Relationships in the wine industry – and about coming full circle

Dutschke vineyard 0809 016

The importance of relationships was true when I first started my US wine importing business twenty-six years ago and through dramatic ebb and flow, trends, recession and evolution, it’s still true. I’m always aware of it, because it’s how I relate to my customers, clients and students, but reminded of it in the past few weeks in a very tangible way.

At the end of 2007, right on the cusp of the Great Recession (although I had no idea at the time), I left my own company, the one I founded in 1992. After twelve years alone, I took on a partner in 2004 who promised to be the investment boost I needed to take my import business to the next level. Three years later, all those hopes were long gone, replaced by chronic stress, and the partner had virtually bankrupted me. Here was a man who was the antithesis of a relationship builder.


In a perfect storm at that time, Australian wines had lost their allure to the American consumer and the exchange rate was decimating margins. Despite that, one of the wineries that I had brought to the partnership remained an iconic brand with market demand and the producer approached me to be my first client. I was very excited about the fresh start and guaranteed income. What I hadn’t counted on was the resistance (to put it mildly) of my partner. Despite the absence of a non-compete in our agreement, he decided to challenge the contractual language. He also threatened the Australian producer with lawsuits that would tie him up and keep the brand out of the US for years if he became my client.

Unfortunately, the producer was in a very public battle of his own with an investor in his company in Australia and couldn’t afford the time or money to fight lawsuits in America or stay out of a lucrative export market. So I went out on my own with no money, no clients and no prospects. The producer ended up losing his wine company to his investor anyway and the new owner discharged my ex-partner as their importer.

challenges sign

My years between 2007 and 2018 involved immense challenges and reinvention, but I never blamed the producer, nor tried to hold him to our original oral agreement. He had too much on the line with his own situation. Along with relationships, I’m also a big believer in not burning your bridges (with the exception of my ex-partner who was a bridge I never wanted to cross again). Aside from just letting it go and moving on, consider that you never know when you’ll encounter that person in another role in a different business or in a position to provide a character reference when you need it. As with every other industry, the wine world is a small one. I’m still a licensed wine importer, but eventually I forged a different and very satisfying path as a consultant, writer and educator.

Then out of the blue, this same producer approached me early this year, over ten years later, to ask if I was interested in importing his new, smaller brand. He remained very much in demand for his talent for sourcing the best grapes and his consummate skill as a winemaker and now, with his son as his partner, he was ready for a second act. But this time his approach would be much different. After the loss of his first company, many had abandoned him or engaged in gleeful schadenfreude and he was well aware of it. The priority for him now was to align himself with familiar people he could trust and manage his company’s growth within sustainable limits. A far cry from the explosive expansion of the previous brand.

My enthusiasm for an association with him has not diminished over the years. If anything, it is a more satisfying outcome after such a prolonged delay and I don’t take it for granted, as I might once have done. We also both feel forged in fire and can relate to what it has taken for each of us to get us here.


Life is not a series of positive experiences, but this one definitely reaffirms my belief in the enduring value of relationships. I hope it resonates with anyone who doubts this in an increasingly competitive and sometimes cutthroat wine business environment. Massive distributor takeovers and consolidations and giant retail liquor chains have reduced access to the personal exchange, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find it or be consistent in your own approach. The greater the number of vendors knocking on any door, large or small, the more alternatives they have. My belief is that given a choice they’ll choose the alcohol brand or vendor they can more easily relate to and rely on.




Client FAQs – Second in a Series


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Waitiri Creek 2

Once again, these are real questions asked by real clients, quoted verbatim. Therefore, I believe they will resonate with most first-time importers or anyone thinking about entering the wine business at the wholesale level.

What would be the best order of the steps to get started? For example, do we start exploring potential distributors before we make our first trip to explore potential suppliers?

Whoa, definitely do not start looking for distributors at this stage. There is nothing yet for your customer to buy, you don’t know what you’ll have to sell, and most importantly, there is only one chance to make a first impression. Distributors are not waiting for new products and competition for space is very stiff. Consolidation has decreased the number of available options and many portfolios are already packed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities. Increasingly, post-recession, there is more demand for interesting, new products from a growing consumer market. However, any alcoholic beverage being presented has to come with a convincing pitch and a compelling reason to even warrant a call back or email response. It doesn’t have to be in the country yet to attract a potential distributor, but it definitely has to be sourced and ready to go. Additionally, it has to align with the right fit in terms of price point, region, style and timing.

