Thirty years in the life – A Reminiscence of a Bootstrap Operation
“I started V.O.S. Selections out of pure selfishness. After a taste of the post-college adult world of banking, I was driven to do something for myself. If I was going to work hard for the rest of my life I wanted to work with something I cared about, something I felt a passion for, something tangible – certainly not commercial loans, stocks and bonds. Where was the joy in that? I started V.O.S. for self- fulfillment, to discover, to self-educate, to dig deeper into things I loved. If you told me that 30 years later I would be leading a band of two dozen similarly-minded believers, I would have told you that you have had enough for the night and time to go home. This was my life-fulfilling-party. Why would anyone else want to join? More on that later, read on.
Everyone should have at least one lightbulb moment. Mine occurred while I was working in the straightjacketed world of 1980s commercial banking. I did everything I was supposed to do: Ivy League education, a spot in a good commercial loan training program at Union Bank, wore a suit and tie, and ran a credit department making decisions on car loans in a satellite office way out by the Oakland Airport on Hegenberger Road. I had a share in a sailboat in the San Francisco Marina. I even drove a Volvo! The most radical thing I did after college was to move to San Francisco instead of to New York like 99.9% of my peers from Cornell.
So why was I miserable, why was I getting into trouble, why didn’t I get the plum postings when they knew I was smart enough, after I had aced Loan Analysis Training? I guess I wasn’t enough like them; I was from New Jersey, I had a sense of humor, and I wore flashy ties. (I was actually called into my superior’s office one day to discuss that very issue). Difference is NOT an appreciated trait in banking. I got more excited about bringing a client to a cool new restaurant opening in the Haight than about closing a multi-million dollar deal with the strip mall real estate developer with the shiny white shoes and deep orange tan. Clearly, I was in the wrong business.
I was bored with banking and decided to apply to business school. I aced the GMATs, I was ready to apply and continue along the fabled route to happiness and prosperity. But my girlfriend asked, “After B- School, what will you do? Will you be happy doing exactly the same things that have made you miserable? You’re merely postponing making a hard decision about your future, so why not make it now?
So I did.
I grew up around an intense culinary culture at home. My parents had been stationed in Germany after WWII, and became enamored of the food and wine they encountered there. By the time they settled down in New Jersey with their five boys, my mom’s passionate side came out in the form of fearlessness in the kitchen and an interesting wine collection stashed around the basement. My happiest times as a kid were cooking and being a cellar rat, selecting wines for dinner, which the whole family shared. Sometimes I liked the wines, sometimes not, but I always tasted everything.
So back to my epiphany at the bank. I realized that the best way to make myself happy was to pursue a career that included my love for the world of food and business. Wine! It suddenly became obvious. Another early lightbulb moment was when I had the idea of starting a mail-order catalogue of quality, small-production California wines in 1984. Absolutely no one was doing anything of the sort at that time. On visits home in the early 80s, I did a little market research in New York. The selection of California wines consisted largely of 3 liter jugs of Gallo and Inglenook, and a couple of shelves of known labels. There were even faux Euro names like “Hearty Burgundy”.
That California wine catalogue was a great idea, right? I researched my way out of it once I studied the interstate shipping laws and saw only obstacles; I did not yet have the mindset of an entrepreneur to see the possibilities. I was still shackled by a banking mentality: No loan!
I had taken evening classes while working at the bank at a small professional cooking school called Tante Marie’s, which gave me formal skills. With a partner, I set up a catering company called Deluxe and delivered great sandwiches to the up and coming Ice House District, home to hip advertising agencies, Zoetrope studios, media firms etc… It was great fun and hard work. We went to the market early in the morning, got great ingredients, went home, made sandwiches and then drove around delivering delicious, handmade food out of a wicker basket. Lots of work, little money but damn, at least I wasn’t working in a bank and it was my company. One of our regular clients was San Francisco Magazine and they asked my partner if she knew any cool single men for their “Most Eligible Bachelors of San Francisco” issue. (Eligible straight men in 1984 SF were as rare as hen’s teeth). She suggested me, ridiculous given the impecunious schlub I was at the time (others in that issue were Marty Balin, Chris Isaak and Ken Friedman).
Victor Owen Schwartz, 26, Caterer, “both solicited and unsolicited.” Studying French, in order to eventually work for a négociant in France, brokering wines in Burgundy or Bordeaux. A photographer also, he shoots “anything but people. I like objects I can control.”
