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Continuing the Days in the Glamorous Life of the Importer...
by Kevin McKenna
Those of you who know me know that I don't like griping in public too much, let alone putting it down in writing and publishing it on our company blog. So the mere fact that I'm writing this is evidence that something (or some things) must really be bugging me... Let's call them a series of incidents, coincidences, etc. that have made me think a lot about what I (and by that I also mean 'we' at Louis/Dressner) do as a wine importer, what it used to mean, what it means now, what it continues to mean to me (us) and how these values seem to be irreversibly changing in the current context of specialized wine importation.
When I started working solely in the commerce of wine and finding bliss in a tireless interest for good wine and learning more and more, the wine "industry" was called the wine trade. It was full of people who were doing it as a job, but it was really as a vocation. Most were barely making a living. They were well-educated, had good manners and, for the majority, were eloquent or at least well spoken. They were individuals. There were only a few quality independent importers and the press had little influence on wineries or their winemaking. People trusted their local wine merchant, (of which there were relatively few quality stores).
So before I go on, let me say that I am not an old-skooler ruminating on the past and bemoaning the present, (about which, in fact, there is a whole lot to like!) But it seems to me there was an approach back then among the folks doing innovative importation to do one's work based on real research, with a personal point of view, finding a deeper understanding of the work involved in making a bottle of wine; this meant having an approach, or at least a basic thought, of what your imported wines represented vis-a-vis everything else out there. And most importantly, in the context of this writing, there was with little exception, a respect for other people's work, which meant putting in real efforts to not step on each other's toes. The wine trade played by Marquess of Queensbury rules, if you will. Because, after all, the British practically invented the commerce of wine.
And sure, maybe I idealize the past or perhaps was a bit wide-eyed and naïve. Or perhaps I was not in a position to see the uglier side of things, which I am sure existed. But I still believe that for the most part, there was guiding principle to work with integrity, manners and mutual respect (unless the other guy/gal was really a bastard or, importantly in those days and still important, a serial substance abuser.) You paid your growers and if you did not, you would have a Scarlet W, for W-E-L-S-H-E-R tattooed on your forehead.
Apart from the miracle of The Cloud, there is a downside to the internet. The rise of internet "journalism" and social media marketing allows for any creep to say anything they want (hey, look at me here) without any accountability for their words, mistakes, innuendo or near libel. And furthermore, there is an almost built-in incentive to be as exploitative of the lack of rules as possible to rise above the sea of self-involved open diaries posing as constructive critical thinking.
So here is what has passed over our desks in recent weeks:
Firstly, someone who has recently established his own business based on the idea that he's eliminating the outrageous importer and distributor mark-ups by buying directly from winemakers' cellars and selling retail, by power of his mutant abilities, directly to the consumer -thus somehow getting them "Better for Less", a motto I think was popularly chiseled in Latin on a stone in 1st century AD- recently offered a wine from Olga Raffault, a producer we have been working with for 22 years. This same "selector" professes undying fondness for our company, for us as people, for our work, for our winemakers and their work, etc. on each and every occasion we see him. His newsletter to private wine customers made an offering on an Olga Raffault bottling "La Singulaire" (not to poke too much fun at the obvious, but the wine is actually called "La Singulière", which could easily have been double checked with a simple web search), touting it as the first time offered in the United States and continuing with pithily slick schnook-speak and name-dropping comparisons ("Better than Baudry, Rougeard!"). Not to mention the few outright bloated boasts only someone-trying-to-sell-you-something would employ. Frankly, the whole tone of the piece smacks of smarminess.
We received calls from customers and colleagues who were understandably confused. The news perpetuated itself and people immediately started jumping to further conclusions, like Raffault was now working with another importer. You can see how this then goes on and on in a never ending cycle.
Here are the points of that email we would like to categorically shoot down and further illuminate:
This "selector" all but states that the reason we have left the wine for European clients and carelessly deprived the US Market of this, THE most amazing cuvée of the cellar, is that we have deemed the price too high to pass through the 3-tier system. Uhmmm, what can I say? Relative to the cuvées we bring from other producers, this wine is not even CLOSE to being too expensive. I can't give him the benefit of thinking that folks could read between the lines of his statement and see that perhaps we did not see that the price:quality ratio represented in the wine's price. That would negate the entire point of his email.
