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 wine professionals give for finding good wines you like. The label will often show a description of the wine, its alcohol content, and the name of the importer or distributor. Armed with this knowledge, you might
The Three-Tier System
Importers comprise the middle “tier” in alcohol’s “three-tier” system.They’re part of the second, or wholesaler, tier. In the U.S., wine starts with the winemaker and ends in a retail establishment like a restaurant or wine shop. The wholesaler (or importer) works with winemakers to ensure the wine gets into its targeted market. This tier is essential for the consumer to be able to enjoy the wine they like from around the world, but the world of importing does not reflect wine’s global nature.
There is a dearth of Black importers in the world of wine.
Black Importers in Wine
“There are maybe three or four of us [black importers] 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, within 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,” Hanna continued. “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.”
Hanna is an importer/distributor with her own shop, PIE Imports, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The company focuses on family- and minority-owned small winemakers with unique, terroir-driven wines. Her focus is truly global, working with wineries worldwide.
“[The] wine or winemakers I look for are unique–that people have not heard of with a price point that is affordable–but can compete with more complex wines,” says Hanna. “They have to be either small or mid-sized. I want to give people something more crafted, where I’ve met and talked with the winemaker and have [had] them on my wine show.”
Hanna runs a YouTube Show called 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,” Hanna says. “And I also speak to others who are in the wine industry: people who store wine, wine consultants, or people who sell wine accessories. 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, brings the role of importing to life for the wine consumer. Hanna wants to be more than the name you see on the back of the label;her mission is to demystify each part of the three-tier system so both the producer’s names and corresponding wines are visible.
There’s a fundamental human element to being an importer. It requires a personal touch with suppliers, understanding the winemaker and their business, and genuinely engaging with them before importing their wines. That element is what drew Hanna to 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.”
Jennifer White- Roots and Vines Wine
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 within the industry.
“We were advised early on to work with people [we] 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’.”
For White, her connection to South Africa and desire to champion Black women in wine drove her passion to establish her import business.
“The connection to Africa and Black women specifically…[is] 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.”
White is hyper focused on bringing the community together and using collective action to strengthen the Black community.
“… Angela is doing great work with the Association for African-American Vintners to see change happen there,” White said. “But I would love to see some conversations around collective distribution and supply chains.”
That dream is, perhaps, the future of importing.
Keys to Success
Hanna and White have a few keys to success in their business.
“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…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.”
White remarks that ”there are three markups on every product. We don’t talk about that; we’re not in that market. “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.”
White’s connection to her culture and of Africa will continue to feed her success. She is indeed one to watch in the future.
“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 U.S.”