It’s all about brand discipline at Vintus. The company, launched by former Kobrand senior executive Michael Quinttus in 2004, has a goal of developing a focused portfolio of exceptional, family-owned estate wines. It’s well on its way and gaining critical mass—and in very deliberate fashion.
Vintus represents about 45 wine estates, mostly from France and Italy. Though small, the portfolio is notable for having some of the most respected names in the wine industry, including Bordeaux first growth Château Margaux, Bollinger Champagne, Rhône’s E. Guigal, acclaimed Super-Tuscan producer Ornellaia, and California’s Chateau Montelena.
Quinttus takes a long view of things, often fostering relationships for years before striking a deal to represent a winery. “It’s been a steady progression and evolution, with a focus on adhering to our original direction and positioning of the company,” he says.
“We’ve always been very methodical regarding new brands, and we’ve limited ourselves to adding one or two brands a year,” Quinttus adds. “We like to make sure that we’re focused on developing the existing brands in the portfolio, as well as introducing new brands that can enhance our overall performance and what we offer to our distributors.”
Over the past 14 years, Quinttus says he and his team have stayed true to their underlying goals for the company and the brands it represents. “I certainly think family ownership is a thread,” he says. “The commitment that each producer has in terms of pushing the envelope on quality is another thread. We’re not looking at volume for volume’s sake. We’re looking for a balance of firm price point, backed up by really exceptional quality.”
In the company’s early days, Quinttus relied on his standing in the industry to gain the trust of wineries looking for new representation. “When you start a business from scratch, it’s all about establishing credibility,” Quinttus says. “In the beginning, it was my reputation and experience, more than a proven track record of brand building at Vintus, that earned us business.”
Some of the earliest brands represented include Bordeaux estates Château La Fleur-Pétrus and Château Margaux, as well as Errázuriz from Chile. “After that, it was a steady progression, with a focus on adhering to our original direction and positioning, and over time entering into relationships or conversations with other brands,” he says.
Patience has been crucial, says Alexander Michas, executive vice president and COO at Vintus. “We have very specific ideas about the type of producers we want to work with,” he says. “We want the absolute benchmark grape producers from their region.” Contract concerns, as well as convincing the producers to make a change, can take time. “We waited seven years for one brand, four years for another,” Michas recalls. “We had discussions, and we determined that we wanted particular producers from specific regions. Other additions came from situations where we were surprised early on that they wanted to work with a company as small as we were.”
Technology And The Human Touch
The Vintus approach is not unlike many other small to mid-size importers. They start small and build slowly, seeking to work with wineries that meet specific parameters. But in one area, Michas contends that Vintus eschews the norm. “We have a huge focus on planning and systems, and in that sense our internal infrastructure is more like that of very large corporations in the industry,” he says. “When we were smaller, that was highly unusual. But what sets us apart from the larger companies is our continued desire to handle a 400-case winery. The wine industry is all about relationships, and that’s especially true when it comes to sales. But we absolutely have a data-centric approach when it comes to running our company and determining our sales strategy.”
Michas says the company’s reliance on data that tracks consumer attitudes toward wines in the portfolio will only get stronger. “We’re doing that to support the brands that we want to be selling 20 or 30 years from now,” he says. “We’re not just moving boxes and chasing revenue. We’re trying to [secure future sales] for these producers with whom we have very personal relationships.”
The Growth Plan
That approach could help Vintus ramp up its volume in the market, although Quinttus says he doesn’t have a specific timeline for expansion. Instead, it’s more about when opportunity strikes. “Sometimes opportunities come up that you’re going to have to seize or they’ll pass you by,” Quinttus says. For example, the chance to represent Ornellaia and select other brands in the Frescobaldi portfolio was too attractive to ignore. “The addition of the Ornellaia, Masetto, Luce, and Attems brands from the Frescobaldi family, along with the recent addition of Masciarelli from the Abruzzo region of Italy, has reshaped our portfolio,” Quinttus says. “It was very important to us to add volume and breadth from Italy. These additions create the balance in our portfolio that I was looking for between our Italian brands and our French brands. Up until last year, we were more limited in our Italian portfolio and very deep in France.”
