"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.