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Marketing,Wine,Wine Importer

Ice Bucket Selections: From Wine Writer to Wine Importer & Wholesaler

“my next step”

This was the subject of Todd Wernstrom’s E-mail. “How provocative,” I thought.

Upon opening, this is what I found.

After nearly nine years of an enjoyable and educational time at Wine News, I am putting down my proverbial pen with the publication of our new issue (due out shortly). I have recently formed a wine import and wholesale company.

With Ice Bucket Selections, I will be looking to represent family-owned wineries from France, Italy, California, Oregon, Washington and New York. Given the limited production of many small family wineries, distribution will be focused in New York City.

Should you wish to contact me, please do so at todd@icebucketselections.com.

Thank you for helping to make writing about wine so interesting.

Well, there you go… the other side of the oligopoly spectrum. As the major three to four wholesaler companies continue to discover which small wine company is now throwing in the towel and they purchase that family business, along comes someone wanting to be on the other side of fence. Todd Wernstrom is simply wanting to working with families who only need a single row or two of shelf space in order to survive. As much as the big companies dominate most of the wine sets in supermarkets and large retail companies, they don’t have a complete monopoly, however, with small wine shop owners. Big companies have corporate buyers, who place wines guaranteed to sell themselves. These companies don’t have anyone in the store whose sole function is to hand sell each bottle.

While small wine shop owners still have to work with these large companies, because they all have some great brand to offer, they still appreciate the one-on-one relationship that someone like Todd Wernstrom brings to their doorstep.

Why?

Because Todd brings an undeniable passion for what he’s doing, and intimately knows the people’s stories behind each wine brands that he will be representing. He’s going to be an important conduit between the families he represents and the wine shop owners and restaurateur, who also needs an occasional story to tell. (Have you ever heard a sommelier give someone a score for a wine he’s suggesting?) Travel for these buyers may also be limited; but a great liaison, who’s also a remarkable storyteller, is going to spell  s-u-c-c-e-s-s.

After having been in wine sales, I know how it goes… And I know that it was primarily my stories that sold the wine I was representing. It wasn’t only the wine. Of course, I was selling a really good wine, so it wasn’t about being a huckster or a jiver. What it was about was telling the family’s story, and that had a really positive effect on wine buyers. One buyer later told me that he didn’t necessarily want the wine I was selling at the time, but he said that I was “such a nice lady,” that he didn’t know how to say “no.”

Selling is an art. So is storytelling, as is writing. Put that all together and you’ve got someone who’s destined to succeed.

Then, along came Todd’s Email… entitled, “my next step,” just a bit after I had written my story about Hayden Guridi and English Knowles Olney of Regency Wine Group. Is it ironic that as I wanted to learn more about the wine business opportunities come knocking, again? Naw… It’s just the natural order of things.

So, I wrote back to Todd wishing him success, and asking him:

Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with this reinventing of yourself. It’s a very exciting thing to do, the reinvent. It’s so refreshing and rejuvenating! I’ve now got a wine blog, and your story is very interesting from my perspective. So many wine writers are wondering about their futures, while you’re actually doing something very proactive. I see a great story, here. Best wishes and continued success!

To which Todd responded,

hey, thanks for thinking that i’d be interesting…if only others felt the same! i’d be happy to answer your questions; fire away!

With Todd’s subsequent Email came copious attachments. I read in awe… Someone so brilliant in his writings has found a way to create his next step. Being a lawyer for 10 years was his first. (So many lawyers turn from law to wine, with Robert Parker being the most visible among them for that segue.) Then, to be working with the Wine News for the next portion of his life, and now off to start his own wine company.

[Q] Tell me why you’re reinventing yourself?

[A] It’s funny, but I don’t consider any path I’ve taken to be about reinvention. I’m a believer that each step, from lawyer, to wine writer, and now to importer/wholesaler has been a natural evolution, at least for me.

[Q] As a wine writer who’s leaving the print media behind, let me ask you about what has evolved into “Live by the scores, die by the scores?” I first brought up this subject in February of 2006. Wine reviews and scores: those who write them and those who need them. Today, I’m seeing it be a pretty hot topic of discussion among the wine blogging community. What’s your take on that one?

