Few companies successfully play in both the import and distribution businesses like Winebow. The Virginia-based company is a leader for fine wine and spirits importation and distribution, representing 1,200 producer partners in 20 states and covering 70% of the country’s wine consumption, with revenues totaling $770 million a year. Winebow simultaneously juggles the complexities of multi-state distribution and the dynamics of importing wine from 12 countries, creating a vibrant platform for its supplier partners. The company has changed immensely over the course of its nearly 40-year history, becoming a bicoastal wholesaler and rebranding itself to unify its many different parts under one name. Through it all, a commitment to quality and culture has remained intact, putting Winebow in a unique space that’s hard to match.
“We’ve positioned ourselves as the only national importer and distributor of scale focused exclusively on fine wine and spirits,” says Dean Ferrell, president and CEO of Winebow. Ferrell took over the company’s top spot about a year ago, after serving as executive vice president and CFO for more than a decade. “We find ourselves in a time of industry evolution and opportunity, and I don’t think we could be more excited about our position in that space,” he adds. “We’ve spent the last decade putting together the pieces of this company, and that has put us in the right place at the right time with what’s going on in the industry.”
For years, Winebow has steadily added import brands and wholesale markets, and recently has benefited from notable growth in both areas. The company’s newest wine and spirits import partners include Spain’s Bodegas Volver, Scotland’s GlenAllachie single malt, France’s Domaine Louis Moreau, and Italy’s Aldo Rainoldi, Achille Boroli, and ColleMassari Wine Estates. In addition, Winebow merged with fellow importer Negociants USA last spring, bringing wines from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa into its fold. On the distribution side, Winebow made its first move to the West Coast in late 2015 when it expanded its footprint into Washington and Idaho. Nine months later, the company entered California—a critical step as it works to become a major bicoastal distributor—and has since added Oregon.
“It’s been part of our strategic initiative to grow the business in earnest,” Ferrell says. “We were already a national importer in all states, but we felt it was very important to establish ourselves as a nationally focused distributor too. It’s one of the more transformational things we’ve done for the company, and we’re now in eight of the top ten U.S. wine markets.”
Growth And Change
The face of Winebow has changed immensely in the last few years, from new leadership to bicoastal expansion to an ever-growing imported wine and spirits portfolio, and most recently, a corporate rebranding that aligns the many subsets of the distribution business under one unified name. Winebow has been committed to fine wine since the 1980s, when the category was developing; such commitment set up a company culture that’s still relevant decades later. Founder Leonardo LoCascio launched Winebow in 1980 to bring upscale Italian wines to the U.S. market. The current company was subsequently formed in 2014 when LoCascio’s Winebow merged with Kip Thompson’s The Country Vintner.
A lot of Winebow’s growth, especially in the distribution business, has come through mergers and acquisitions. For years, Winebow added distribution houses under its umbrella but kept their original names intact, thinking the legacy branding would be helpful for market continuity. That changed earlier this year when the company—formerly operating under the umbrella name of The Winebow Group—announced a new corporate identity and logo. Now called Winebow, all of the company’s distributors share the same name.
“After completing our strategic initiative to become bicoastal, the time was right to pull together and rebrand,” Ferrell says. He admits that the previous setup, with different company names in different markets, was confusing to a lot of people inside and outside the beverage industry. “We want to become easier to understand and establish ourselves as a forward-looking company with a fresh, modern look,” he adds.
So far, the efforts have been well received. Ferrell notes that Winebow’s corporate structure hasn’t changed much, and says that even though some consolidation among the wholesale sales forces did occur, there were no major layoffs. New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. were most affected. Arjun Dewan, Winebow’s executive vice president of wholesale for the Eastern United States, says the New York and New Jersey teams are functioning well, adding that the rebranding has allowed the company to reallocate resources and get further and deeper market coverage in those states. “The rebranding creates additional leverage for our supplier partners,” Dewan explains. “It helps us form our message and go back to our established mission, which is to be the national solution for fine wine and craft spirits.”
