“How to Import Wine, An Insider’s Guide” has been written by Deborah M. Gray. When I was queried about whether or not I’d like to read her book, I thought, “Bring it on.” I spent a couple of years with Enoforum Wines (from Évora, Portugal), prior to their becoming imported to the United States. I know some of Deborah’s struggles; but, I was hired to do PR for Enoforum. My attention, rightfully so, wasn’t 100 percent focused on finding an import company. And it’s not my real area of expertise. Publicity, no problem when everything is “just so.” But, importer? What an interesting experience.
So, back to “bring it on.” I wanted to especially read this book to see where I could improve what I had done, if the opportunity ever arises again. I’d much rather learn from someone else’s struggles, than have to get beaten up on my own. I’ve lived long enough to know that I don’t have to learn everything the hard way. I’m about to have some time on my hands, so I’m really looking forward to reading Deborah’s book and getting back to this blog with my learning bullet points.
Now, to her perspectives…
Since she’s a wine writer, I asked if we could do a question and answer session; the same one that I email to all wine writers. Since Deborah’s in a unique position within the wine industry, which I believe to be the most fascinating part of our business… people who travel the world, who have an immense view of what’s much more myopic for the rest of us, who aren’t jetting around getting our passports stamped… I couldn’t wait to see her answers. I hold this opinion of wine importers, because as I tried to find one for Enoforum Wines, I discovered some really fascinating people. Frank E. Johnson is definitely the most accomplished, memorable character in the wine import business that I had the pleasure of meeting over the phone in my process.
Just reading Deborah’s question and answers, I know that I’m going to love her book. Her style of writing is very… Well, you be the judge. If you read the following, I think you’re going to catch on quickly.
Writer Profile Questions & Answers
[Q] Many wine writers also have a day job. If wine isn’t your job, what is and for whom?
[DEBORAH] I have been a wine importer for twenty years, importing exclusively from Australia and New Zealand. In addition, I hold a distributor’s license in California and consult to new and seasoned wine importers and foreign wineries.
[Q] When did you start writing about wine?
[DEBORAH] At the end of 2007, after a disastrous three years with a partner and the demise of my first company, I began my second wine company. In early 2008, on the cusp of the recession, I found myself with far too much time on my hands, so I started writing down various elements of wine business I thought would be helpful to clients, and these eventually became the foundation for my book. I had written nothing on wine prior to that point. In fact, you could say I still haven’t since, although my book talks about wine, the essential elements are the building blocks of importing and distribution!
[Q] What prompted you to start writing about wine?
[DEBORAH] It emanated from a deep desire to share my experiences in and knowledge of the wine industry, along with a love of writing. When I started importing in January, 1992, I had zero experience in the wine world and there were no resources. Because I had not previously been employed in any capacity within the wine industry, I also had no connections and didn’t know who to ask. It was such a steep learning curve for me that I decided I wanted to save others the same painful journey.
[Q] What aspect(s) of wine do you most enjoy covering?
[DEBORAH] For me, it’s all about the people. The personalities of gifted winemakers and passionate vineyard owners are many and varied. Some are outrageous characters with a voracious appetite for life in the spotlight, and others are quietly toiling away on their special patch of dirt. Whether I’m eating homemade pasta at a kitchen counter, attending a raucous restaurant event to mark an occasion, or quietly savoring the latest vintage in the cellar with the family, I’m learning about their philosophies and what drives them, and creating indelible memories. Along the way, and under many different circumstances, I’ve also tasted some amazing wines.
[Q] How has your job changed since you’ve started?
[DEBORAH] Dramatically, for me. Without experience, everything was unchartered territory and then became a process of trial and error. My first portfolio was not only a lesser known category – Australia – but comprised completely unknown regions, family-owned vineyards, boutique brands and unusual styles. The sum total of the American exposure was to big companies with generic wine that generally came from that vast appellation known simply as Southeastern Australia. It was not easy selling Semillon from the Hunter and Verdelho from Margaret River back when people were just becoming accustomed to a simple Shiraz. In the last twenty years, the Australian category has gone from relatively unknown to white hot to saturated. My job has changed further from decreasing the direct import aspect and increasing consulting and helping others with their portfolios.
