How Fine Wine Importer Wilson Daniels Manages Some of the World’s Most Expensive Wine Brands

When Rocco Lombardo assumed the role of President at Wilson Daniels, one of the leading importers and marketers of luxury wines in the US, little did anyone know that in less than 8 years, he would grow the company to five times its size in revenue and sales. Even more impressive is that the privately held company was able to grow its business by 68% during the pandemic and did not lay off any workers.

Today Wilson Daniels oversees a wine portfolio of some of the most famous wine brands in the world. Examples include; GAJA and Biondi Santi from Italy, whose wines average $300 to $600 per bottle. Royal Tokaji from Hungary whose Essencia can exceed $1200 per bottle. and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from France, whose Romanée-Conti Grand Cru averages $26,000 per bottle.

So how does Rocco Lombardo and the rest of his team manage such a remarkable portfolio? In a recent interview, Lombardo outlines the company’s strategy, weighs in on the pros and cons of such rapid growth, and offers some advice to other wineries on how they can transform their businesses to enter the prestigious realm of fine wine.

Wilson Daniels Strategic Focus

“We focus exclusively on family-owned fine wine estates,” explains Lombardo, describing Wilson-Daniels’ strategy, “that consider generational impact and preserve their businesses for future generations. We provide them with a consistent path to market by working with our distribution partners.”

Lombardo further elaborates that they develop close relationships with these wineries, bringing their stories to life with depth and authenticity. This was also the founding principle of Win Wilson and Jack Daniels when they launched Wilson Daniels in 1978.

When Lombardo was hired to take the helm of Wilson Daniels in June 2015, he came to the company with over 10 years of experience at Frederick Wildman & Sons, a fine wine and spirits importer. Since then he has grown the company to represent 55 family wineries from 7 different countries, collectively producing around 400+ distinctive wines annually.

In the past year alone, such strategic brands as Domaine Faiveley in Burgundy, Domaine du Nozay in Sanceres, Domaine Les Monts Fournois in champagne, Jonive in Sonoma, and Composition from Dundee Hills in Oregon, have joined the Wilson Daniels portfolio.

“We are brand builders,” Lombardo states. “We’re helping these family wineries expand into the US market. We do this with a national team of 200 employees and our distribution partners – RNDC and Breakthrough – who are key to this.”

Under Lombardo’s leadership, the company has launched its own separate wholesale operations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon and Washington.

Advantages/Disadvantages of aggressive growth strategy

Elaborating on the pros/cons of such an aggressive growth strategy, Lombardo admits that one major benefit is revenue growth – with revenue from the wine portfolio expected to reach $130 million in 2022 and the wholesale business bringing in another $100 million. according to Shanken.

Lombardo also said the increase in headcount (the workforce has doubled in size since he started) has allowed them to hire more women. The company also has a dedicated page on its website that recognizes women wine professionals in their portfolio.

The fact that US consumers are also buying higher priced wines is also positive for Wilson Daniels. “There is no doubt that you continue premium in the wine industry,” Lombardo states. “People drink better.”

However, there is a downside to such rapid expansion. When asked about future growth, Lombardo says: “We are in a period of pause. We need to assimilate the new producers and focus on our responsibilities towards the existing wineries.”

However, he was quick to clarify that “Producers who have been with us since 2015 have seen their business double.”

How Wilson Daniels Launches a New Brand in the US Market

“When we introduce a new winery partner,” explains Lombardo, “we hold trade events during the day and consumer events in the evenings. We taste the wines from the winery partners, along with present vinaigrettes.”

For example, he described how their new winery partner, Domaine Faiveley, will embark on an 8-city tour over a 10-day period in May. In addition to trade and consumer events, Wilson Daniels also organizes distributor training and master classes with their wholesalers.

“We usually visit New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles on these tours,” comments Lombardo. “These are all top locations for fine on-site and off-site wine bills, including Michelin-starred and Grand Award-winning restaurants.”

During the pandemic, Wilson Daniels was also able to successfully market its imported wines. “We actually launched two new wineries during Covid and did almost 300 virtual events and tastings,” says Lombardo. “We sent 753 packages of wine samples to try. We were able to operate completely remotely.”

Tips for other wineries to enter the realm of fine wine

With approximately 300,000 plus wineries in the world, it is only natural that a fine wine importer like Wilson Daniels is often approached by wineries with a request to introduce their brands to the lucrative US market.

“We have to be respectful when someone approaches us and it’s not appropriate,” Lombardo says. “At the very least, we’re trying to provide input on other options for them in the market.”

Lombardo also offers some helpful advice to wineries looking to enter the realm of fine wine. “Stay committed to core competencies,” he advises. “Too many wineries are trying to be something they’re not. We’re looking for families that are benchmarks and build on wealth.”

In recent years the company has also focused on wineries that use sustainable, organic and regenerative farming practices in the vineyard. “I think one of the most important things we need to do is keep CO2 in the ground to reduce carbon emissions,” Lombardo concludes.

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