So, where do you start? If you are definitely committed to importing you probably already have a region in mind, if not a specific vineyard or wines. But whether you do or not, you can still go ahead with your importing license:

The Federal Basic Permit. Before that, there are these steps:

Establish your business entity – LLC, Corporation, S Corp, Partnership or Sole Proprietorship. There is no one way to do this part and no right or wrong entity. Of course, if you have partners you can’t be a sole proprietor, but other than that the choice is up to you. You may decide that a gaggle of shareholders would warrant a corporation or a partner feels more comfortable with an LLC. These are personal decisions. But don’t just form an LLC because you think you should, or a corporation because it sounds more professional.

Commit to your business address – the address is tied to the Permit.

File for an EIN with – very easy, free application with an instantaneous result.

Obtain a LOI (letter of Intent) from a foreign winery – this sounds more difficult than it actually is. It does not have to be a winery with which you are engaged in discussions or to whom you have committed to importing. It just has to state a simple “intent”.  The easiest way is to obtain one from a winery you’ve visited, explaining the circumstances without making a commitment. If you don’t have any connections through direct relationships, see if you know of anyone in the field who can help obtain one, or even contact a trade organization representing the country in which you are interested to see if they can help.

These are all necessary before you can even begin the application, or information to give to your consultant if one is obtaining the Permit on your behalf.

Next step, often concurrent with the Federal Basic Permit is:

Obtain a state license in your business location state. In most states, you will have to have the Basic Permit issued first, but state licenses usually take much longer so it saves time to get started at the same time. Regardless of whether you choose to distribute in your home state or not, you will be required to have some sort of license issued by the respective state.

Select a warehouse – This is an important consideration for ocean and land logistics, budget and convenience. But be well-informed about why your choices matter.

Selection of freight forwarder, customs broker and most importantly, wines, beers and/or spirits are all important, of course, but the order is going to depend on your own circumstances.

Groskopf warehouse

From your experience are there any regions that are exceptionally difficult to import from and should be avoided?

I don’t think “difficult” in this context necessarily applies in an era when wines from even previously unknown and inaccessible regions are finding their way into the world market. The answer is more in the realm of whether the style will appeal to the U.S. consumer at an affordable or competitive price, and whether you can work with the suppliers and establish a relationship that is mutually productive and profitable. Some countries and/or regions are more difficult by virtue of their reluctance to comply with stringent U.S. regulations or can be trusted to supply the wines that were selected. Although I never recommend approaching any potential business relationship with mistrust or cynicism, it is advisable to cover contingencies in discussions and have an agreement to avoid misunderstandings.


Are there any specific regions that are really trending that you would recommend focusing on?

For the most part, this changes all the time and it would be very helpful to talk to retail shops, read industry publications and Google trends online to see what stands out and appeals to you. You can follow a trend, such as prosecco, Provençal rosé or organic, infused vodka, e.g., but determine first if this is a waning or saturated trend or if you can source the right product to compete. Whether you’re on the leading or trailing edge of a trend doesn’t really matter; just make sure you are well-placed to take advantage of it and that this fits your own business model.

Is there a suggested number of regions to start with?

As with most issues, this isn’t a one size fits all. You can be a specialist in one region or offer a different brand from each of a variety of regions. Other than logistics (explained in more detail two questions down) the most important consideration is to import what you believe in – whether this is an inexpensive, everyday wine or a pricey, single vineyard gem. If you don’t feel proud to represent what you are taking the time to import, through all the steps it requires to get here, then it will diminish your enjoyment of your business and ultimately your productivity will suffer. I will never forget that after even after nearly two decades as an importer of my own portfolio, the two comments I heard most often were, “I can’t believe how passionate you still are about your wines” and “I’ve rarely tasted through a lineup where every wine was good.” Now, that doesn’t mean they selected them all, nor will they from you, but it feels good to get that feedback.

What should I consider in terms of selection?