Most of Winebow’s rebranding efforts were focused on the distribution business; the company’s import side remains the same, with four subdivisions that each focus on their own areas of the world. The import arm includes Craft + Estate, an importer of French, Austrian, and Greek wine, and Japanese sake; Leonardo LoCascio Selections, representing the company’s Italian wines and spirits; MundoVino, comprising wines from Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina; and Negociants USA, an importer of wines from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
“We have a very unique business, as we’re both a significant national distributor and a significant national importer,” Ferrell says. “It might be easier to be only a wholesaler or importer, but we believe doing both provides the optimal benefits to our supply partners and wholesale customers. We’ve grown dramatically and been very careful in the selection of the companies that ultimately became part of Winebow. We want to maintain a high-integrity business with a focus and commitment on quality in fine wine and spirits.”
Winning With Wine
Wine makes up 90% of Winebow’s business. The company was founded with a focus on higher-end wines and still emphasizes the luxury market today, representing more than 150 supplier partners on the import side and more than 1,000 producers on the wholesale side. “We’ve always been upscale,” says Richard Driscoll, Winebow’s executive vice president of supplier relations and a 30-plus-year veteran of the company. “The market has been moving upscale recently, but it’s not a new evolution to us. We’re pioneers in the areas of high-end luxury and premium-to-luxury wines.”
Driscoll cites higher-end wholesale clients like Laurent-Perrier Champagne, Hahn Family Wines, Rombauer Vineyards, and Frog’s Leap Winery, alongside import partners like Chile’s Casa Lapostolle and Spain’s Bodegas Borsao, as examples of upscale brands that illustrate the company’s commitment to quality. Similarly, Ferrell points to long-time partners like Italy’s Zenato Winery and Argentina’s Bodega Catena Zapata—both of which have been with Winebow for decades—as examples of complementary companies that share Winebow’s culture and ethos.
“Our main objective is to be a dominant player in the fine wine trade, unequivocally,” Driscoll says. He points to states like Florida and New York as key players for wine and as some of the company’s strongest markets. Winebow imports wines from 12 different countries and distributes wine from 50 countries. “There’s no other company whose footprint in the United States even remotely resembles the depth of product we represent and the qualitative side of our business,” Driscoll adds.
Winebow’s wholesale and import portfolios range from Italy and France to Argentina and Chile to Turkey and Lebanon. On the import side, the company has many brands that it introduced into the United States years ago that are thriving today. “We’ve never been focused on being the largest importer from any area, but if you look at Italy, France, Argentina, and Chile, you can identify families that have been wine pioneers and visionaries, most of whom have been our partners since they started coming into the country, or soon after,” says Ian Downey, executive vice president of Winebow Imports. “That’s really important to us.”
Italian wine helped shape the backbone of Winebow’s business in the early days, and the segment remains a big part of the company’s identity today. Erle Martin, Winebow’s executive vice president of wholesale for the Western United States, describes Italy as the founding vision of Winebow, noting that the country has broadened its offerings immensely in recent years and still shows signs of growth. France is also performing well for Winebow; the company got a big boost in French wine in 2017 when it acquired the importing rights to nine Burgundy labels from Treasury Chateau & Estate.
“The Treasury Burgundy portfolio has been a fun and successful acquisition for us,” Driscoll says. “It’s been beyond our expectations for what we’d accomplish there. We believe the Burgundian offerings will have a halo effect for our foray into the future with French wines.”
Winebow executives are also bullish on South America, a wine region that has been part of the company’s import portfolio since the 1980s. Winebow’s notable South American partners include Casa Lapostolle, Bodega Catena Zapata, and Cousiño-Mocul, among others. In other New World areas, Winebow has represented Australian wines for many years. The company’s acquisition of Negociants USA is a bold statement on its commitment to Australia and New Zealand going forward.
“Our success is a byproduct of the success of our supply partners,” Ferrell says. “Every year we strive to outperform the market in the fine wine sector, and we’ve done it. Our goal is to offer a portfolio that’s accessible to everyone.”
