The Minnesota wine scene is so strong, in part, because of the many aggressive distributors, large and small, who provide a veritable cornucopia of wine options.
Then there is the ongoing emergence of individuals who suss out even more choice fermented grape juice, and make the scene even stronger.
These “little guys” (and gals) have parlayed their love of wine with a boatload of footwork as they unearth wineries whose offerings are not available in much of the country. In recent years, Twin Citians have launched outfits such as TKO, Import Iberia, Z Wines and Balanced Wine Selections, all of which import and/or distribute obscure (and tasty) stuff.
A very recent wholesaler is Lompian, started by a St. Paul couple who wanted “a second career without giving up our first career,” said co-owner John Desteian. Others serve as brokers or importers rather than distributors.
Here’s a look at three small-time operations that bring us big-time wines:
Who: Brandon Johnson, a 30-year-old from Minneapolis, used to work at North Loop Wine & Spirits and calls himself “a Francophile through and through.”
What: Johnson is a broker, meaning he connects smaller wineries with U.S. distributors. His book is all French, but he’s looking to expand it. He has distribution in 15 states, and his wines will hit Minnesota later this winter. As for the name, Récoltant “means grape grower in France, and my philosophy not only encompasses where wine is from and how it’s made but also the people behind it.”
When: He studied wine in France and launched the company in 2013; Johnson said he has spent the past five years visiting all the major wine regions in France.
Why: “My passion was to bring small-production, estate-grown wines to the U.S.,” he said, noting that many of them are certified organic. He is focused on under-$30 wines “because that’s where the true value is; at $15 to $25 you can really find great value.”
Where: He takes two long trips annually, always visiting France and alternating between Spain and Germany to expand the portfolio, one week visiting current producers and the rest of the time looking for new ones.
The Piedmont Guy
Who: Weston Mayeron Hoard, 34, was working for now-defunct wholesaler Quality Wine & Spirits when he decided in 2007 to move to Italy’s Piedmont region, where he worked at the esteemed Paolo Scavino winery for four years. The hook was set.
What: This is a niche importing company focused only on Piedmont. The aim of the name is “showing people immediately that I did one thing. I’m also trying to take a region that had a bit of snobbery or academia attached to it and give it a more informal name.”
When: The St. Paulite set up shop in 2011, starting in Minnesota. His portfolio (nine wineries, about 50 wines) is now in 33 states, and he has warehouses on both coasts. But, he admitted, “I swam in the deep end for a number of years learning to do this right.”
Why: “To me, it makes sense to offer only one thing to a really good group of distributors.”
Where: Hoard takes three trips annually to Italy, including “once for the harvest because in my world it’s really important to see what the grapes look like and how the producer works, all these little things.” His other trips are for wine fairs such Vinitaly and ProWein, and he usually makes a trip to bring along clients because he wants “to get people inspired and show them what they are getting behind.”
Who: Judith Savage and John Desteian have owned Psychoanalytic Consultants in St. Paul since 1983. They have dubbed Lompian “a later-in-life career.”
What: Lompian distributes primarily French wines with a smattering from Oregon, Italy and Germany, plus California and Portugal. Their wines are sold here and in Illinois. Lompian is a small town in southwestern France where they hatched the idea to import wines in 2011.
When: They went the broker route a few years ago “for about three weeks,” Savage said, then “decided there was not any reason not to be an importer.” After bringing in wines through local wholesaler Rootstock, they started distributing themselves last March.
Why: “In 1981 in Zurich, we met a couple who wanted to exchange English lessons for Swiss-German lessons,” Desteian said. “It turned out the woman was a sommelier, so instead of learning a language, we learned about wine.” During subsequent European trips, they became accustomed to drinking really good, inexpensive wines that weren’t available in the Midwest.
Where: They head across the pond two or three times a year and log a couple thousand miles visiting producers they already have or new ones they’ve found. “We also do some prospecting and often find wines serendipitously,” Desteian said. An example of the latter: “We were having lunch at an outdoor restaurant in Meursault [Burgundy], drinking a fabulous wine. And the winery was just around the corner, and they wanted to be available here. That happens all the time.”
Lucky for them — and us.
Bill Ward writes atdecant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.