[A] In the course of scoring many thousands of wines, I’ve always struggled with the inherent incompatibility between communicating the context of a particular wine within the confines of a 100-point scale and typical tasting note form (the laundry list of aromas and flavors). Neither can tell the consumer why New Zealand sauvignon blanc is (or should be, anyway) different than sauvignon blanc from Sancerre. Instead of fairly measuring the subject wine’s merits (or lack thereof), the number, coupled with the tasting note, actually says more about the taster than it does about what’s in the glass.

[Q] So, scores in your world isn’t what matters most, because you’re relying on your own palate to tell you what you love about the wine. What, then, matters most?

[A] I believe that what most matters about a wine is less strictly what’s inside that bottle than who’s behind it. The grower and the winemaker (often one in the same) are the embodiment of that wine. They are the nexus between the vineyard, its history, its climate and its geographic placement; they are the interpreter of terroir in that they have the power to respect the traditions of their place, the limitations and strengths of their chosen grape varieties, and all those other factors that make up this ill-defined but essential concept. Of course, they also have the ability to disregard their place, and by doing so, they certainly can still make excellent wine, but by divorcing themselves from their place, they also remove context, that vital sense of what makes one wine, one row of vines, one appellation distinct from another, and the very factors that truly make a wine interesting.

[Q] I have certain advantages as a marketer of wine, since I have a background in wine sales. What are some of the advantages that you feel you have, since you’re transiting from being a wine writer to becoming an importer/wholesaler?

[A] Entering the import/distribution side of the wine business from the writing side has, I
think, given me certain advantages. What I learned about wine and appellations had little if anything to do with price points and marketability of labels. I only had to satisfy myself that my subject, whether a grower in Champagne or a grower of sangiovese in Chianti, was interesting to me. I could then write what I wanted to write with no regard to the wine’s popularity or how clever its label design. I had the easiest job in the wine business because I didn’t have to sell a bottle to a usually confused consumer.

[Q] What wines are you going to be representing?

[A] The world is practically drowning in drinkable wine, but much of it borders on the generic; drinkable and forgettable. It’s wines that have compelling stories behind them, that speak to their place of origin, that are worth seeking out, and these are the wines I will represent. The producers who will be represented by Ice Bucket Selections may not be well known outside of their appellations, but without exception, they’ll make wines that are true to their place of origin, and also without exception, they do so in some of the world’s most esteemed vineyards. The wines will come from well-known and long-established appellations, such as Barolo, Champagne, Chambertin, Côte-Rôtie, Gigondas, Hengst, Meursault, Sancerre, Soave, Taurasi and Vouvray, to name a few. Consumers are more apt to take a chance on a producer they’re not familiar with from a well-known place than an unknown producer from an equally unknown region.

[Q] A really good point… There are so many challenges for a small wine company to face. So if someone was wanting to start a wine company, if what I’m hearing you say is right, you’d suggest spending a bit more on the real estate, if possible, to speed your success rate’s timing?

[A] I think so. Certainly, there are lots of different ways to run a railroad, so to speak, but it seems to me as the world’s wine shelves get more and more crowded – and let’s face it, even in these crazy times, wine is going to continue to sell, perhaps even more so – how can a new producer or a small family concern hope to stand out? I think that being from a known place gives you a leg up; it’s not the total answer, but it’s important. Then, of course, that producer better have representation in the United States – and if it’s a U.S. producer, they better make sure they’re in the major markets, particularly New York City – that’s truly knowledgeable. I don’t mean someone who may have been selling pharmaceuticals or cars the year before. I mean someone who really gets what the producer is trying to accomplish. Anyone can make technically correct wine; not anyone can bottle a piece of a vineyard and have the wine in that bottle really speak to where it came from.

That’s what’s important. And I’m not of the wine-is-art school either, so don’t misunderstand. Wine is food, no more, no less, and as food on our tables, it ought to come from an authentic place. I hope I’m right about all of this!

… I peraonally believe that Todd is right. While success may not come within the first year or so – it takes a few years to build a business – he’s going into building a company with the right vision and attitude, backed by a lot of knowledge and experience. This sounds like a first generational business to me, with a long, healthy life ahead of it… Only in Ameria, as we say over here…

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