At Central Bottle we bring consumers into direct contact with the people who make their wine by hosting visiting winemakers and showcasing their products at our tasting table. But while events like this close the gap between vintners and consumers, they don’t necessarily illuminate the process by which a bottle finds its way from a far off vineyard to our shelves and, eventually, your table.
In almost every case, the connecting tissue is a specialty importer — an individual who makes it his business to beat the bushes in search of wines that deserve a hearing in the wider world. We work with handful of especially talented wine sleuths of this sort, and we think it’s time you got to know them. Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing them in series of interviews.
David Mitchell, 41, is the owner of Mise, a wine import and wholesale distribution company in Newton, Massachusetts. He represents 28 properties in France and Italy. Mise labels make frequent appearances at the Central Bottle tasting table and include Chateau La Tour Grise, Domaine Pascal Pibaleau, Az. Ag. Monte Bernardi, and Domaine Valentin-Zusslin.
How did you get started in the wine business?
I was a European history major in college, thinking I would go into international relations or intelligence work. Later I joined the Navy, but that wasn’t for me. I started working in a San Diego wine shop in 1998, then shifted over to the wholesale shortly after. I opened a territory in southern California where, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of appreciation for European wine.
When I moved to the Boston area I was introduced to Richard Kizirian of Violette Imports. The care that he took with all aspects of his importing business, including how the wines were sold, impressed me. I worked as a salesman for Richard until 2011. At that point I knew that if I was going to have some control over decision-making I would have to do something on my own. I started MISE in 2012.
What role do specialty importers play in our market?
I’m a small. local, direct importer and wholesaler. That means that I buy directly from the people who make the wine and sell it directly to retailers. I arrange payment, pick it up at the property, have it trucked to a warehouse where containers are consolidated. I arrange shipping to a U.S. port, deal with labels, taxes, etc. Once it’s here, I have it brought to our warehouse. I decide how it’s going to be marketed, priced, and sold.
You emphasize small, local, and direct. How are these advantages?
The wines you see in national magazines have to have distribution all over the U.S., and for that to happen there has to be a certain volume. This leaves lots of quality small growers out of the picture.
A national importer always has to be concerned that there is enough volume so that 30 or more states can get an allocation. We don’t have that limitation. We can work with growers who don’t have the production to supply 30 states. If we work really hard we can bring things into Massachusetts that no one else in the country can get. That’s meaningful, I think — and it’s generally not happening. It’s not the model that says ‘get as much as you can as cheaply as possible and spread it as thinly as possible into every nook and cranny of the country.’ That’s more like the world in live in.
What are you aiming for in compiling your portfolio? How is it distinguished from others doing the same sort of thing?
I started with growers I knew. I knew them as people, I knew that the wines were good, knew that they worked really hard from year to year, but for one reason or another they had fallen by the wayside in Massachusetts. They were excited to hear that I was starting a company that could represent them here.
The portfolio is not reflective of a particular region or any kind of grape. It’s not about the newest most esoteric area that no one has explored before. It’s not really a treasure hunt. We’re looking for consistently well-made wines at good prices. We’re not trying to be the most cutting-edge.
What represents value in wine?
Good question. Is it just a price point or is it more wine for the same amount of money? It’s tied into the idea that you can only make good wine with really good grapes. That’s the starting point. Organic farming, biodynamic farming, sustainable farming – these are all words we use to describe well-made wines that come from good grapes. To judge value I begin by looking at the farmer, once I know how he goes about things then I’ll look at the finished product. Someone can screw up good material, but you can’t wind up with something good unless you start with good material.
How do you find growers you want to work with?
I’m going to a grower because he’s been recommended by another grower I trust. Often after a visit [with a winemaker] we sit down and I’ll ask what else they’ve tasted recently that they find exciting. Often I’ll get a recommendation about a young winemaker just starting out with his own label. I can’t be sure we will be happy with the price or that we can work with the guy, but at least I’m sure the wines will be good. These guys taste a lot of wine and they tend to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
I’m adamant about the idea that we are not buying a region, a vintage, a grape. We are buying a grower. It’s not a matter of our saying ‘we have the best of the best growers in a certain area.’ No. We’re saying here is a grower who maybe doesn’t have the name recognition or the notoriety, is working a little harder, whose quality is really solid. I’m looking for someone whose hand I can shake.
What puts you on your guard?
Well, I’m a salesman so I can smell a sales pitch a mile away. I’m interested in whether the grower will open up to me in an honest way about exactly what they’re trying to do and where they hope to be in a few years, that there’s nothing being covered up.
Even if the wines are tasting great I want to know if there’s consistency. Do they have a vision of where they’re trying to go? What do they think about where their wines stand in relation to their neighbors? I need to know where they think they’re going because it takes a lot of time and energy to bring wine in from halfway around the world and sell it into a small market like Massachusetts.
Maybe the wine I’m tasting was from an easy vintage, so I want to try wine from other vintages. Almost anyone can make good wine in an easy year.
Once you’re working with a property Is there a gentleman’s agreement that you will buy even in a difficult vintage?
I’ve never been pressured that way by a grower. I’m always asking what the best way is to market a given wine. We’ll talk about whether a lower price would be a good strategy in a certain year – maybe prepare a different cuvée, or a different label. All these things are a matter of trust – the relationship develops over years.
Is there still a pool of undiscovered talent out there?
Absolutely. There are always new growers and producers who have been overlooked. The notion that all the great wines have been discovered is just wrong. I’m very high on Bordeaux, for example. It’s not a hot region right now. They had problems for a long time – some of it self-inflicted. The wine world kind of went in a different direction. I think a younger generation is going to discover petit chateau Bordeaux. Older, more experienced drinkers have probably never left. If you have good producer there’s going to be value there because not everyone recognizes it.
What don’t consumers know about wine that you wish they did?
I wish consumers knew more about how what we do and why. Coffee and beer have been able to raise understanding about what quality costs and that people have to be paid to bring these great things to us. People seem willing to pay more now for what they perceive to be quality. I’m astounded what people are willing to pay for beer – not that I don’t think it’s worth it. With wine you almost have to explain how limited the supply is for consumers to get an idea of its value.
Good wine made the right way with the fewest hands involved in the process of getting it to a consumer – that’s the idea. I’d rather be smaller, with a portfolio in which every wine is compelling. I’m hopeful that when someone turns the bottle around and sees Newton, Mass. on the back label that it will mean something to them.
When I get an email from someone – maybe with a photo they took with their camera — who loved one of our wines and wants to know where they can buy it at retail, it makes me think everything I’m doing is worth it. But someone is only doing that when the wine is really compelling.
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