In reality, I think this question applies mostly to wine. Malt beverages can be any number and style, as long as they adhere to the general principle of good quality for the price and appeal to the U.S. consumer. There are so many interesting beers now the question really should be: where do you stop? For distilled spirits, the answer lies with the product itself. If it is a new discovery from a country or basis (agave, fruit, etc.) or innovative method of distillation perhaps you only need one. In the case of wine, I believe this also somewhat applies to your choice of region or style but, more often for unknown brands from a new importer, the emphasis should be on offering diversity in styles and price points. Not everything should be highly allocated and expensive, no matter how great the accolades. If you have some mid-point wines and a “bread and butter” range $12-$15 (forget the <$10; it is saturated) then this allows for more opportunity in approaching wholesalers and, if you are doing your own in-state distribution, retail shops and restaurants.

My only suggestion on this is not to start with too few wines, even if it’s from one region. It’s not uncommon for a client to have fallen in love with a particular vineyard which produces three or four wines and wanting to establish an import portfolio with just those wines. If that is the case, you’ll run out of new wines to show very quickly, unless what you’ve sourced has a built-in demand that drives sales and volume.

There is no magic number. If budget is tight, you can begin with a small selection but again your business model and sales goals will dictate a reasonable and profitable solution.

I want to start by importing wines from Spain, Argentina and Chile. Does that seem like a reasonable approach?

This particular client speaks Spanish fluently and thought it would be an advantage in her relationships with suppliers. As indeed it is, both from a communication and trust perspective. But logistically, this could be a nightmare. Unless you’re going to bring in a full container from each of these locations, it will require sharing space with unrelated products in a freight forwarder’s container, a more expensive and time-consuming process. A better approach is to consolidate different regions from the same country, thereby offering diversity and selection in your own FCL (full container load). Importing from different countries is achievable, but unless the initial budget, business plan and projections support this approach it’s better to make this Phase Two or Three.

Creed barrel

What are your views on seasonality? I am launching my products September/October. Will distributors take on new products during the holiday season?

The short answer is no. You cannot have new products land and start approaching distributors in OND (October/November/December) when they are full to the gills with inventory and scrambling to make sales that will provide pull-through during the all-important holiday season.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring in wines in September or October in anticipation of distributor launches, as long as you have done a tremendous amount of groundwork and pre-selling before the container arrives. This means doing the following well ahead of container arrival:

  • Having the wineries/breweries/distilleries send samples of the products to you that you will be importing. Not a ‘representative’ sampling of the supplier’s selection, the exact products that will be available on US shelves. They don’t have to have COLAs (certificate of label approval) at that point, but will need a COLA waiver.
  • Set pricing.
  • Contact and generate interest from a reasonable number of distributors who will then taste samples and place pre-orders.
  • Establish allocations from the supplier that can be communicated to distributor.
  • Confirm availability of product from supplier at the exact time you need it and schedule ship with freight forwarder when appropriate, to arrive when you promised distributor.

These are just a few of the common questions that address the early stages of the alcohol import business.  I’ll continue with some of the other launch issues in Part Three.



Client FAQs – First in a Series


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These are actual questions that I am asked many times by prospective new importers, sometimes in different forms but always from a similar perspective. Many of the answers are not cut-and-dried unfortunately. But they might stimulate your own thought process to find the answer that best suits you. The question I am most often asked is this first one:

How much money do I need to start my import business?

How much money someone “needs” is purely a function of individual goals and budget. Let’s start with an illustration, addressing just the initial wine purchase:

  • If you select inexpensive wines at $35 a case and you bring in a container of 500 cases this will run about $17,500, before freight, duty, insurance.
  • If you choose to source more costly wines, e.g. at $300 a case, you don’t have to start with a container, which would be $150,000 for even 500 cases. You could start with just two pallets (112 cases) and this will run $33,600.

The second example is almost double the first expense, but still within a reasonable budget for a beginning enterprise. With startup expenses, freight, warehouse and taxes, the initial budget might run around $30,000 for the first example and around $50,000 for the second.

But there are obviously other factors:

Do you have a market for this wine? If not, the more expensive wine will usually take longer to sell just based on price, which will result in slower turnover and higher warehousing costs.