[Q] What’s the most memorable wine you’ve ever tasted?
[DEBORAH] There isn’t one memorable wine for me. Perhaps if I’d had a Domaine de la Rominee-Conti or something of that ilk, there might have been. But what opened my eyes early on was a vertical of Penfolds Grange, each vintage like nothing I’d ever tasted before. My most recent example was Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast 2007 and it was sublime.
[Q] What’s your favorite variety?
[DEBORAH] I can’t imagine just having one. I love:
- Southern Rhone wines and similar styles of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre from Australia
- Red Burgundy and Burgundian Pinot Noir styles from New Zealand
- Australian Riesling.
[Q] Do you believe that there are better quality, lower priced wines today, than in past vintages?
[DEBORAH] Oh, absolutely. A product of more skilled winemaking, traveling winemakers who can improve the techniques of wineries where practices were mired in the past, newer technology, increased knowledge of clones and what suits terroir and of course, the affect of competition and increased plantings that still need to find market share.
[Q] What’s your favorite innovation in the wine industry over the past few years?
[DEBORAH] This is such an industry thing, but I love screw cap! It makes it so easy to open a bottle at a tasting or dinner with confidence, or receive samples, knowing that a percentage of the case isn’t going to be corked. I think we should be beyond the stage where tradition and ritual are the focus, as if that is the romance of wine. There is more than enough romance in the bottle. And where wine is concerned, traditions and rituals are only important if they contribute to the experience.
[Q] What’s your favorite food and wine pairing?
[DEBORAH] I haven’t eaten any meat, beyond seafood, for thirty years so although I don’t miss meat and love red wine with pasta, fungi and pizza, there is a certain hearty gratification in a Pinot Noir with grilled salmon. For white, it’s Champagne with sushi and oysters. Conventional pairings, but completely satisfying.
[Q] What are your interests outside of the wine business?
[DEBORAH] Skiing is a passion, fiction writing, travel for pleasure, hiking, scuba diving when the opportunity arises, (which isn’t often these days) and good books.
[Q] Who inspires you (wine business or outside of it, doesn’t matter)?
[DEBORAH] My father was my inspiration when he was alive, and the impetus for my wine business, since his was the first vineyard I represented. He still inspires me in spirit.
Those who continue to inspire me are the pioneers and innovators in any field who could easily rest on their laurels, engage in conspicuous consumption and revel in the spotlight. Instead they choose to quietly devote time and resources to worthy causes and making life easier for those less fortunate.
[Q] For what would you like to be remembered?
[DEBORAH] Hopefully, it won’t just be for my big laugh.
For integrity, loyalty and having contributed positively to others’ lives, in whatever way (big or small) that was meaningful to them.
Deborah M. Gray’s book can be purchased from Amazon, Powell’s, Books-A-Million, Barnes and Noble, or from your favorite independent bookseller.
This book is a great primer on the wine business. Much of it is relevant even if one doesn’t import. I was delighted to come across it a couple of months back.
Just added it to my Amazon “I want it for my birthday” wish list! 🙂
Very interesting. Can you send more information?
I’m currently reading the book. May I suggest the same for you?
I’m loving it, David.
I use the book in several of the wine business classes I teach at Sonoma State. I use the chapters on importing for my Global Wine Class and the chapters on working with distributors for my Wine Marketing and Sales class and the feedback I get from students is extremely positive. Hat’s off to Deborah for writing a valuable resource on wine importing and sales.
Janeen, I’m not surprised. Thanks for sharing.
Janeen, I had no idea! That is wonderful to hear and thank you.
Thank you to Jo for your thought-provoking questions. I had fun answering them.
I was aware of the popularity of your blog, but didn’t really know anything about you. I am now enjoying your perspective on the industry, your passion for Petite Syrah, and reading the Q & A’s with your other interviewees!
So happy to hear that your book is such a great resource, but I’m not surprised. It was my pleasure, Deborah. I’m loving your book, too.