The reason we don't bring this in is simple; this is a tiny cuvée that Eric de la Vigerie, who took over from his father-in-law Jean Raffault in the 00's, makes for a niche French clientele who are in fact searching for the more modern, extracted and oaked versions of Chinon found in some of the bigger, venerated commercial estates in the region. We were certainly always aware of this cuvée, and have tasted it every year with the same wan smiles. It's just not for us or for our clients. It's concentrated, marked by oak treatment and has little Chinon identity. Eric never cared much whether we liked it or not, bought it or not. He knows how well we do with the other wines in his cellar, all of which are much more important to sell.
The gall in this is the man who shall be further known as Selector L, the man who professes to know us for years, would think that in the 22 years of importing Raffault we would not buy their BEST EVER Chinon. And that in all the years of LDM's work, all our intelligent distributors, hardworking retailers and conscious restauranteurs who have helped back the reputation of the estate and have tasted with Eric many times wouldn't ask for it if they wanted it.
Furthermore, the wine is not a direct purchase from the domaine's cellar. We are assured by the Raffault that it was not sold directly to Selector L's company, meaning he must have bought it from one of their other distributors or retailers in Europe. I think that counts as a "tier"...
One also has to ask, would this wine be offered by Selector L if it did not have the imprimatur of the Raffault estate and their wonderful reputation based on releases of excellent old cellared wines? And what about our company spending over 20 years getting the word out with so much expense and heart? It would seems the sale of "La Singulière" is pretty much a no-brainer relative to some unheard-of producer in Chinon like, for example, the imaginary Bertrand Onager's imaginary top level cuvée "Les Portes du Bain" which no one would realistically ever compare to Clos Rougeard's Saumur wines or Bernard Baudry's Chinon Croix Boissée.
And alright, alright, he is just some schmo, albeit one who garnered a reputation in New York for an expressive, investigative palate which he could manage to elucidate well in written form, and which was followed with some avidity by the mysterious wine cognoscenti underground. He is just trying to make a business he can call his own and we really do not see him as a threat or feel his sale of a small quantity of this wine is going to hurt ours or Raffault's sales or reputations. On the other hand, I certainly do not feel it is going to bring a whole new set of customers either.
One just wishes that the sale of the wine, and the structure and wording of the written sale offering weren't both built on the foundation that Louis/Dressner and Raffault have made. I hope some day he can find the confidence to start laying his own bricks. I also wished he had had the general professional courtesy to call/email/text us to inform us of his intended sale of a wine from one of our most high-profile producers. He should also have given full disclosure that the wine was not acquired directly from that producer to his mailing list. And it would also be all right if this were the first time that pejorative comparisons and ever-so-slight mudslinging were used as a tool to hawk the latest selection, but it isn't. We kept our mouths shut and took the high road the first few times, but now I feel a need to address this.
Moving on, I felt impelled to say something when I received an email from Monte dall'Ora in the Veneto, who we have worked with for the last seven years. Prior to our partnership, they sold mostly a special cuvée to the importer who worked with them before us: the style was more extracted, higher alcohol and it spent some time in (partially new) wood. Needless to say, it was not among our favorite wines at the estate. Well-made but modern-ish. We much preferred the racier, fresher and elegant wines that seemed to be evident vintage after vintage. Eventually, the production of this cuvée was ended.
Around the same time as Monte Dall' Ora's email, we got another email announcing that a famed "newsletter retailer" had just bought old bottles of Monte dall'Ora in the previous importer's warehouse, all that was available there to sell as his latest offering. The retailer is based in Seattle and ships to at least the 16 reciprocal state that allow sales across their borders, if not more. Their subscriptions reach a good number of people and I believe their business is good, if not brisk.
But the thing that caught my eye was the name of a certain person listed with the title of Buying Director of Italian Wines for said retailer. Turns out, this Wine Director had disappeared for a number of years from the wine trade and had reportedly moved on to another field, was once a maverick Italian importer who worked with about 5 Italian estates we now represent (not Monte dall'Ora though) More importantly, from what I last heard from these same growers, this guy burned each of them and owes them A LOT of money. I've noticed in the past that to most people working with wine, this is a "so what" moment and they are happy to buy wines that "fell off a truck" at a bargain price, never once asking themselves if the winemaker was paid. I think that too often, when there is an unclear ethics situation, people avoid thinking about said ethics or go into a state of denial. For me it's a craw-sticker: I am friends with the growers that lost that money (a situation that happens much too often, especially for Italian wine) and I know what personal, financial and emotional upset they went through. Some had resolved to not sell to the US ever again. We were lucky to be able to convince them to let us bring in the wines on very short terms.