The less expensive wine, assuming it is good quality and preferably “over-delivering”, has the opportunity for glass pours in restaurants and higher volume sales in retail stores and to distributors.

Does the expensive wine attract great press and high ratings? These aren’t quite the arbiter of sales they once were, but still important enhancers.

Is the expensive wine in high demand as a category or style, e.g. Bordeaux or Barolo? Pre-selling could be an advantage in this case, essentially creating a sales base for the wine before it arrives.

Another factor is profit. In its raw form without sample usage and other expenses, the profit on the $35 case would be around $16.45 per case or a total of $8,225 on 500 cases.

The profit on the second wine, using the same basis, would be around $109.20 or $12,230 on 112 cases.

Keep in mind that 500 cases will necessitate higher warehouse costs and taxes, which are predicated on number of cases stored, not value of the wine. But a full container (FCL) will be less expensive per case than a less-than-container-load (LCL) of the 112 cases.

There is the further matter of terms. Do you have to pay the winery COD or are extended terms available – 30, 60, 90 days?

This may start to look like a confusing muddle but it’s really to demonstrate that the idea of foundational budget is an arbitrary and subjective matter. You must begin with some money, but you can expand or contract your business according to ability and desire.

Is it reasonable to keep our full-time jobs while we develop our business?

This all depends on how quickly you want to ramp up your sales and how big you want your company to be. If you can only start an import wine business by continuing to bring in an income from full-time jobs, this can certainly be done but will limit the time necessary to find distribution and make sales and naturally growth will be slower. Eventually, you will not be able to run an import company while holding down full-time jobs, unless you have very efficient office staff, because some actions need to be taken in immediate response to the situation such as purchase orders, troubleshooting, inventory management, compliance reporting and so on.

Should we become a distributor when we start our import business or wait until the importing is established?

To start with I want to emphasize something important: you can only become a distributor in the state in which you reside/are licensed as an importer. So with that premise, here are the issues:

Importing is a long game with very little immediate gratification but rewards a much greater return with patience and perseverance.

Distribution is an immediate gratification (i.e. short term income) with smaller sales and greater effort vs. return.

To expand on that, as an importer your objective is to find and appoint distributors who will purchase your wines for distribution in their state or region. This can be a very time-consuming process when competition is stiff, distributor consolidation has reduced the number of available options and finding the right partner can be challenging. Added to that, decision-making by the potential distributor can take months. But once made, orders can start at 14-112 cases, as a rule, and continue as long as wine is in demand, support is provided by you and sales staff get behind it.

Distribution in your home state delivers immediate income for your short term financial plan, gives you the boost you might need to confirm your wine’s desirability, establishes relationships in your community and, by selling directly to retail and restaurants, gets your sales one step closer to the consumer. It may take a long time to sell even one case, as you ‘prove’ yourself to an account or wait until a slot becomes available on the wine list but there are many accounts to visit and, with diligence, continual sales can be made.

There are intangible factors as well. Do you enjoy that one-on-one interaction with an account and the first hand sales experience? Is it especially meaningful to see your wine stacked in a store or on a wine list? Is taking time away from sourcing distributors by making your own sales a worthwhile tradeoff?

Research the cost of distribution in your home state to see whether that is something you can afford. In California, e.g., the annual fee is around $400 for wine, beer and spirits. In New York a three year wine license is $3,760. If you add a spirits license to that it is an additional $27,280. And an annual beer license is $1,460.

What is a reasonable sales forecast for the first year?

Sometimes this question is asked in conjunction with “to make a profit”, but the underlying premise is often the same. When can I start to see light at the end of the tunnel?

As frustrating as it may be to read this, the answer is very similar to the first question and is very dependent on the model you choose. For this reason I think it is important to write a mission statement for yourself, where the purpose is to explore your objectives in the business you want to establish. Questions to ask yourself would include:

  • How much time do I intend to spend on the business?
  • How quickly can I achieve the initial stages – sourcing, licensing, COLAs, labeling, shipping, selling, etc.?
  • How much money am I investing?
  • Where is the money being spent?
  • Do I have a partner, employee or broker to assist in this effort?
  • What have I done/am doing to ensure a successful launch and support ongoing sales?
  • Are the wines I chose enabling me to get there?

