Iconic Importers: How to Buy Great Wine Every Time

27 02 2009

A day rarely goes by when someone doesn’t ask me, “What’s your favorite (fill in the blank with a wine type)?”  What should I be buying?  Even my mother will often call me up and say, “Well, we are having lamb chops and a salad, what should we buy.”  Usually this leaves me blank wondering what to say since what is available here in San Francisco is not usually available across the country, prices vary, stock varies, it usually ends up annoying me leaving me to respond, “Call me when you get to the store” and then the tedious back and forth listing of wines…

“Well they have Stag’s Leap!”

“Mom, is that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars?  or Winery?”

“Stag’s L_eaaa_p it says.”

“But is it WINE CELLARS or WINERY!?”

“What’s the difference?”

“There’s a difference.”

“Well it says Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap.”


So you can see that it is much easier to give buyers tools that will work whether or not I am available by cell phone!

That’s not to say I blame her, the world of wine is super complicated!  Sometimes I am overwhelmed, and there has been more than once that I have been somewhat desperate in a less than optimal retail store where the quality offerings are few and far between, so I resort to a very simple technique that I think is very reliable!  I merely try to hone in on a variety or style of wine I would like to drink (i.e. Riesling, Pinot Noir, Italian, Spanish) and if I am not familiar with the brand then spin the bottles around and look to see who imports the wine.

An importer is someone who goes through all the procedures to get a wine from its country of origin to the USA.  It then often passes through a distributor and on to a restaurant or retailer before it ends up on your table or in your cellar.  The importer’s job is much more difficult than just dealing with customs, shipping and the like.  More reputable importers take great care and time deciding what they are going to import.  If you want to know the very latest information about any wine region ask an importer that works with wines from that area and undoubtedly they have the most recent and pertinent information.  Ask them where to eat in the tiny towns in those regions and they know.  The best fine-tune their offerings bringing in the best wines they can get.  There is always a great deal of rapport between winemakers and their importers, and while there is a fine line between importers that change styles of wine to suit their constituents and those that merely suggest what styles are doing well in the states, they have their pulse on exactly what is going on in any region they represent.

As you get to know your favorite wine regions and wine styles, you will find which importers suit your tastebuds.  It’s kind of like deciding whether you like to listen to Parker or Tanzer, Decanter or Wine Spectator, or your favorite sommelier.  These importers often have distinct palates and you might see those reflected in their “books”, but if they are one thing they are consistent!

So the next time you are stranded in the wine store and cannot find something to take to a party or drink with dinner, flip those bottles around and get to know your importers, you will be taken on an amazing journey of flavor and discovery!

Here is my “short list” of some of my favorite importers.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, please comment by listing your favorites!  I may seem to be gushing, but I really want you to know how much these guys mean to me!

Terry Theise


Terry and his cronies visit Austria, Germany and Champagne at least annually to find the very best of the best. He doesn’t merely bring in all wines that his producers make, but he finds the creme de la creme and uses his leverage to fight for as many cases as he possibly can.  Terry has made AMAZING progress in making a name for Riesling in the US, without his efforts we would not see the Riesling Revival as we have in recent years.  He is a friend to his producers, sommeliers and retailers acting as the liaison adeptly with both expertise and humility.  Although he believes that Chardonnay shouldn’t be grown anywhere other than Burgundy or Champagne and is a little militant about that, he is firm in his convictions and has 100% faith in each and every wine he imports.  Add to that his amazing catalogs, all available to read online, that include an amazing wealth of knowledge offered in an incredibly down to earth and fun manner.  You can read all about his latest escapades, the latest vintages, the producers, and Terry’s unique perspective on just about everything.  Including the Horny Funk Brothers, and if that doesn’t make you want to tune in what does?  I would be remiss to not add that Skurnik also works with my former boss and wonderful Burgundy afficionado Daniel Johnnes!

