What is a wine importer and what does he do?

If you are a curious wine drinker, you might want to know which village the wine comes from, what types of soil the vine grew on, and how long the wine has aged. But few think about how the bottle got to the winery’s cellar wine store in a faraway land.

This is where wine importers come in.

What is a wine importer?

The role of a wine importer can be thankless and rather invisible to most consumers. Wine often has to be transported from its place of origin to another location e.g. Champagne in the United States In simple terms, importers buy goods from another country with the intention of selling in their own country . They often work with government organizations and distributors to make these products available in their own countries.

Therefore, importers play a critical role in the decision What you like and what you drink.

Wine importers to know

“The name of the importer, in many cases, is a reflection of that person’s palate,” says Kermit Lynch, founder of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant and author of Adventures on the Wine Route, a book that documented his food and wine-laden journeys through the vineyards of the Old World, now considered sacred lands by many American wine lovers.

“My book inspired people to become importers, and I don’t blame them,” says Lynch. “What an incredible job! I can’t think of anything more fun: eating well and drinking well every day. Reading this book inspired many Americans to become competitors with me.

Kermit Lynch / Photo by Gail Skoff

Lynch opened a wine shop to sell his customers only wines he had “tasted or approved”. It focused on the Old World, mainly small family wines bottled at the domain of France and Italy. Its commitment to the smallest estates goes against the merchants, who held all the power at the time, and “totally changed the face of the wine world in France”.

Lynch believes that it is helpful for consumers to differentiate between wallets and palaces from importers.

“You may agree with the taste of one importer or another,” he says. “You’ll come across a few good bottles from one importer, then a few from another importer and start looking for the importer’s names, and there’s a good chance you like what you find. “

Garth Hodgdon, former brand ambassador to the United States for Krug and founder of the champagne importing company, Cage Imports, agrees.

“Each importer had his own vision of a region, just like a food critic or a wine critic has a specific style that he likes and values ​​better than others,” he says. “You have to learn what these styles are and align yourself with the ones that have similar tastes to yours. “

Hodgdon believes that “getting to know the importers and the types of wines they represented was almost as important as getting to know the producers themselves”.

Michael and Harmon Skurnik
From left to right: Michael Skurnik, founder of Skurnik Wines & Spirits, and his brother and partner, Harmon Skurnik, president of Skurnik Wines. (Photo by Rich Anderson for Skurnik Wines & Spirits)

Lynch isn’t the only importer whose focus on the Old World has drawn attention to little-known producers. Wines & Spirits Skurnik, Wilson daniels and Rosenthal wine merchant all have strived to bring some of the most famous names in wine to American consumers.

“The most important element in choosing a good wine is who the best and most reputable importers are,” says Michael Skurnik, CEO of Skurnik Wines & Spirits.

“We are passionate about quality and value…[and] we see ourselves as the protector of the consumer, joining forces to prevent him from consuming bad or mediocre wine, ”he says. “Perhaps most importantly, we also see ourselves as the guardian of the winemaker, and his vines, to help perpetuate their way of life.”

Many importers focus not only on the bottom line of producers, but also on running the business for generations and protecting an agricultural product and its environment.

“Part of our job is to ensure that producers and their families have a sustainable market in the United States for their products, by making good wines available to the market for generations to come,” Skurnik explains.

Wilson daniels
From left to right: Wilson Daniels Napa office wine room / Rocco Lombardo, president of Wilson Daniels

Wilson Daniels was started in 1978 and was established by Win Wilson and Jack Daniels as a wine brokerage firm. They wanted “to provide a platform and knowledge for producers who did not necessarily have the experience or the know-how to sell their wines in the United States,” says Rocco Lombardo, president of Wilson Daniels. They eventually shifted to a sales and marketing model for Wilson Daniels and now represent 37 family-owned wineries concentrated primarily in Western Europe and California.

“Today, an importer’s signature on a bottle adds value, because the more experience the consumer has with a portfolio, the more confidence he or she has in a selection of wines,” explains Lombardo.

