ARE “IMPORTERS” AN ENDANGERED SPEICES?
Some would have you believe it.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a curious type of American wine merchant evolved. Back then there were a lot more wine growers than there are now – the herd has been thinning in the last decades – and most of those growers were run of the mill. The so-called importer was the person who tasted all over the place, and separated the gold from the dross. She identified the best growers because she knew how to recognize them. It didn’t stop there.
I worked in a world where wine growers bottled a lot of different wines. Sometimes dozens. This of course was Germany, and it hasn’t changed very much. So in my own case, I not only sought the best growers, but also the best wines within the grower’s offering. Some of my counterparts did the same. One person in this ad-hoc fray of merchants coined the phrase Artisan Importers to depict what we actually did. (Take a bow, Dan Phillips.) Mr. Phillips correctly divined that an “importer” was technically any entity with a so-called Federal Importers Basic Permit, by which this entity could legally import wines (and other al-bevs) from outside the country. But the artisan importer was, crucially, a curator and a gatekeeper.
We assembled portfolios that reflected our tastes in wine. Sometimes we did this knowingly and deliberately – that would be me, among others – and sometimes it simply turned out that way, taste being taste. Some of us realized there was a “larger story” to tell, not only about the kinds of wines we favored, but the kinds of cultures from which they emerged, and we set about to tell those stories. Together we amounted to a kind of society of wine merchants paying the utmost degree of attention and espousing a particular set of values. We amounted to a Phenomenon, and it came to the attention of wine writers, because they found us interesting and we provided them with material. There were lots of articles to the effect of “Read The Back Label First” (because that’s where we usually put our names) and lots of profiles of each of us individually. Robert Parker deserves no end of credit for helping create the climate where artisan importers could thrive.
And thrive we did. This started back in the 80s, give or take, and a subsequent generation of importers are enacting their own visions in the wine market.
And so, wherefore the dissent? Because there really is an opinion to the effect that the traditional “importer” model (viz. curator/gatekeeper) is quickly growing obsolete.
The thrust of that argument is pragmatic, or so it seems to me. It goes like this. Today there are many fewer growers. (That’s true.) The general quality of growers is higher now, as the marginal ones were unable to survive in a smaller and more selective market. (Also true.) An aggressive wine press is making the kinds of discoveries that used to be made by the intrepid artisan importer. This is largely true as well. There’s much less need for importers to go prospecting, the way I myself did. I was seldom tipped off by a journalist or a sommelier back then. It was trial and error and sometimes word of mouth, from generous growers who saw that I liked their wines and shared other names with me. Willi Schaefer led me to Merkelbach; Dönnhoff led me to Hexamer, Leitz led me to Spreitzer. Today there are few if any true “discoveries” to be made. The names are out there; you just have to ring the bell before the other guy does.
This is less true in “hand-sell” categories such as Germany and Austria and perhaps also Alsace. The names are still out there, but fewer people are reading the articles and guides. Yet if you flip over to the PORTFOLIO link on this site, you’ll see a host of names you will recognize as “stars” in the wine firmament, many of whom were truly unknown when I first walked in their doors.
Another element comes into play. My own vision is distorted to some degree by the nature of the wines I worked with. It is typical for German growers and Austrian growers (and even some Champagne growers) to make a lot of different wines, and it makes no sense to offer them all. Someone has to triage, and that person was me. This is needed less (if at all) if one is working in seller’s-market categories and/or with growers who make fewer wines. If I represented, say, Marc Roy in Gevrey-Chambertin, it’s four reds and a white. There’s no need to cull a selection; it’s a small group of wines and all of them are excellent. A German grower may very easily bottle three dozen wines, and all of them are not excellent, and even if they were, who can engage with an offering of 36 wines from one grower?
The importer-as-seeker or importer-as-pilgrim is a function still relevant and viable in places the market doesn’t (yet) know. That’s how the seed work gets done. It’s a beautifully sustainable system; the importer is personally excited and fulfilled, some deserving growers get elevated from obscurity, and the market gets cool new wines they hadn’t tasted before.
So the essential model of the artisan importer is still very much pertinent to the market, at least to its happy-geeky element. The question is whether it remains productive in established categories. Let’s give the case its due.
It’s a time consuming and expensive way to do business. It isn’t efficient. (On the other hand, the fine wine business is inherently inefficient…) If an importer is too selective she risks annoying her grower, who also has an ego and wants his agents to be loyal. The business model that works better, in this view, is one in which the importer gives the growers pretty much whatever they want, and if that entails too many compromises in terms of quality, one simply finds other growers. Further into this view, the modern market simply moves too fast for the kind of leg-work the old-style importer always did.
So that’s the new scenario, and I hope those who propound it are comfortable that I expressed their position fairly.
I do think that if you take that position to its logical conclusion, the effect is to dumb down the fine-wine industry. That’s my not disinterested opinion, obviously. If I were still active as a merchant I’d yelp if the basic reason I existed was threatened. The somewhat chilly vision held by the apostles of modernism is really not all that damaging. There will still be excellent wines available, and articulate information about them, and everything will happen faster and we do want speed. We will lose a certain amount of gatekeeping here and there, we may lose a certain breadth of selection, and I wonder where there might be room for passion, in this brave new world. But it isn’t a mortal danger.
It took me around four and a half weeks of tasting to arrive at the selection of wines I would offer you. It wasn’t only tasting, but also the building of goodwill, the creation and maintenance of friendships, the honoring of the growers by spending a few hours dedicated to them and their wines alone, and the accumulation of a certain richness of living, that was meaningful and that I wanted to share. It took the time it took. It took the time it needed. It took the time it deserved.
In the process of tasting I assumed the privilege of accepting only the wines that excited me. I rejected a lot of good wines, and a lot of just-OK wines, because it wasn’t worth doing if I’d be content with anything short of excellence. If I screwed up it was because I was human and fallible, but almost never because I calculated “This wine will be good enough for most drinkers and the grower really wants me to offer it.” I had three core desires. I wanted the cheapest wines I offered to punch above their weight, I wanted my name to come as close as humanly possible to a guarantee of high quality, and I wanted not to shade the truth in order to make the sale.
I tell you this, not to display my precious “standards” for you to worship. In fact my precious “standards” were often a pain in a lot of people’s asses. I have a different reason for telling you this. It is to ask whether you would prefer a wine-world in which people who do what I did don’t exist any more.
With all our inefficiencies, all our conceits, all our preenings about guarding the gates against mediocre wine, all our self indulgences, with every bit of that accounted for and admitted – is it a better wine world if we become extinct?
You tell me.