wholesale distributors (thanks to consolidation), the box movers can seem all-powerful. And they sure do have power, make no mistake. But their influence is surprisingly narrow, for all their marketing muscle. This is because, if only because of scale, they follow the market rather than lead it.

Coming back from Portugal, which does not yet have its Kermit or Terry or Joe to extol and promote its wine virtues, it became strikingly obvious to me that in today's "wine America" you're at a real disadvantage without a messiah. It's not enough today, if it ever was, simply to have distribution. You need evangelism.

America, perhaps more than any other nation, is responsive to evangelical fervor. Imagine what our wine world would look like today if the "evangelicals" I’ve mentioned here did not exist.

Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  June 17, 2014 12:12pm ET
Matt - very interesting topic. How do you define "big box distributors?" I live in the Bay Area and I buy 500+ bottles of wine a year. The majority of these wines are bought online. I then either walk into the store and pick up the wine, or have it shipped to my residence. So far this year, I have purchased nearly all my wine through the following vendors: Garagiste Wine (a/k/a Jon Rimmerman), K&L Wines and Safeway.

IMHO - Garagiste and K&L are "evangelicals." You could toss JJ Buckley into that mix and Beltramo's, Best Wines Online and 10 to 15 others in the US. What separates this group from the Bevmos of the world is that they offer great selection, fair prices and they directly import wines. The staff at these places are also incredibly knowledgeable.

Garagiste does a great job of selling wines via email that are tough to find in the US. I would say they focus on French and Italian wines, and a number of the wines sell for less than $25. I am surprised more retailers haven't copied their email offer model. Send the email to the member. If the member wants to buy the wine, they reply back and state how many bottles they want. There is no clicking through and going to the retailers site...It is done in 10 seconds. Then the next day Garagiste sends email stating that you order is confirmed or they sold out.

K&L has a great selection of French, Italian and Spanish wines, with a good mix from South America, Australia and other European countries that produce wine. Their US wine selection is also good, but I typically don't buy US wine from K&L, because they are so strong in other areas.

Some of the Safeways (especially the new one in Sunnyvale / Cupertino) have solid domestic wine selections. I enjoy CA Sauvignon Blancs, and they have a solid line up. It is a convenient place to buy a bottle of wine.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Wayne Coultas
Whippany NJ  —  June 17, 2014 12:43pm ET
Matt:

As usual great article!!

In 1979 I graduated from The Sommelier Institute in NJ. My Italian wine instructor was a gentleman named Leonardo LoCascio who had a company called LoCascio Imports, he had personal relationships with all the wineries he represented, most of which in the beginning were Italian. The company grew and changed its name to Winebow which is now a half a billion dollar wine wholesaler.. I think he should be mentioned in this article.

Thanks,

Wayne
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  June 17, 2014 1:26pm ET
Matt, sounds like you know what your next job is already - who better to promote those wines?
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 17, 2014 2:31pm ET
Spot on analysis, Matt. I sell quite a bit of what I would call interesting and authentic wines retail, wines supplied by the likes of the names you mention. Being personally passionate about the wine road less traveled is essential all along the distribution chain, but committed retailers and restauranteurs would have nothing to show without the efforts of these wine "zealots" ferreting out the good stuff!

I'd like to add another name to the roll call of the passionate importers, Rudi Wiest of Cellars International. Rudi has been fighting the good fight to import and promote the best of Germany's wines in America for over thirty years. When you talk German wines with people in the trade, Rudi's name comes up again and again as both mentor and friend. Many working in this field today owe their career path to encountering this seemingly tireless ambassador of Riesling and German wines in general.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Kc Tucker
San Diego, CA —  June 17, 2014 6:19pm ET
I agree with David on Rudi Wiest - he and his staff are amazing.

Matt - given this focus on importers, it would be helpful if Wine Spectator includes the importers to its wine reviews. I often have to research wines on line based on reviews and many of the overseas wineries don't check their website contact inbox.

Jim Kern, Holiday Wine Cellar
Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland OR —  June 18, 2014 11:41am ET
Matt,

Importers play a key role in the wine biz. It is true for large brands as well as for fine wines. They are the force behind the import business as a whole and this is true in the USA as well as everywhere else (I sell my wine through an American wine importer in Hong Kong for example). They are always great personalities and somewhat bipolar in my humble experience.