Even if your background or skill is not especially geared towards accounting, a simple spreadsheet will be a very useful tool in laying out a visual map of wines purchased, costs incurred and path to profit.

If we focus on the southern US and our imports arrive in New Jersey, where should I warehouse?   

If I live in California and bring in European wines, should I warehouse on the east or west coast?

These are two specific questions asked by different clients, but variations on the warehouse question are common. It is a puzzling issue for first time importers, mostly because the answer does not appear logical and is largely dependent on understanding how the wine industry works.

In the first instance, I would say if you live on the east coast, then New Jersey is a logical place to warehouse, regardless of where you will seek distribution. Licensed, bonded warehouses are available in NJ for wholesale storage of wines that arrive at port from foreign sources and trucked from local wine regions. Distributors from any state are accustomed to picking up from them.

Living/working in CA is a somewhat different matter. European routes are closest to the east coast, so this is less expensive and takes less time in transit, but is your distribution going to be all west coast? Are you seeking distributors anywhere and everywhere? Unless you live and work in Ohio, e.g. and plan on only distributing with Ohio, either east or west coast are, to me, the only viable options.

In any given circumstance, where you warehouse is not necessarily where you personally have most access to the wine. It is easy for samples to ship to you or potential wholesale customers via commercial carriers such as UPS or FedEx Ground. It is far more important to consider either coast as access for your distributors. A common mistake (I made it too) in the early days of your career is to warehouse where you can select, visit and pick up wine. But my first company was established in Atlanta, GA and not only was this an expensive warehousing option it was also completely out of the way for any distributor except the one in Atlanta. Distributors send trucks to pick up various suppliers’ products in warehouses at the same time to make an economical truck load. If they are only picking up 14 cases from you, because no one else warehouses at the same location, this will either deter them from purchasing from you at all or make the wine more expensive when they mark it up. Neither of these is a good starting point for you.

I’ll save other FAQs for another post. If you need clarification on any of these concepts, I’ll be happy to answer short questions. Otherwise, I am available for consulting options.

Chain Store Sales – “Back Door” Distribution Still Relies on the 3-Tier System


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chain store photo

The 3-Tier system has been explained at length in my books and online by others so I won’t spend more time here with the same thing. But it remains a hard concept to grasp, especially when you’re new to the US alcohol business and perhaps think there are exceptions, such as when an importer is selling to chains.

Take this example. The importer has contacted a national buyer for Sprouts, Lidl, Whole Foods or one of any number of large chains. Even though an importer is headquartered in Ohio, e.g., and the chain is a retail operation with the buying office in Atlanta, your presentation can be made to the chain buyer, who can then decide to place the wines in stores across 40 states. However, most importantly, the importer is not directly selling to the buyer, because the importer is not allowed to break the 3-Tier barrier of (1st tier) importer selling directly to (3rd tier) retailer.

When a chain store has locations in different states, you would think that an exception could be made to allow a purchase to be generated and distributed from a central location. It sounds reasonable, but the 3-Tier system has remained firmly in place since prohibition through vigorous lobbying efforts by influential state wholesalers, effectively preventing any crossover from wholesale to retail. Therefore, as the importer you have the option of:

  1. Using your existing distribution network to distribute to the chain’s stores, if you have distributors in each state in which the stores are located and where the buyer wishes to place your product
  2. Finding and appointing a new distributor in each state, which may be possible if the potential sales are large enough and therefore appealing to the new distributor
  3. Using the chain’s own distributor network relationship to satisfy the sales and 3-tier requirements.

The last option is the most common. The retail chain has presumably done this numerous times and already worked out the payment and logistical details with the distributors to make it a smooth order and delivery process. Plus, the chain is definitely realizing a pricing advantage from this relationship by negotiating a vastly reduced markup by the distributor. The retail chain may mark up the wines to be on a par with other retailers around the country, which allows them a greater profit margin. Or they may sell the wines at a considerable discount and still make a reasonable profit. Discuss the chain’s objective with them beforehand, so you can decide if this dovetails with your national pricing strategy.