The wide variety of countries represented in Winebow’s portfolio is a key point of differentiation for the company. Executives credit Winebow’s talented wholesale sales force with placing lesser-known wines into myriad accounts, which in turn allows the company to take some risks with wines from unknown producers and non-traditional areas of the globe. “We have a considerable commissioned sales force of fine wine professionals,” Dewan says. “It gives us the ability to be early adopters in certain wine-making areas of the world.”
Rosé and upper-end sparkling wines continue to perform well for Winebow, especially rosé Champagnes. Domestic wines from the Pacific Northwest are garnering attention too, particularly Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Washington Cabernet Sauvignon. Martin notes that there’s some consumer fatigue around steadily increasing prices for California Cabernet Sauvignon, which is creating more space for wines from the Pacific Northwest and even Bordeaux.
“Domestic wines are our largest segment of business as a company,” Driscoll says. “We have some very powerful brands in that space.” He adds that there are some areas internationally where Winebow is looking to bolster its presence, such as Rioja. He notes that wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont, and the Loire Valley are finding new life with younger consumers, adding that this bodes well for Winebow since the company represents many brands from these areas.
While the vast majority of Winebow’s portfolio comes from producer partners, the company ventured into the world of brand ownership last year with the launch of Amble + Chase. A premium canned wine from Provence, Amble + Chase is the first owned-brand innovation Winebow has launched in recent history. “The bedrock of our business is working with supplier partners, but Amble + Chase could be a template going forward because it’s thus far been successful,” Martin says. Ferrell adds that the company will look to incorporate one or two innovation brands annually.
While wine reigns supreme, spirits are not an afterthought at Winebow. The company’s import division has a handful of spirits brands that are add-ons from wine producing partners, such as grappas and vermouths, but the wholesale division represents more than 250 spirits producers, with a focus on craft labels. The wholesale spirits portfolio includes offerings from Sazerac Co., California’s Charbay Distillery, and Colorado’s Leopold Bros., among many others.
“Spirits are an important area of growth for us and one of the fastest-growing segments in our book,” Dewan says. For Ferrell, adding spirits into the business mix is crucial for staying relevant in today’s market and plays a key role in shaping the company’s culture. Meanwhile, Driscoll notes that craft spirits are often a complementary sale to the company’s wine offerings. “Craft spirits have been a big piece of our business and the best-growing segment for a long time,” he explains. “We intend to be major players in the craft spirits sector.” The company also represents a small roster of sake brands, though executives say they make up a tiny portion of the business and are not a growth focus for the future.
Compliance laws and ever-changing state regulatory controls are at the top of the list of challenges for Winebow’s wholesale segment, as they are industry-wide. “We’re very pleased with our distribution business,” Ferrell says. “Our goal is to exceed category growth and we’ve done that and will continue to do that. Our rebranding will only accentuate that going forward.”
Martin adds that wholesale industry consolidation has helped Winebow, as the company has benefited from several acquisitions that boosted growth and fostered the expansion to become a bicoastal distributor. Some of the company’s key markets—including large urban centers like Chicago, New York City, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—align perfectly with its upscale wine clients. “Our portfolio favors sophisticated customers, and our strength in those markets works with our portfolio,” Martin says. “There’s premium growth there, which favors the brands we work with. Premiumization wasn’t a word five years ago, and now everyone in the industry talks about it. This is the core of who we are. We have the quality portfolio representation and the educated sales force and service standards that a lot of smaller companies tend to be known for, but we have the scale, strategy, and resources that a big company provides.”
In terms of future growth, there are no concrete plans. After some years of rapid acceleration and change, Winebow’s leadership team is looking to digest its recent moves before diving into any new ones. “We’re very satisfied with our current footprint for our wholesale coverage and the quality of our Winebow Imports portfolio,” Ferrell adds. “We’ve positioned ourselves as the destination for people seeking fine wine and spirits distribution and importation in the United States and we’re committed to that. As the market continues to change, it will create opportunities for us. We’re very excited about our position.”