In 2016, my husband Jonah (Beer) and I started our wine import and distribution company, True North Wine Merchants. We focus on importing boutique wines from the spectacular regions of Burgundy and Piedmont. Despite both having decades of experience selling wine in America, we still face plenty of surprises.
Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Be a Champion for the Brands
In the U.S., much of wine importing is about sharing the stories of the wineries and regions that you represent. There are only a handful of producers with name recognition from each area. So, we identify wineries with their own “True North” messaging and share what makes them unique or sets them apart. We also find restaurants and wine shops that support new wineries that aren’t yet common knowledge among U.S. consumers.
Be an Educator of the Regions
As an importer, it’s equally as important to know the regions, not just the producers. For us, this means visiting Piedmont and Burgundy every year. We spend time with our wineries, soaking up the culture, history, viticulture, and geology on each trip. It is thrilling to share the context of these places with trade buyers or during staff seminars.
Things Take Time
We visited Piedmont in June of this year, and the wines we ordered from that trip landed in late November. Now, the current supply chain issues are a genuine and primary part of why importing wine takes time. But there are plenty of other steps that may be surprising. For example, each wine’s front and back labels need pre-approval from the U.S. government. Also, each winery must have FDA license approval. And finally, each order has to be prepared and labeled when the purchase order takes place. For this, most European wineries bottle their wines into “shiners,” which are corked but unlabeled due to humidity in the cellar, storage constraints, and tradition.
Sometimes the Most Unusual Wine Is the Most Popular
When first starting to import wines from a winery, there’s a choice to order a broad but shallow selection or a narrow but deep selection. It depends on what you AND the winery desire. First orders are often an educated guess as to what the market will find interesting. It’s common for the biggest hits to be the best-known bottlings or vineyards. However, sometimes the most unusual wine garners the most buzz! Who knew that our newest Barolo producer would have everyone curious about their Pelaverga?
More Is Not Always Best
We attribute much of our success to importing wines from only two regions. Although some importers may ripple out into several regions, we find that our expertise in particular grapes, places, and winery types is what sets us apart. As a result, customers look to us when planning or changing their selections in specific categories. It also makes our jobs more straightforward in that we seek out restaurants and retail shops that share similar interests instead of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades.
Cherry-Picking Is Not Cool
Wineries will often know how much wine they would like each market to take and what ratios and types. In contrast, importers need to calibrate and collaborate to find the right portfolio mix with each winery. We were taught early on by the legendary Jeanne Marie de Champs of Domaines et Saveurs (a pioneering sales agent in Burgundy) to purchase wines in a pyramid shape. We support the foundational wines from each winery and build up to the rarer wines in proportion.
Doing Business With Partners Can Be Bonding
One of our favorite moments during our travels abroad is spending time breaking bread with our winemakers and their families. Of course, we often have many interests in common, and it is such a treat to see the next generation of each family potentially following in their parents’ footsteps. There are many elements involved in doing business together, and we try hard to demonstrate professionalism, although with plenty of humor along the way.
Pick Your Partners Carefully
Your partners are the wineries you import (and sometimes the local sales agents involved), the distributors that represent your imports in various states, and the accounts that purchase your wines. These partners are essential collaborators and brand ambassadors for long-term brand exposure and reputation. Selecting partners that share your values and are not taking shortcuts has been a path to success for us!
On the whole, Jonah and I have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of importing European wines into the United States and managing the hurdles and surprises along the way. It is crucial to be passionate about the regions you represent and work with partners you like and trust. Having a good attitude about challenges that will inevitably come up definitely helps!
True North Wine Merchants was founded in 2016 by wine industry veteran Sara Beer. Prior to that, Sara spent 13 years developing California wholesale sales at Duckhorn Wine Company, leading a diverse sales team representing 6 wineries. During her tenure, the Duckhorn portfolio became one of the most successful winery-direct wholesale sales models in the California luxury wine industry.
True North Wine Merchants is a boutique import and distribution company servicing restaurants and fine wine retailers in California. The portfolio is curated to champion wineries with a clear point of view, sincerity in their story and wines that acutely represent their own values. Having a sense of True North matters – although the destination of each vintner may not be the same, the wineries in the True North portfolio are characterized by compelling drive and vision.