I was actually (true story) reading about Portugal this morning (I am studying for the Master of Wines hence the complete lack of personal life) and could not stop to be amazed by the diversity of Portugal and all those indigenous varietals. A real sobering moment for an MW student - please no Bucelas from Arinto at the exam! It seems like a completely under represented wine country in our stores and life, especially if you layer the rich history of Portugal (first country to have appellation of origin in 1756) on the top of the huge diversity in wine style (Madeira, ports, sparkling, vinho verde, Baga, Bical and so many more). I was for a minute thinking about becoming the Terry Theise of Portugal until I reminded myself that I have two full time jobs and I don't speak any Portuguese.

Would be up for a Portuguese wine tasting in Portland with you anytime!

Nicolas
Ed Lehrman
Sausalito, CA —  June 18, 2014 12:32pm ET
Do evangelicals only exist for Old World wine regions?? Important (now) wine regions like Mendoza wouldn't exist in the US wine industry consciousness without people like Alfredo Bartholomaus (orig. Billington Imports). And to toot my own horn, Vine Connections (which I co-founded 15 years ago with Nick Ramkowsky) has worked tirelessly to put Argentine fine wine (nothing below $10 retail) on the map, from Salta to every micro-climate of Mendoza. Same with Japanese sake (we represent 16 family brewers from all over the country), which was practically unknown 14 years ago until we went door to door educating the American trade. Now we are doing it with Chile--last May and all at once, we introduced 9 family wineries working in 11 appellations. This kind of work takes immense time (decades), belief and dedication to the people and places we work with. There are examples from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as well. This is how these "New World" regions become relevant in the US over time. Portugal, as well, needs a champion importer or two who will fight for the country and not just for a brand or two.

Ed Lehrman, Vine Connections
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  June 18, 2014 1:28pm ET
Mr. Lehrman: You ask, "Do evangelicals only exist for Old World wine regions?" The short answer to that is: "Obviously not."

However, your question does raise an interesting point. The great majority of "evangelical importers" do appear to concentrate on European wines rather than those from New World wine countries.

Partly this is explained by the fact that Europe is not just saturated in wine but also offers a remarkable spectrum of wines and grape varieties. One need only look at the likes of Italy alone to see this, never mind France, Hungary, Spain, Greece and Portugal.

Another reason is structural. Many wineries in Argentina and Chile, for example, are large operations that are commercial in both scale and ambition. Evangelical importers are neither drawn to such producers nor can they serve them anywhere near as well as the big importing outfits.

This same also applies, unfortunately, to Australia which does abound in small, highly personal, wine producers. But Australia's wine industry was and still is dominated by a handful of huge wine producers who made it their business to skew both Australia's image as well as its wine export efforts toward servicing their massive scale.

Only now are we seeing efforts on the part of Australia's wine export organizations (which are closely allied with the Australian government) to emphasize Australia's wine diversity as well as its many differences in terroir. This, in turn, helps shine a spotlight on Australia's smaller producers.

The bottom line is this: Evangelical importers clearly are fired with fervor by small wine producers offering highly differentiated wines. Because of the recent development of so many New World wine districts, such a degree of differentiation has not evolved to anywhere near the degree we see in Europe's centuries-old wine cultures.

For what it's worth, I believe that we will see evangelical importers for Australian and New Zealand wines in the not-too-distant future, as both nations have the requisite supply of such small, highly individual producers.
Station Imports Llc
Colorado Springs, CO USA —  June 18, 2014 3:48pm ET
Evangelical Importers DO exist for New Zealand wines! Our Company, Station Imports, has been bringing some of the best small, hand crafted wine from New Zealand to the USA for the last 12 years - Rippon, Quartz Reef, Millton Vineyards to name a few. Being focused on New Zealand is a rarity but we believe that some of the freshest, brightest and well made wines available are from this South Pacific nation. A few of the specialty retailers listed above are good supporters and have helped us get our wines to consumers. However, most of all, Evangelical Importers need just as committed distributors to help the cause. We appreciate the ones who believe that we know the best of New Zealand and support our wines.
Cliff Laurendeau
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada —  June 18, 2014 10:16pm ET
Wow, I almost feel appreciated and dare I gush, special. I own and operate a modest wine importing/ agency in BC. Highest taxed in North America bye way of explaining our tear inducing pricing.

