Andrew Bishop, 45, grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, toured in a rock band, had a stint in the 1990’s as bar manager at “Boston’s first real wine bar,” Les Zygomates, and in 2000 bought a container of wine in Western Australia, brought it into the U.S. and sold it all. Today he’s founder and owner of Oz Wine Company. Bishop lives with his wife Chom and two sons in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Oz imports and distributes wine from 175 properties in 10 countries. Among those that will be familiar to Central Bottle regulars are Domaine Richou, Mas de Libian, Vadiaperti, and Bodegas de Ameztoi. I sat down with Andrew earlier this month in Cambridge. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
The transition from wine bar manager to wine importer seems logical enough, but how did it happen?
I was getting tired of the restaurant life in 1999, five years at it seemed to be enough. I was single and had saved some money. I started traveling and visited my ex-stepfather and his friends in Hong Kong. They had some money to invest, were interested in the wine business and asked me to help. I traveled to California and Australia for them, looked at some vineyards, and put together a little bit of a business plan. I told them that they were looking at millions of dollars and that somebody would have to know how to grow grapes and make wine.
The sensible thing would be just to lend me some money. I told them, “Look, you guys give me $60K and I will put together a container of wine and go back to the States and sell it. You each get a few cases of the wine and I’ll pay back your investment.” This was in 2001. I incorporated as Oz Pacific and initially focused on wine from Western Australia — cooler climate stuff from obscure appellations like Mount Barker and Swan Valley. I brought in the container of wine and when it got here I had to figure out what to do with it. I decided to go national and sold the wine to people in Chicago, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, and Texas. I also placed some with Ideal Wine & Spirits in Massachusetts.
I got really lucky. I had nothing really set up. I visited each market and helped sell the wine. It took me about 9 months to get rid of all 1200 cases. I was having a really good time. Things started rolling pretty well.
How long before you made it a full-time job?
I was never doing it 100% until 2004. Meanwhile, I was making furniture with my buddy. I also worked briefly as a wine buyer at Leary’s in Natick. Nothing really became serious until our first son was born. I decided to commit to wine, but I was bored with Australia. My heart was really in Europe. The only way to start fresh was to get rid of the whole Australia thing. I started building a little portfolio of wines from national importers and just operated as a Massachusetts distributor. But after doing this for a while, I decided I wanted to get back to what I started out doing, which was finding my own wines and bringing them in. I thought I could do just as good a job as anyone else. In 2006 I made a big push to do that.
What do you think your portfoilio represents, and how did you arrive at the taste in wine you have? How do you decide whether to take a grower on board?
My portfolio has changed quite a bit over the years and it’s always evolving. I’m adamant about finding terroir wines. I know it sounds like a cliché but for me unless a wine has a sense of place it’s nothing special. I’ve always tried to put together a portfolio of winemakers who agree with that, whose wines taste like they come from that particular place. We have a mix of wines made in a natural way and some that aren’t — lots of organic growers, some biodynamic, some sustainable. If I taste a wine and have a positive reaction to it and really like the people I’m going to buy it from, then I’m in. I don’t follow trends because they always seem to come back around to where they started.
Sense of place seems like a vague concept. If you’re in the French southwest, what is the place? Is it the whole French southwest? Someplace as specific as Gaillac? Some sub-section of Gaillac?
If I go to a place like Gaillac and I find something I like that is different and interesting, that’s the intial spark. After that I explore the neighborhood. I want to know who are the people doing the best thing here and who are aren’t doing the best thing. I’m looking for the growers who do the best job of getting the typical flavors of that place into their wine.
So, if you find someone who’s doing a good job, but his wines are not typical, then you’re not interested?
Right. Wines that aren’t typical don’t interest me at all.
Well, let’s say you’re at a big wine fair and moving from table to table. You don’t really know the people, so what do you have to taste to get interested?
I guess the best way to answer this is to say that it’s the initial taste, the initial vibe you get. The people can be nice or not, but if the wine speaks to me first, then i’m intrigued.
How exactly does wine speak?
Its a personal thing. When I taste I ask do I want to drink more of this or not? Is there something different here that I haven’t gotten before? Maybe I just think its plain deliciousness. That’s a very important thing.
Is there a set of features that you think indicates quality? I really like earthy flavors and I think these flavors come more from winemakers who don’t manipulate the wine as much. I like wines that spend more time on the lees; I like wines that are unfiltered and unfined. These are all factors I think about.
How do you see the current state of wine? What changes have you seen since you were behind the bar at Les Zyg?
I think that there have been a lot of changes. For one thing, there’s much better wine out there now than in the past. People seem to be paying more attention to fine wine, too. In our market, the old dinosaurs have their loyalties and haven’t changed their wine list for years, but a younger group are making inroads, trying to taste new stuff. It’s an exciting time to be in the wine biz and i think its only going to get better. I’m really optimistic.
One of the things you have to notice is the growing number of companies that focus solely on naturally-made wines. It’s something that’s happened over the last 10 years or so that’s been interesting to watch. Some of these wines I like, some I don’t really get. It makes people think about wine in a different way. But I’m concerned that natural wine isn’t always about where the wine is from.
Really? Some would say that the only way to have a true expression of place is to take a step back from winemaking and let it happen as naturally as possible.
I’m saying that a lot of these natural wines taste the same to me. And in this sense they have something in common with industrial wine. You have something that’s made in a certain place, but it all tastes like it might have come from anywhere. You can make syrah in La Mancha so that it tastes exactly like shiraz from Australia or maybe Argentina. That’s a problem I have with natural wines. There are always exceptions, but I don’t really see the difference.
What do you wish wine drinkers knew about wine that they don’t seem to?
I would start out with California pinot noir and tell everybody who is paying $20 for it to cut it out and stop telling me, when they taste my Burgundies, that my wine is too light. Let me just say that in California you can blend 25% of whatever you want into that wine. It drives me crazy because people are being duped. That’s number one. Number two, be willing to taste more things. I love U.S. wine but i don’t love it nearly as much as European wine.
Part of it is that we don’t have that many appellations here and we’re only using about seven varietals. Europe is where it’s at. Go to Italy and you’re going to be able to try 70 or 80 different kinds of wine, all with different flavor profiles, and you won’t spend an arm and leg on them. Basically, I would say get out of your comfort zone. People who want to take wine seriously should try a lot of different things. There seems to be progression in taste as you get more experienced – first something sweet, then something fruity, then something a little bit lighter, not as heavy.
Your desert island wine?
Beaujolais! I’m always happy with it, I can drink it any time of the year and it’s always fresh and fun.
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