I think in business we have to have some sense of right and wrong and draw the line somewhere. I will have real trouble doing any business with this Seattle based retailer unless his Buying Director of Italian Wines is no longer there or makes some reparations to the growers he stiffed... I am not requiring the Scarlet W. but don't tempt me!
The next incident, two weeks ago, really put us in a difficult place. In February at the hipster Natural Wine fairs in and around Angers (Dive Bouteile, etc...), there were many little wilding packs of New Selectors (Selecteurs Nouveaux?) and their coterie of customers. One of these guys avoided eye contact with me because, at a wine fair this past November in Italy, I had threatened to take him outside after calling him out as a brazen liar and a hack. This California based "selector" was targeting producers we have, through our own work and reputation, successfully established in the US market. His schtick involved (involves?) telling the growers the wines could not be found in the Bay Area and Southern California through our distributor -which in a vast majority of cases is a blatant lie- and that they should work with him.
When I confronted him in person, the guy denied he even knew whom we worked with. Subsequently, I found out from Ernesto Cattel of Costadilà that he was going around telling our growers he was somehow affiliated with Louis/Dressner. Then I found the emails sent to our growers. Another prominent "natural wine"importer (who works nationally and is based in New York like us) told me that all his growers had systematically received contact from the guy with offers to work with him in the California import market as their distributor.
It's not that we do not like competition, as this guy retorted when I told him to back off. In fact (as you shall see later) we in fact DO like competition and a good deal of our competitors. More good wine, more good winemakers getting represented in the market = everybody wins. But we don't like laziness, unoriginality, disrespect and deceit. Build a unique, personal portfolio.
Okay, if you are still with me, here's where the camel's back snaps. Another one of these new Selectors of California (whose "portfolio" is almost all wines already discovered and brought directly into the US by Chambers Street Wines in NYC and national importer Zev Rovine) convinced one of our producers, despite our strong arguments against it, to sell to them in California. There are really several sides to this story: between us, the domaine and the New California Selector it's a total Rashomon. In any event, the domaine went ahead and shipped wine to the New California Selector. We had many back and forths with the producer (whom we consider a long time friend) explaining why it was not in her best interest to go forward with this decision, but she insisted and we acquiesced for the good of her business. Still, the whole thing left a bad taste, which we hope to clear with the producer face-to-face the next time we see her.
In the meantime, the wine for California is arriving and it turns out the New California Selector has not done any of the required paperwork that the US government and customs require for entry of alcoholic beverages, putting him at risk for delayed container entry and the hefty charges that go with that. First he asks an old friend of mine in San Francisco to beg the favor from me in giving them permission to use our paperwork (which takes hours of work on our end) for their goods, without the chutzpah to contact me himself. That was a no go. He then contacted me by email with apologies for being new and not understanding what was needed to be done; and a vague reference that perhaps he was breaking some "importer orthodoxy". Okay, now we are getting into a left-handed swipe at a gentleperson's code of conduct being somehow wrapped in an impregnable secret Masonic code to which only a chosen few have access.
To me this is the height of self-serving disrespect and a turn of the tables, a rationalization for laziness and lack of preparation or due diligence, a marked inability to follow any rules, (no matter how petty, we are in a regulated industry and you cannot make the rules go away by just ignoring them) and a marked disrespect for the work it actually does take to represent a group of first rate wine estates.
On a much happier note, last Sunday Louis/Dressner got together with Zev Rovine, Selection Massale, Fifi and PM Spirits to do a tasting together under the same roof. The energy was incredible, the crowd was great and the festivities went well into the night. Nothing was poached, no one insulted or undermined their competition: it was truly a moment of working together towards the same goals and ideals. There is room in this world for everybody to get along, play nicely and act with responsibility, decorum and respect. We're just not sure why it's so difficult for some people to understand that.
Do your work, Y-O-U-R W-O-R-K, don't use someone else's. It's fundamental.