To recap and expand on this concept:

  • All sales from an importer must be made individually to a licensed distributor in each state
  • No sales shipments can be made from an importer in CA direct to a retailer in any other state
  • If a chain is involved with stores in multiple states, buying may be a centralized decision, but each one orders product independently
  • Product is picked up by a state distributor’s trucker at the importer’s warehouse and taken to the wholesaler’s warehouse in their respective states
  • Some states have a workaround that is called a “bump the dock” state; in other words, the shipment can arrive at the dock of the wholesaler and not actually be unloaded, but receive paperwork showing that it arrived at the wholesaler location before going on to the retailer
  • Product must be delivered to retailer(s) of each individual state by the wholesaler
  • Depending upon the state laws (and they all vary) a retailer may have more than one store and the wine is delivered to a central store or depot for delivery to other stores from a centralized location. Again, for emphasis, this applies only to that one state and not multiple state locations.

I have been asked often which price list an importer should use when quoting to a retail chain. That’s a very fair question. After all, the sale is actually to the distributor which will, by the way, be the one to supply you with a purchase order and they’ll be the ones paying for the wine. But up to that point the importer may not have even met the distributor. All proposals and wine selection are conducted with the retailer. Please do not lose sight of the 3-tier system. Make no mistake that this sale is made from importer to appointed, approved, licensed state wholesaler.

As for all the other factors that may come into play in this transaction such as discounts, volume, promotions, market assistance, or market visits to educate sales staff, ongoing purchases, number of states involved and so on, this is going to depend on the chain. And if you get to the point where a chain is interested, they will advise you on their process and expectations. It is then up to you as to whether this is doable.

It’s Not All About Wine – the Ins and Outs of Beer Labels

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For my entire importing career my focus was on wine, including sparkling and fortified which have some unique characteristics when it comes to labeling and licensing. But these are basically minor variations on standard wine principles. When I started submitted malt beverage labels to TTB for approval for clients, it opened up a whole new world of US labeling requirements.

Let’s face it, I’m a geek when it comes to this stuff. I really do love knowledge, even when it involves Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations for US compliant labels!  I had no idea that almost all the rules were different and in my nascent malt beverage label submission journey I was on a first name basis with the TTB agents I spoke to on a regular basis.

Here are some of the requirements you won’t find on wine labels:

  • All net contents must be in US measurements, e.g. “1 pint 9.4 fluid oz”
  • Non-alcoholic beers do not require label approval but they do require formula approval.
  • Alcoholic beer requires label approval no matter what ABV (it is not required for wine below 7% ABV)

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Ingredients must be listed. Some of them are approved as additives and some are not. There is an entire list of approved ingredients that include items like huckleberries, kale, grains of paradise, galangal root, Padang cassia and elder flowers. There are other ingredients that are considered by the FDA as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) which doesn’t sound terribly reassuring, nor particularly appetizing. I’m not at all sure what they would add to the beer either, other than roughage. This is only a fragment of that esoteric list:

  • Oak cork
  • Maidenhair fern
  • Blessed thistle
  • Iceland moss
  • Buckbean leaves
  • Simaruba bark
  • Virginia snakeroot
  • Angola weed

I discovered recently that TTB will not approve, without a detailed formula, items like Malagueta pepper or just “spices”. They will allow pepper, black or white, but required an explanation of “pink pepper” and honey ale is fine but they recently balked at “honey of Sicilian Black Bee”.  It does allow tea, but not kombucha.

Many beer label issues share a commonality with wine, such as the government warning and a defined class of alcohol, e.g. red wine or Shiraz for wine and ale or Belgian-style ale for beer. But the differences define the procedure. With TTB, there is no “close enough”; it is correct or incorrect, approved or rejected.

The craft beer industry has exploded in the past few years and along with it, pushing the envelope on fermentation processes and innovative ingredients, which is great for the consumer but a bit of a minefield for COLAs (Certificate of Label Approval). In my 25 year importing career I’ve never had to submit a formula for a wine. In the past year, I’ve submitted three for beers. TTB is constantly updating their “approved ingredients and processes” lists as the agency sees what has become mainstream, but it is moving too fast. So for now, formulas, detailed explanations and reworking foreign labels to comply are the norm.

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The steampunk labels in this post are some of my favorites. Used by permission of the brand and the artist.

Malt Beverage Brand: Della Granda | Label Artwork: Fabio Garigliano