Jim Beauregard's Tasting Notes: Her mission is to find great wines for NH

BY JIM BEAUREGARD January 22. 2013 6:41PM

For most of us, the main, or perhaps only, contact we have with wine distributors is at tastings, where they have a table set up for pouring samples of the wines they have brought into New Hampshire.

What happens at those tastings, though, is the end of a long process that goes on largely behind the scenes. Since we are in the midst of New Hampshire Wine Week, I thought we might take a closer look at how our wines come to us.

Megan Sleeper is a New Hampshire-based distributor who has been bringing wines to us for several years through her creation, Crush Distributors.

Megan, how did you come to the decision to become a wine distributor?

Several years back, I was visiting a long-time friend in Napa, California, who worked in sales for a boutique wine distributor. Tabitha, now my dearest colleague in the business, would take me on long and winding roads all through Napa and Sonoma and we would stop along the way to visit all the wonderful wineries, shops and restaurants. Taking me under her wing, she gave me whirlwind teachings on different varietals, the best vineyards, hottest new wines and just tons of insight in the fascinating world of wine.

A late afternoon visit to Iron Horse Vineyards, a stunning property perched on a hilltop in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, is where the idea sparked of starting our own wine distribution business on the East coast. We recognized there was an opportunity to introduce these small production, artisan wines and knew there was growth to be unearthed in this niche market.

Additionally, as childhood friends who grew up in New Hampshire, we both had deep roots here and starting a business and raising our families back east was important to both of us.

What's involved in becoming a distributor (broker) in New Hampshire?

There is a residency requirement; you must be a resident of New Hampshire for at least three years before you can apply for a vendor license. I had been living in New York and had moved back to New Hampshire in 2005, and we started the business in 2008.

The compliance part is not as grueling as most people think but it is very important to read ALL the liquor laws and become educated about the rules and laws of the State Liquor Commission. Each state's laws are different and there is no margin for assumptions.

Relationships with wineries certainly helped our start. Tabitha was a well-respected wine representative and had great rapport with a lot of the industry's top producers and winemakers. Also, general business expertise is helpful. Working in marketing for several years and then for my father's financial planning firm provided a good foundation for making various business decisions.

What is a day in the life of a distributor like?

Busy! Each day is always different, challenging, but a lot of fun too. As the owner of a small company, I wear I lot of hats. I handle the ordering, shipping and logistics, design and production of marketing materials, and of course, selling.

I spend a lot of time on the road visiting accounts throughout the state, which is my favorite part of the job. I get to meet and interact with a lot of great people who are small business owners too. My most important role is listening to our customer's perspectives, ideas and challenges. This is a fundamental responsibility I have which allows us to adjust and grow and continually improve each year.

As you know, a theme of this year's wine week is Women in Wine - do you think there are any special talents, perspectives or unique experiences as a woman that you bring to the work you do?

As a business owner, a wife and mother of two young boys, the most important thing I have learned is balance. Finding balance in my life among the different hats I wear is what keeps my life fruitful, my family happy and my company successful. Carving out time for family and myself is what really gives me the fuel for productive and effective work days.

My office is in my house so it's easy to go into the office to quickly answer a few emails and then realize two hours has passed! I've learned to shut the office door at night and on the weekends and not get sucked into working around the clock.

Also, making time to exercise has made a huge impact on my life. This career is stressful and working out on a regular basis gives me energy, helps alleviate the stress and just gives me a feeling of well-being. It may sound cliché, but finding balance among my family, my career and myself is the best thing I've learned.

How do you identify new wines, both domestic and international, to bring into the state?

The brands that make up our portfolio reach us by different means. It's a myriad of referrals from existing suppliers, "cold calls" from wineries or our own research by yearly visits to California and different countries. As we grow, we try to maintain a balanced portfolio. Our niche is small, production artisan wines, mostly from California, but we now represent over 10 countries and have wines that retail from $10 to $200. Whether it's a $10 wine or a $100 bottle, we try to find wines with the best price-quality ratio. We often sample wines from multiple producers at the same time which helps us select the best possible wine at a given price point.

To what extent does being a distributor involve travel?

There is a lot of travel involved. As I said, I travel throughout the state calling on accounts a couple days a week....

We also make an annual trip to Napa and Sonoma each year, which is something we will always do. Immersing ourselves in the heart of wine country for a week is essential to be on the forefront of the industry's newest producers, best winemakers and hottest new wines.

International travel is important as well. We traveled to Austria and France. But because I have a young family, I limit my overseas travel to once every other year.

As it turns out, it was one of your wines, an Austrian Riesling, that was my top choice 2012 (the 2010 Tegernseerhof/Mittelbach Terrassen, Wachau, Austria, $23.99. Can you tell me how you discovered them in the first place and what it took to get them here?

Our Austrian selections come from our now good friends Winthrop and Rafael of Artisanal Cellars in Vermont. Artisanal Cellars is a distributor representing wines from all over the world but with an expansive niche in Austrian wines. Their book boasts over 150 Austrian wines! Given the exceptional response of the Austrian wines in the Vermont market, Artisanal cellars began importing Austrian wine in 2008.

Being open to new and unique wines, Tabitha and I visited and tasted with Winthrop and Rafael on a very cold and snowy February day two years ago. The wines were absolutely delicious and no run of the mill wines. Rather, they were a rare specialty and we quickly fell under the spell of the Austrian wine phenomena and started working with the wines a few short weeks after our initial meeting.

To me, the Austrian wines represent a perfect blend of old world and new world qualities. Often times, people associate Austrian wine with German wine and they couldn't be more different! German wines, especially Rieslings, are often sweet. Austrian wines are dry, crisp and lively; more aligned with wines of northern Italy.

Last year we had an amazing trip to Austria and were able to visit some of the country's best producers. Austria is about the size of Maine and they have over 6,000 wine producers! They are a very serious and high-quality wine producing country but until recently, they have had very limited exportation of their wines and they are consumed mostly in Austria and within Europe.

Wine distributors all have websites, and this can be a wonderful resource for wine lovers. If you're interested, you can find out more about Crush and the wines they bring in, and whre you can find them at www.crushwinesllc.com

Contact local beer and wine writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh@aol.com.


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