These relationships can lead to unique selections, lower prices, and increased availability of rare wines in states where it is legal.
Wine businesses must offer customized options to attract and retain clients in a congested market of big-box stores and one-stop online shops. However, some businesses go above and beyond typical purchasing techniques, working within direct-import rules or forming loose partnerships with local importers to bring in wines from producers they’ve met along the way.
The technique of leveraging their relationships with importers can provide businesses with benefits like as unique options and lower costs, but it isn’t for everyone. When it succeeds, though, it can help a retailer’s reputation while also providing customers with distinctive wines.
The Laws of Exclusivity
Buyers collaborating with importers to curate exclusive selections is legal in some states but not others. Importers must advertise pricing for all wines in New York, for example, to ensure that buyers have equitable access to the same wines at the same costs. Exclusive picks are, in essence, prohibited.
However, in areas like California and Texas, buying exclusive wines from an importer or hiring a third-party clearinghouse, a corporation that specializes in transporting and clearing wines through customs, is totally legal. Jim Knight, part owner and wine buyer for The Wine House in Los Angeles, explains, “I can buy from a retail store in Paris and have [a clearinghouse] pick it up there.” “It’s a lot easier for us.” Because stores selling alcohol alongside wine in California are unable to obtain importing licenses, purchasers frequently rely on clearinghouses to get their wines through customs.
Retailers can seek for direct-importing licenses in Washington, D.C., which are not confined to a specific country or region. “We’ve been straight importing for 30 years,” Elyse Genderson, the wine director for the District of Columbia, explains. Schneider’s of Capitol Hill has been the only local vendor for all of its direct imports “since my father and uncle identified an opportunity to offer rare and distinctive wines to our clients,” according to the shop’s website.
Locals in Portland, Oregon, credit the state’s tight-knit industry culture for the fact that both off- and on-premise buyers frequently collaborate with importers to find bespoke items. “We didn’t have any of the large national importers and wholesalers until recently,” says Jeff Vejr, the winemaker at Golden Cluster in Oregon and co-owner of Portland’s Les Caves, a collaborative wine bar with partner Ovum Wines. “We have long-standing partnerships with a strong group of independent importers in Oregon.”
Les Caves acquires wines from throughout the world and works with local importers to bring them in as exclusive selections, in addition to pouring wines from its winery owners. This method not only provides customers with a guided experience through wines that Vejr has personally sought out, but it also matches with the establishment’s basic concept, according to him. He explains, “Les Caves is our wine clubhouse.” “It should be loaded with wines we’ve discovered from places we’ve traveled as well as wines we’ve produced.”
Over the past 13 years, Ed Paladino, co-owner of Portland’s E&R Wine Shop, says that he has worked with importers to bring in wines from over 100 vineyards. He says, “It’s rewarding for us to share firsthand knowledge of these wines with our customers.” “This kind of learning and experience are hallmarks of our tiny workforce,” Paladino says, noting that importers aren’t required to bring these wines in as exclusive selections, allowing them to profit from the wines by selling them to other accounts.
However, how can a store request that an importer bring in specific wines, either exclusively or nonexclusively? As Paladino has observed over the course of E&R’s 20 years in business, strong, mutually beneficial partnerships are essential. “It’s taken some time to get to know them and vice versa,” he says. “At the same time, some of the wines we’ve associated with have proven to be popular with our partners and meet their demands.”
It’s also critical to partner with the proper importers. “It’s necessary to find some synchrony in views about wines, shared requirements, knowledge, and so on,” Paladino continues. He recommends keeping an eye on what’s going on in the market and the importer’s portfolio to see how prospective new wines could fit in.
Michel Abood, the proprietor of Vinotas Selections, which has offices in New York City and San Diego, has never been asked about bringing in an exclusive wine for a merchant but would gladly do so—as long as the wine is produced in modest quantities. “It has to be minimal,” he argues, so that the shop can buy the entire allocation. “If not, I’d want to sell it out of state.” I can’t do it if I’m giving a friendly retailer preferential treatment.”
Abood does note out that for producers fresh to the US market, this can be a catch-22 situation. “I’ve had challenges in the past where I’ve found a wine I loved and wanted to sell statewide, but a store was directly importing it and selling it retail at a price close to what I would sell it for, to my wholesalers,” he adds.
Value and Availability
There are a variety of other reasons why stores may desire to import their own wines or develop stronger partnerships with specialized importers. Some argue that the technique gives access to small manufacturers who could otherwise go unnoticed by other importers, or to certain SKUs that a producer’s importer has decided not to bring in. “With all the importers in this country,” Knight adds, “it might not be worth it if it hasn’t been imported yet—but there are always needles in a haystack.”
These strategies are also used by wine shops that specialize in limited-edition or sought-after bottles to increase volumes for certain SKUs. “I have to be in the Bordeaux futures business,” Knight says, “but in order to compete with everyone across the country, I have to buy directly from négociants.” Though Knight always buys The Wine House’s full allocations of sought-after wines through importers, he also imports directly to supplement quantities because “I never get enough.”
Direct importing also has a cost benefit over wines that are usually imported. “Because we cut out the intermediary, our consumers get fantastic value for money with our direct-import wines,” explains Genderson. When Knight directly imports extra bottles of a limited-edition wine he already carries, he averages the two drops’ prices and passes along the savings to his clients.
Direct importing or negotiating with an importer to bring a specific wine into the United States can complicate both industry-wide pricing and the availability of certain SKUs, depending on the state. However, when it makes sense for a retail buyer to use these ways to import new wines into the United States while staying within state rules, the activities can benefit the winery, the retailer, and the consumer. “The task is neither straightforward or inexpensive, and it takes time, energy, and effort,” Paladino explains, “but some may find it worthwhile.”