In 2016, Vintus added Ponzi Vineyards from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to the portfolio. Michas says they were “absolutely thrilled” to add the brand, and both he and Quinttus agree that Vintus’ next addition will likely be another domestic wine. “We have just one brand from California: Chateau Montelena,” Quinttus notes. “It’s high-image, all allocated, and it’s a historic brand. But obviously California is a big state, and 65% of table wine consumption in the United States is from California. We’re not in a hurry to add something from Sonoma, for example, but at the same time I think that’s the likely next area of portfolio expansion.”
Michas says California, and perhaps Washington, are “probably the next steps” for Vintus. “I would say it’s almost harder to make the pieces fit with domestic brands than when you’re looking at imports,” he says. “For the most part, domestic wines rely on the domestic market, so it’s an enormous decision for them.” It’s also complex to manage the logistics of working with the three-tier system and direct-to-consumer sales.
Beyond domestic wines, Vintus is open but not actively looking to expand its offerings. “There are some other major wine-producing areas that we don’t have in our portfolio, but at this point, outside of domestic brands, it will really be about the producer more than the area,” Michas says. “We don’t intend to have a portfolio that’s twice the size of what we have today. Anything new has to fit with everything else we’re currently doing, and it has to allow us to focus on building the producers we’re currently working with.”
Anything new is unlikely to stray from the current formula, Quinttus says. High volume national brands aren’t of much interest. “We’re interested in quality wines that are in that sweet spot above $15, and we’re especially focused on the $20-$30 range,” he says, noting that the price tier dominates Vintus’ current offerings. “Most of the brands that supply those wines have some specialty items—single vineyards, crus—that may be at higher price points.”
Current Consumer Interests
Brands in the Vintus portfolio tend to be iconic within their regions and therefore more immune to changing trends than competitors. But there are some trends that are driving volumes for a select few brands. “We see that Bollinger is hot, and that Champagne is hot overall,” Quinttus says. “Wines from Piedmont, like Sandrone, are in a very strong position, as is Oregon Pinot Noir. Our sales of Ponzi have accelerated, and we’re very pleased with that evolution.”
In a relatively new development, Quinttus says wines from Bordeaux are back in the spotlight. “We see greater interest today in Bordeaux wines than we’ve seen in the entire existence of our company,” he says. “The classified growths pushed prices up a lot in recent years, but with the strong U.S. dollar versus the euro, as well as some price adjustments, things have improved. There has been a more sober approach in terms of their pricing philosophies and recent vintages, and we’re finding that interest has come back. And many of the Bordeaux châteaux are actually more active in the U.S. these days and are paying more attention to the evolving market than we’ve seen in quite some time.”
Vintus CFO James Federico Jr. adds that interest in Bordeaux futures has bounced back somewhat. He notes that while the campaign for the 2016 vintage was “quite successful,” interest was still shy of levels seen in the late 2000s. “The dynamic has changed a lot,” Federico says. “There are fewer retailers involved in the futures business, and consumers are less willing to put up the money to wait two years for deliveries.”
Vintus has “seen growth in every year since Michael launched his company,” according to Federico. Quinttus says that in 2017, staffing increased, with more emphasis on the marketing department, which focused on growing its “ability to properly promote the programming, visibility, and awareness of our brands.” The firm now has about 50 employees. “I anticipate that in the coming years our sales team will grow commensurately with our portfolio and overall turnover,” he adds.
As for the brand portfolio, Quinttus expects more of the same for the business going forward. “We don’t have the objective of adding one or two brands a year as a policy or goal,” he says. “It could be that we go the next two years without adding any brands. We want to do things in a deliberate fashion, things that make sense to create a stronger business, and not just chase revenue and profits.”