Wine Importer The Buzz


The thirst for imported wine is creating opportunities for wine importers.

Robert Maxwell is the president of the National Association of Beverage Importers (NABI). In Maxwell's opinion, the first step in becoming a successful wine importer is determining which products to import.

That's largely based on potential consumer interest. Then the wine importer, also known as a wine agent, must locate the wine supply.

Before wine can be imported into the U.S., agents must file for a free federal license, followed by the appropriate state license. License expenses can vary by state. After the product is imported, labels of approval from both the federal and state governments must be obtained.

Scott Fraser started Forbes Fraser Wines Ltd. many years ago. It all began when a former professor, Jim Forbes, asked Fraser if he wanted to start a hobby company importing wine. "In my ignorance," says Fraser, "I said yes."

The company grew steadily, "in part because I think we were smart," says Fraser, and "in part because of good timing."

After four years, it was enough of a success for Fraser to work on it part time, which quickly led to full-time employment. Soon even his wife, Sonia, quit her job to join the growing business, working as sales manager.

Essentially, Fraser says, their business is wholesaling. "We purchase wine by the tens, hundreds or thousands of cases from wineries around the world, ship them to our warehouse, then reship them to our customers."

The Ways of a Wine Agent

Fraser's job boils down to finding wines, getting them into the country and preparing marketing materials for the sales team. Sonia Fraser is in charge of selling the wine, with assistance from one full-time and one part-time employee.

The romantic notion of jet-setting around the world looking for wines is just that -- a romantic notion. In reality, Fraser says he finds most of his global suppliers through fax and e-mail. He then deals with all the legalities required for import, takes orders and arranges shipping.

As a small business owner, he also manages the accounting, financial analysis and inventory for the company. "We work in a [government-regulated] environment, so there is no shortage of paperwork to deal with," he says.

"The sales side involves dealing with a very wide range of customers, from...liquor store managers to food-and-wine-loving restaurant owners to individual consumers," says Fraser.

Champagne Wages?

Most of the jobs in this industry are sales positions. Wages depend on factors like the person's level of experience, the company they work for and its compensation plan. Fraser says a typical salesperson can expect to earn from the low-$30,000s to upwards of $50,000 in salary and commission.

"Owner-managers can obviously do better," says Fraser. "But it takes many years to build up a wide enough selection of products and a broad enough customer base from a standing start."

He notes that most companies are very lean, employing only a sales force, a sales manager, a senior manager-owner and support staff. Few companies have a middle-management level.

Aa degree in marketing may be particularly helpful. However, Fraser feels that for someone with a flair for sales and excellent people skills, the actual type of degree is unimportant.

Winning at Wine Importing

For Fraser, one of the high points of working in the wine importing trade is the camaraderie. "Everyone in the business knows everyone and [they] are largely on friendly terms," he says. "Despite the fact our products compete, we all get along."

The downsides of the business can include low profit margins and less than outstanding salaries. Since most of the people agents deal with are thousands of miles away, there can also be a sense of isolation.

Fraser points out that wine importing isn't a high-pressure sales kind of business. The key, he says, lies in developing good relationships. "Success comes from building personal ties to your customers over a long period of time," he says. To enjoy this business, you must like people, food, and of course, wine.

Links

National Association of Beverage Importers
A trade association