I have never thought of myself as an evangelist but now I recognize that is what I have become. When all the BIG BOYS have tied up all the BIG PRODUCERS there is nothing left to do but look for niches. Portugal is one of those niches.

This wonderful country with a diverse and colourful history of making wines with their own indigenous grapes and offering such great value. Did I mention BC's taxes? Anyway here is an island of interesting, vibrant, original wines that need to be told about. And that is what I am doing.

Mind you I feel that way about most of the wines that I bring in from everywhere (one does make allowances to make a living). If I don't appreciate it why should you? Does that make me an "evangelical importer"? I won't fight it.
Bruce Nichols
Naples, Florida —  June 19, 2014 10:02am ET
Two comments:
1) Refreshing to read a Matt Kramer article without a trace of sarcasm/cynicism and,
2) The importers you mention and the countless others you couldn't get to are the best way for novice wine consumers to ensure they have half a chance of getting a good bottle of wine whatever price category they're chasing. If they are feeling overwhelmed by a plethora of choices, they can check the back label for any of those companies you mentioned and be reasonably assured of a great wine.
Thanks for covering this niche.
Bruce Nichols
A Nichols Worth of Wine
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  June 19, 2014 12:04pm ET
Mr. Kramer

While I agree on the premise of your post I had to do a double-take on its date. I rely on you for news but you could have posted this 10 years ago, even 20 years ago and it would have been fresher and more news to me. The players you mentioned here--Kermit Lynch, Empson, Dressner, etc.--have been at this game for a while. From the headline, I was really expecting that you would sing praises for the more current generation of newer small importers making inroads in the market by evangelizing, as you say, but also by carrying a portfolio of producers that resonate more and more to today's drinkers.

Here are some of the best and brightest small importers that I admire and most of which I support in my wine store:
Beaune Imports
Zev Rovine Selections
Terrell Wines
Joli Vin
Grand Cru Selections
Jenny & Francois
Savio Soares
SelectioNaturel
Jose Pastor
Langdon Shiverick
Dee Vine Wines
Selection Massale
Return to Terroir

Best
Alex Bernardo
Vineyard Gate www.vineyardgate.com
Mark Macedonio
Fairfield, Connecticut USA —  June 23, 2014 1:31pm ET
Matt,

Thank you for your perspective on U.S. wine Evangelists and how they have influenced wine trends in the US and globally.

While you have covered the major trend makers of the past, you may have missed a few modern trend makers. This is particularly true of Portugal, where our company M Imports, myself and respective Portuguese producer partners have traveled throughout the US proselytizing the quality, distinctiveness, innovation and value of Portuguese wines.

For the last 9 years, we have worked exceptionally hard as an import leader toward moving the needle on awareness and education of Portuguese wines. In fact, we have pioneered multiple Portuguese wine brands across a 40 state footprint. Contrary to your assessment, we do work with Big Box Wholesalers and with excellent results.

Our portfolio includes wines from the Top 5 Portuguese appellations, and is growing. We are one of the leaders in Douro and Bairrada wines on a national basis.

The qualities you embraced from other well-known wine Evangelists equally apply to us. The qualities you noted were as follows:

- Impassioned
- Profound personal belief in the glory and worthiness of a particular category of wine
- Banging the drum for the Superiority of Estate Bottled wines
- Overcoming Skepticism for a specific country's wines or producers
- Transforming a vision to a nationwide importing business
- One man's passionate pursuit of what he perceives as the true, the real and the authentic in fine wines (from Portugal)
- Specialization in wines from the Iberian Peninsula

I would be very pleased to share with you our many 90+ and Top 100 wines should you like to spend an afternoon together. I am sure that my wineries Quinta do Portal, Campolargo, Casa da Passarella, Herdade Grande and Quintas de Melgaco would also appreciate a visit the next time you are in Portugal, as they are leaders and innovators that would love to share their wines and best practices with you.

Most importantly, our Portuguese producers are all great people, with great families that live and breathe the Evangelism you speak of. They inspire me as their US Importer to be the best Portuguese wine Evangelist that I can be in todays "Wine America".

Portugal does deserve a spot on the national stage and there are many emerging Evangelists in support of these wines, including journalists like yourself that are bringing these great wines to light with American consumers.

Best regards,

Mark Macedonio
CEO
M Imports, LLC

www.mimportsusa.com

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.