Neal Rosenthal, founder of Rosenthal Wine Merchant / Mad Rose Group, was not satisfied with the quality of the wine he received when he opened his wine store on New York’s Upper East Side in 1977, he therefore went in search of quality wines on its own. During his travels in Europe, he recalls, he met people who “had never exported, let alone bottled their wines”.

Retail and restaurant importers

Consumers are not the only ones to benefit from the expertise of importers. Retailers also develop relationships with importers and study their portfolios to decide which ones best suit their interests and customer base. Subsequently, the stock of imports bearing the stamp of certain importers may also inadvertently turn the retailer into an arbiter of taste.

Bay Grape store and co-owner
Stevie Stacionis, Co-Owner, Bay Grape / Photo by Emma K. Morris

Josiah Baldivino, co-owner of Grape berry, a store and event space in Napa and Oakland, states that “small importers often mean small producers. For example, Danch & Granger, Grand Cru selections, Sacred thirst, Sylvester / Rovine are all among the importers I consistently rely on to attract new, smaller, exciting and new producers to the US market. I find these producers often have a higher value for money because they are less known in this market, and it is good as a small business owner myself to support a small producer and a small importer.

Restaurant sommeliers and beverage managers also develop relationships with importers to help them choose wines that can be served in their restaurants. This arduous task is greatly facilitated if the sommelier understands who matters, the approach of the importer.

“Today, the signature of an importer on a bottle adds value because the more experience the consumer has with a wallet, the more he has confidence in a selection of wines. Rocco Lombardo, President, Wilson Daniels

“The heart of our business is relationships, maintaining old while creating new ones,” says Allegra Angelo, sommelier for Vinya & Market in Key Biscayne, Florida.

“For me, the importer is the direct line between the buyer and the winegrower. When I have a question about the vineyards that make up a Burgundy White we sell, I ask the importer. When I’m looking to bring in older vintages from one of our favorite producers, I ask the importer. When I need to find a better price to be able to pour something into the glass, I ask the importer.

Sommelier Sandra Guibord from Sovereign Wine Group says that “as a consumer, you can easily view the catalog of wines that each producer represents on the individual importers websites, which tells the story of the wines and winemakers, and provides videos, maps and other interesting details about the wineries they represent … Now a curious consumer can easily find out about specific wineries, wine regions and styles of wine making through the importers websites.

Patrick Ney, sommelier and creator of “Wine Uncorked” on the Spirits Network with Cedric the Entertainer, says he “started to notice the names of importers on the backs of bottles… and any consumer can take note of this information…[to] eliminate good wine from mediocre.

Neal Rosenthal in a vineyard
Neal Rosenthal / Photo courtesy of Mad Rose

The future of wine importers

Both Angelo and Guibord believe that the future is very promising for importers specializing in outsider varieties and little-known regions.

“Wine consumers are more curious and adventurous than ever when it comes to exploring regions, grape varieties and countries,” says Guibord, who imports Turkish wine labels. “This demand is leading to the creation of more and more specialty importers.

Angelo adds that “as more and more wines enter the market, more and more importers will start to rationalize their concentration and carve out a hyper niche for themselves. We’re going to see more off-the-beaten-path goals like family-owned wineries, wines made by minorities, or wines made from unusual grapes. “

Skurnik wine importer
Skurnik Wines and Spirits Large Portfolio Tasting / Photo by Steven Ribuffo for Skurnik Wines and Spirits

But, for Neal Rosenthal, the future of importing wine is a bit more complicated.

“It will be very difficult to deal with the effects of climate change and succession,” he says. “We are already seeing the impacts of climate change with big year-to-year differences in production levels and how it is rearranging the landscape (literally). In matters of inheritance, small family estates are in danger; the valuation of wine-growing lands has become very high, which makes it much more difficult to pass on and maintain the viability of these family estates.

All we can do is wait, see, and drink.

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