My interest in combining my love for food and creating a business stayed with me. I ended up moving to New York a couple of years later. Everyone I met in the wine trade told me retail was where I had to start. At Astor Wines and Liquors I worked with a great group, stock-monkeys like myself, slashing open boxes, roaming the floors, cracking jokes; keeping ourselves busy. But wine was the thing, our binding reason for working there. The best part was the opportunity to taste a lot of different wines; that was the real paycheck. The lightbulb-moment this time came during one of our basement tastings, while we discussed the wines we had just tried. It occurred to me that we agreed about overall quality and relative value of the wines we tasted about 99% of the time. This ran counter to what I understood was a very subjective business run by elites of taste. By contrast, this was very democratic. I was also learning that by tasting many wines from a region, one could understand what made them reflective of that place and what made them good, interesting and worth buying. I started to think that perhaps I could select wines for importation, just as I was selecting wines for the clients that walked into the store.
I kicked around NYC for a while: bartending, managing Life Café (later the backdrop for Rent) in the East Village, did some catering gigs and threw popup parties… but I was still searching. During this time I was studying French as I still had the desire to get involved with wine. Finally, in 1986, I decided it was time. If I could get over to France I would have to construct a real bootstrap operation that would rely more on resources than money. I wrote a letter to Steven Spurrier asking him for a job at his Paris wine bar. I loved his renegade status after the Judgment of Paris and also the cheeky quality of a Brit with a wine business in the heart of Paris – he had both a wine bar and a bookstore on a lovely mews near the Madeleine. Amazingly, he wrote back to me and offered me a job at his wine bar, but said if I was seriously interested in the wine business, I should be out in the vineyards. Everything was starting to fall into place. I had a free airline ticket to Paris (bought with points) and I sublet my Greenwich Village studio to a sound engineer for The Cars, who were cutting a record on 8th Street. The difference between my rent and the rent I was charging gave me just enough to get started. I went to Paris, visited Spurrier’s bookshop, trying to figure out where I should go to begin my “real” wine education. I knew there were interesting opportunities in less-travelled appellations. I thought these “country wines” should be my focus as, from what I had tasted, they offered delicious, undiscovered values. And then another epiphany, the book on the Rhône from John Livingstone-Learmonth and Melvyn Master just kind of fell into my hands as if it were meant to be. The book was filled with great stories of small Rhône winemakers whom I knew were not imported in the US. Eureka, this made perfect sense, I would go to the Southern Rhône!
I had to first go up to Brussels to see my girlfriend’s family and to pick up the very old car that was so generously offered to me for this adventure. The level of generosity all across Europe and in the wine business in particular is something which still amazes me and which was a powerful engine for my success; there is no way I could have accomplished anything if people had not given me a chance. This human spirit is something I had never experienced in the corporate world and which I have never taken for granted. It did not matter that the car turned a six hour drive into twelve, I was so excited I could have ridden a bicycle.
My plan was to stay just outside of Avignon to save money, so I found a room in a small residential hotel just across the Rhône River in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The owners were very accommodating to my financial needs so to save money they kept moving me to various rooms as they needed them. At one point I had a very modest one underneath the stairs. I had called ahead from Brussels and was given a contact at the Rhône Comité, Françoise Borel, a young woman who thankfully spoke perfect English. Françoise was my go-to guide and she was very generous with her time. Although I was a nobody she took me seriously as did all the winemakers I was visiting. Their confidence gave me confidence. I was a bit shocked at how generous they were, giving me lots of samples to take back to the States. Using the Livingstone-Learmonth/ Master book I visited a number of wineries every day. I spent time at the Université du Vin in the small town of Suze la Rousse where I was able to connect with both winemakers and students.
And though I had studied French, my real language education took place on the streets and in the cellars of France. Locating a winery took a lot of effort in pre-GPS times. Seeking the town of Violes, a lovely little village in the heart of Cotes du Rhône vineyards on the Ouveze River, I asked an elderly woman for directions. I repeated the name in the very best French I could muster, pronouncing the town’s name leaving off the final “s” as I thought was proper French. It may have been proper French in Paris but she had no idea what I was talking about no matter how many times I repeated the name. Finally I wrote it down and her eyes lit up as she said, “Oh of course, you mean Vee-oh-less! It’s just the next town over, maybe 3km away.” Language also has terroir.
I learned a lot during my stay in France but the most important lesson was that wine is ultimately a reflection of the people, not of the dirt, the vine or the barrel. This made a big impression on me as my experience with wine to this point was just a tasty liquid that came out of a bottle. The truth of this lesson has stayed with me through my 30 years working with wineries all over the planet: terroir begins with people.
