Matters of Import
These wine importers travel to Italy, France or Argentina to find great bottles so you don't have to.
J. Cambier Imports
I've never been a great fan of blanc de blancs Champagne. Oh, a few prestige cuvées here and there have almost had the power to sway me, but nothing more moderately priced has modulated my thinking. Until, that is, I had a bottle by Pierre Moncuit. Creamy and rich, with a strong backbone of acidity, this grand cru Champagne is made from the best grapes grown in the best location for a blanc de blancs wine, Mesnil. In other words, it's a wine with the maximum possible pedigree at an awfully modest price (around $30). I'd never encountered the wines of this small Champagne house before, as they are only distributed to a few states in the U.S. Fortunately, however, I was on vacation in one of them, staying at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael's, Maryland. I checked the back label of the Pierre Moncuit and learned that the wine's importer, Jocelyn Cambier, was just one state away, in Virginia.
Over the next few weeks I made it my business to find a few more Cambier selections. I began with some wines from the Loire. The first was a Pouilly-Fumé "Les Adelins" from Domaine Bouchié Chatellier, a wine of surprising complexity and impressive structure that seemed to come from its having spent time in French oak (though it hadn't). Next, I tried a Cheverny (a simple Loire Sauvignon Blanc) from Domaine Sauger & Fils and again found more depth and character than seemed possible with a $12 price tag. What kind of importer, I wondered, could be bringing in wines so delicious yet so reasonably priced? Was he a real businessman or some sort of wine missionary?
"Actually, I was trained as a classical guitarist," Cambier admitted when I reached him by phone. "But after I broke two fingers doing martial arts, I became a studio musician." The 49-year-old Frenchman arrived in Boston some 20 years ago as a student at the Berklee College of Music. He soon got a part-time job in a restaurant. "I was 23 before I tasted my first glass of wine," he added with some wonderment.
Apparently that first taste was enough to convince Cambier to choose wine over music. He left Boston a few years later—"It was too cold," he says—and found work first as a sommelier in Washington, D.C., and later as a wine broker there. He started J. Cambier Imports three years ago and his portfolio, for the time being at least, is 100 percent French. "I'm only interested in small growers," he says.
Cambier travels to France twice a year for about two weeks at a time, tasting up to 100 wines a day. Sometimes during these trips he even stays in his producers' houses. "I know everyone I deal with," Cambier says. "I want to know the man behind the wine, his philosophy of winemaking. Sometimes I'll go with a grower who might not have the best wine at the time, but if I believe in his philosophy, I know his wines will improve."
This may sound a bit unorthodox, but it's a formula that seems to be working. A number of Cambier-chosen wines have been given some very good marks by critics, including Robert M. Parker, Jr., and there is a waiting list of distributors anxious to add his wines to their rosters. Cambier hopes to have his selections in all major markets by the end of the year. Then why keep the prices so low? Cambier laughs. "It's not that my prices are any cheaper than anyone else's. I guess I'm just not as greedy."
Steven Berardi Selections/Elizabeth Imports
Steven Berardi has a lot to brag about—although you wouldn't know it from talking to him. The 41-year-old Denver-based importer and founder of Steven Berardi Selections/Elizabeth Imports is a very modest man, albeit one who has quietly assembled one of the best lists of Italian growers in this country. (His roster of French producers is pretty remarkable too.)
While Berardi isn't particularly self-promoting, he's not bashful either. Ask him what he looks for in the wine producers he chooses to represent and his answer is thoughtful, but firm: "Growers who make wine the way I like it—that is, who have good estates and restrict their yields. They are, of course, also winemakers who know what they're doing in the cellar."
Berardi first became interested in wine as a college student at Tufts University in Boston. At the time, he was also working as a waiter at a local restaurant, and he got to taste some of the wines that customers left behind—"mostly 1970 Bordeaux," he says. After graduating, Berardi worked in the retail wine trade but after a few years moved from Boston to Denver to study photography. He decided to get back into the wine business primarily to pay for his schooling.
Once Berardi got his importer's license, in 1992, however, that was pretty much the end of his professional interest in photography. His first buying trip was to Italy, and Italian wine producers soon became the focus of his business. Today, Berardi's list of about 50 producers is still strong on Italian wines, many of them very reasonably priced (between $15 and $20 a bottle). And of course, they all come with Berardi's enthusiastic endorsement. For example, from Ronchi di Manzano in Friuli—a winery whose owner "is a fanatic for low yields"—come wines Berardi calls "wild," in a way that makes it clear that this is high praise indeed.
Berardi is also high on the 1997 and 1999 wines from Tuscany; he says the 1999 Censio Chianti from Rufina ($10) is one of his best values, while the 1997 Chianti Classico Riserva from Casa Emma is greatness in a bottle. Production of this Chianti, however, is quite limited, and the price isn't cheap ($47).
In truth, all of Berardi's Italian wines are worth trying, and the wines of his French producers also represent some terrific bargains. For example, from the Loire Valley, the 1999 Touraine Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine du Pré Baron is a terrific value at $10 a bottle. Berardi describes it as "the poor man's Sancerre." Four dollars more buys the 1999 "L' Elegante Vieille Vigne," the old-vines version of the same wine.
The upside of being an importer is obvious, says Berardi: "The travel, the meals, the tasting and the discovery of fantastic growers." The downside, Berardi points out, is dealing with wholesalers who won't even taste his wines because, "they say they already have too much wine."
These wholesalers, in other words, have a completely different attitude about wine than Berardi, whose ongoing goal is "finding dynamic properties in wine regions around the world where people make wine with a personality and a sense of place."
Ed Lehrman discovered Argentina's finest wines in May 1999, when San Francisco-based wine distributor Nick Ramkowsky invited him along on what was to be a "recreational" visit, shortly after Argentina's 1999 harvest.
Lehrman, now 34, was a wine retailer at the time, with a business degree from UCLA (he created the Passport Wine Club, later purchased by Geerlings & Wade); Ramkowsky, now 36, was one of his favorite distributors. On that trip, the two tasted so many great 1999 wines (most straight from the tank) that they decided to become partnersin Vine Connections, focusing on quality artisanal wines from Argentina.
When they formed their partnership in January 2000, their timing was particularly auspicious: Not only was 1999 a spectacular vintage for Argentina, but it was also a remarkable rebound from the dismal vintage of the year before. The Vine Connections portfolio currently features some of the most critically acclaimed wines made in Argentina, including Ben Marco, Mapema, Tikal and Luca as well as bottles from Susana Balbo, Argentina's leading female winemaker. None of these wines are household names here yet, but with the attention they've garnered, it's unlikely that will be true for long.
However, as Ramkowsky notes, both he and his partner realize that their job goes beyond selling a handful of wines from star producers. It also requires that they help enlighten Americans about Argentine wines in general, especially those from the Mendoza region. Or, as Ramkowsky says, "People need to be educated to the fact that Argentina makes more than just the good, cheap, supermarket wine."
They also need to educate American wine drinkers to Argentina's premier grapes, Malbec and Bonarda, whose names are likely to be unfamiliar to most fans of Chardonnay and Cabernet (although those grapes are grown in Argentina too).
This may seem like a lot to take on, but it's clear that Vine Connection is more than up to the challenge.