Black importers are very few in this country. But more in the community should think about the profession.
By Sedale McCall
“Check the back of the label” is a pro tip many in the industry give for finding good wines you like. The label will often show a description of the wine, its alcohol content, and the company that imports or distributes the wine. That importer or distributor likely brings in similar wines, which can indicate other styles you can also try.
Importers are the middle “tier” in the “three-tier” system; essentially, they are the middleman. In the US, wine begins with winemakers and ends in retail establishments like restaurants or wine shops. Between them is a group of importers who work with winemakers. Or distributors who work with retail. It’s a pretty important job with significant implications for the other two tiers. Unfortunately, black importers are not a big part of that group.
“There are maybe three or four of us in the US, and it’s reflective of why we don’t see a lot of black-owned wineries and distilleries,” says importer/distributor Trudy Hanna. “It starts at the state level; they can limit who can and cannot get into the wine game. It comes down to the distributor. They decide what wines they will move through [to retail].”
Additionally, with the retail tier, the lack of diversity of distributors can be equally dangerous.
“There’s so much control that goes on in the market that limits our [community’s] presence,” she said. “Sometimes, when you want to seek out an African-American or black-owned winery, there’s a reason you won’t see it. That’s an obstacle I’m trying to address with my business. We as people of color need to understand how this is structured.”
Trudy is an importer/distributor with her own shop, PIE Imports, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The company focuses on family-owned, artisan, minority-owned, or small winemakers with unique, terroir-driven wines. Trudy’s focus is truly global, working with wineries worldwide.
“Wine or winemakers I look for are unique, that people have not heard of with a price point that is affordable, but it can compete with more complex wines,” says Hanna. “They have to be either small or midsize. I want to give people something more crafted, where I’ve met and talked with the winemaker and have them on my wine show.”
Jennifer White, owner and importer of Roots and Vines Wine, focuses on wines that fit her and her team’s palate and draws on her relationships.
“We were advised early on to work with people that I like, so that was our first requirement,” she said. “We have sommeliers and wine experts who advise us. What was important in our process was finding wines that made us go ‘wow’. When I went to South Africa, I tasted wines that made me go ‘wow,’ and we selected the wines that made our investors go ‘wow’.”
Then, there’s a fundamental human element to being an importer. It requires a personal touch with the suppliers, understanding the winemaker and their business, and genuinely engaging with them before bringing their wines to the US. That’s something that drew Trudy into the business.
“I get to do more of the interaction with the suppliers. And because I’m also a distributor, I can interact with the retailers and restaurants. It makes for an interesting connection,” says Hanna. “I know the intentions of the winery and can marry that with the retailer’s interests. I’m focused on revenue, but I can have a tangible, hands-on relationship with customer and supplier, which is the most valuable part of it.”
So for Jennifer, it’s about her connection to South Africa and ultimately building for black women in wine.
“The connection to Africa and black women specifically, for us, it’s about economic empowerment and establishing those ancient economic pipelines based around slavery to benefit black women now,” says White. “That’s the mission of Sister Circle and Roots and Vine Wine.”
However, Trudy isn’t just about helping the suppliers and retailers but also helping the consumer as well. That’s why she started her YouTube Show, Wine and Culture. Her goal is to help everyone find quality wine at affordable prices.
“What I do on my show is introduce different wines, preferably from my portfolio. And I also speak to others who are in the wine industry, people who store wine, wine consultants, or people who sell wine accessories,” she said. “I try to find people who are in different parts of the industry, along with winemakers or distributors.”
Her show, and her mission in general, creates a human element to importing. She wants to be more than the name you see on the back of the label. Trudy’s mission is to bring every part of the three-tier system to life and ensure you know the names as much as you know the wines.
“One mission I have for PIE Imports is not just to discuss the wines; I want the supplier to be there too. I want individuals to know about them. So on my show, that’s what I do,” she said. “If I’m introducing a bottle of wine to the market, I make sure to speak with the supplier. They can speak on the wines, and it’s not just coming from Trudy. The consumer can make a connection with the winemaker.”
Similarly, Jennifer is hyper-focused on bringing the community together and using our collective actions to strengthen our community.
“Hopefully, we can get some collective action together where we can collaborate. Angela is doing great work with the Association for African-American Vintners to see change happen there,” she noted. “But I would love to see some conversations around collective distribution and supply chains.”
Trudy and Jennifer have a few keys to success if you want to import wine.
“It’s really about the story. When I talk to a retailer or restaurant, they want a story. They know the wine, but they want to know the supplier and what the trip was like. That’s what I give them.” Hanna recalled. “They don’t want the specs; they want the story, so they can give that to their customers. This is the vision I want for PIE Imports. I’m not working with the typical demographics; I’m working with women, people of color, and African-Americans. It’s important to tell their stories.”
“There are three markups on every product. We don’t talk about that; we’re not in that market,” said White. “I say, get in it; we need more people in it. We just haven’t seen ourselves in it. Having a resource for information and guidance was vital for me. I’m happy to be a resource as well.”
Trudy’s passion for the discipline of importing was very inspiring. Her energy and enthusiasm should encourage others to consider importing wine as much as owning their own label.
“On any given day, there’s nothing I really hate about being an importer,” she said. “It’s really fun; I get to travel to some interesting places. I don’t have a sales quota. People are excited to see me there. The reception I get in other countries is amazing. Even the residents are excited because I’m bringing a piece of them back to the US.”
Likewise, Jennifer’s connection to our culture and Africa will make her a huge success, and it will be great to watch her in the future.
“We have an import license, wholesale license, and off-site retail license; we can help or facilitate. On our next trip in March, we want people to see what we do and get into the game. We want to help change the conversation about economics and economic development. What better way to do it than over a glass of wine?”
Trudy Hanna and PIE imports are at www.pieimports.com/ or on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @PIEImports.
Jennifer White and Roots and Vine Wines can be found at www.rootsandvineswine.com/ or @rootsandvineswine.