Returning to New York in mid-1987, I started thinking about which wineries I wanted to represent. My philosophy was gelling in terms of the kinds of wines I wanted to bring to the market. I respected the integrity of small family farms where they did everything from growing the grapes to putting the cork into the bottle. These were people who respected the soil they tilled and the culture that created their wines. They didn’t use terms like Organic or Natural; their traditional and healthy methods did not require a seal of approval. I intended to bring maximum value to the market by working directly, selling wines from the cellars to the stores and restaurants in New York without many layers of middlemen. I knew from the get-go that for me to make a business of this passion I was going to have to offer more in terms of quality and value than the big guys. I would have to take risks by bringing wines to the market from unexplored regions. I named my company with my initials; I put my name out there as a mark of quality and integrity.
I contacted people I knew in the trade to see if they might be interested in my concept and stores like Astor Wines gave me very nice opening orders across the board. I initially planned to broker the wines through an established importer and though I had thought it might be the fastest way to fulfill my initial orders, I didn’t find a good fit. 1987 became 1988 and the clock was ticking, my customers were asking about the wines they ordered and I needed to figure out a way to get them here. I set up a warehouse account at Western Carriers (who until then did mostly national warehousing only), obtained a distributor’s license in New Jersey, and I met Phil Stafford, who was starting USA Wine Imports and who offered to clear my wines in New York. Then, another stroke of great luck struck. I was at the old International Wine Center on 55th Street when I learned that they were having a Rhône Tasting for the Press and Trade in February. I still had plenty of samples so I entered my wines. It was not technically kosher because the wines were not yet in the market, but such is the essence of a bootstrap operation. Like in a movie, my wines were favorites at the tasting and received top honors in articles from Terry Robards (Wine Spectator) Robert Schoolsky (Newsday), Barbara Ensrud (Daily News) and Richard Nalley.
Any doubts about the viability of my entry into the business were dispelled and I got to work borrowing enough money to bring in my first container from France, which arrived in the disastrously hot summer of 1988. Most of my container survived but the experience made me an early proponent of temperature controlled shipping and storage (the “experts” at the shipping companies told me no one did this, except maybe Kermit Lynch, sometimes). During the next 8 formative years, I was able to take month-long trips through the unbeaten paths of France, learning the terroir of each region. I got my first fax machine in 1990 which was great except maybe only half of my suppliers had one; much of my business was conducted via telephone and FedEx. All sales materials were created on a typewriter and copies made at the local copy shop on MacDougal St, where the Kenyan owner and I got to know each other well. I got my first computer around 1992, and I thought it would last me 10 years. I created a newsletter with wine highlights and recipes, always working to incorporate the food culture into the wine culture. Orders at Western were either faxed or called in to Gloria, who still works there; my mom did the billing. I ran the business out of my studio apartment until I got married in 1993 and my wife kicked me out of the house, which helped my business grow.
Despite the bare-bones operation, I discovered and brought to the market many gems such as Jean-Paul Picard from Sancerre, Domaine le Galantin from Bandol, Henri Clerc from Puligny, and Jean-Pierre Grossot from Chablis (in many cases I am working with the next generation). Others I launched in the market include Perrot-Minot, Chandon de Briailles, Thierry Puzelat, and Larmandier Bernier. By leading with my nose, prioritizing the authenticity and quality of the product over commercial consideration, V.O.S. Selections has been out front in many regions and categories. If the wine or spirit is great, if it speaks to an authentic culture and terroir, and if the people behind it are genuine, it belongs in the V.O.S. Portfolio. V.O.S. was a very early proponent of wines of the Loire, Argentina, Organic/Biodynamic viticulture, Jura, Hungary, Greece, Craft Spirits, Sake, Rosés, Grower Champagne etc… I developed the idea of a portfolio-based company, ie the quality of the products drives the growth of the company. “We import great wines before they get great press.” The spirit of discovering the undiscovered is the guiding principle and underlying strength of V.O.S. Selections to this day.
In closing Chapter 1 of the first 30 years, I must return to the importance of the V.O.S. team to the success of the entire operation. As the company has grown from me to us, there has been an inevitable evolution in personnel and abilities, technologies and even office space. Some of you have been with V.O.S. for 10 years or more; many of you have met our producers, and had the opportunity to visit their wineries. All of you have brought something important to the team – skills, ideas, experience, appreciation, loyalty, personality (lots of personality). We have made a leap of faith together, that we could and would succeed in a highly competitive environment with the highest level of quality and integrity. For this I am enormously grateful, and look forward to the next 30 years of V.O.S. Selections.”