Bartholomew Broadbent


I remember when I met Bartholomew Broadbent I was fresh from NYC and full of dreams of becoming an MW (Master of Wine).  Bartholomew is the son of one of my idols Michael Broadbent, Master of Wine, and I recall that when I ran into Bartholomew at the Balboa Cafe in the Marina District of San Francisco I was star struck.  My husband didn’t initially get it, because B seems like such a “normal” guy, but I explained that talking to him was for me like my husband having a heart to heart with Michael Jordan.  Over the years I have come to understand that Bartholomew has the easy care and humility that is requisite in a true wine professional.  He is cheeky and fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously except when it comes to his producers.  Bartholomew is always generous with his time and his producers are as well, I have met many of them and they are always easily accessible and the wines are absolutely unique.  The fun part of Broadbent Selections is that they have producers representing all corners of the globe, from Aresti in Chile, Spy Valley in New Zealand, Vilafonte and Warwick in South Africa, and Weinert in Argentina, that just scratches the surface!  Some of the more special producers, in my humble opinion, are the amazing wines (both Ports and Portuguese “table wines” for lack of a better term) from Quinta do Crasto in the Douro and the amazing wines of Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar in Lebanon, they never fail to please both in terms of flavor and of the amazing history that goes along with them.  And don’t forget to try Broadbent’s own Madeira and delicious Vinho Verde. 

Brian Larky


Got Italian?  Ask Larky.  Not only does he know EVERYBODY in the US and Italy, he selects some of the greatest wines around.  Specializing in Italian wines, Brian takes great care to make sure that both his producers and his staff truly understand each others’ world.  He is not afraid to bring the entire staff to Italy to meet his producers and additionally makes sure that his producers are willing to travel to the US to insure that there is a huge interaction of knowledge, camaraderie and a very clear company focus.  His producers are so tight that the sixteen work together voting on any interested new contenders.  With this extremely loyal group (Larky has never lost a producer), his staff truly knows the ins and outs of every product and the producer gets to see how each product is received on the market in person.  This results in great admiration and enjoyment of their wines by the US public.

Rudi Wiest


Now, don’t get me wrong here, Rudi is not the only great importer of German wines, but I think this is clearly his strong suit.  Recently Rudi held a tasting at Jardiniere restaurant in San Francisco where he wasn’t content to just showcase  his current releases but decided (rightly) that it was vital to show how these white wines age!!  I was astonished to hear the comments from sommeliers invited saying, “wow, this Riesling can really age!”  (Granted the wines he showed were phenomenal)  This reminded me that sommeliers are always learning.  That means that by raiding the cellar, Rudi is educating the buyer.  Rudi is again a humble soul despite his great achievements.  He brings in some of the most incredible wines and never bats an eye.  And to our friend that did not know Riesling can age, he was gracious and very polite but instructive.  Without him we would have much less to smile about.

Jorge Ordonez


Jorge Ordonez has done for Spanish wines what Ferran Adria of El Bulli has done for Spanish cuisine.  He has made the most unheard of corners of Spain some of the greatest highlights and has created a Renaissance in Spain’s most traditional regions.  I will drink ANYTHING with a Jorge label on it, no matter where it comes from, because despite all my studies I know that Jorge knows the corners of Spain better than I do.  Perhaps I am partial due to the time that Jorge joined me at my home with some of Spain’s best producers for an after party, but he cannot be stopped.  From the most elite and coveted “cult” wines from Spain (by the way this is a relatively new phenomenon created by Jorge, CULT wines from SPAIN?) to the value wines he brings to us at seemingly impossible prices he has the market cornered.  Granted, there are some great Spanish importers out there, but Jorge is like a hound dog sniffing out the forgotten or newest, greatest find and not only brings the wines to the US but brings the winemakers here.  He even takes our best sommeliers on the famed “death march” so that they can really understand the products and get the lay of the land.  It’s amazing that no one else has really understood the impact of educating the “front line” until recently.  Jorge has known that this formula works for years.  His wines are always great and have kept me company on many a night far from home!