Gregory Smolik: implosion

That was the subject line of a recent email from Greg. I feared for the worst.

I called him on his cell phone and caught him in his distributor’s warehouse. The implosion related to a side business that he had been trying to set up to import larger volume wines from Italy that was going to be his cash cow. He was despondent.

“Forget a cash cow—I don’t even have a cash lamb at this point. It’s crazy.”

Such are the travails of trying to sell the indigenous grape varieties of Italy. Greg has high standards and only works with producers who are making wines that he describes as authentic or rustic. His portfolio consisted of just four producers but he has just had to let one go after finding some bottle to bottle variation and price increases. And the wine maker that I met at a lunch in August, Walter Fabbri, has left Basilium W to pursue his own wines. Greg supplies the winery’s popular Pipoli and I Portali wines to 200 retail and restaurant accounts so he hopes the winemaker maintains the high standards that he knew under Fabbri.

Greg’s wines include the Aglianico grape from Basilicata, Falanghina from Campania, and organic wines from Lombardy. A portfolio like this, while appealing to connoisseurs or wine geeks, can be tough to sell to a mainstream audience.

“My wines are too much of a hand sell. The market is not ready for that. Let’s talk about Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio at Olive Garden—they’re not drinking Aglianico. I hate to sell my soul but if I don’t sell something, I’m going down. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about becoming an organic farmer or going back to playing my trumpet,” he says.

“Everybody at school would have Nike; I wanted Addidas. I have never wanted what everybody else had…I just want to change people’s ideas about having to have Pinot Grigio at restaurants. Pinot Grigio 50 years ago was nothing. Tony Terlato [the American importer who built the Santa Margherita brand] was a marketing genius, like Madonna. I’m not shooting to be a multimillionaire, but I would like to get something screamingly successful.”

He may have to get some more mainstream varietals to make the business work. “Finding bulk wines is never a problem in Italy. Find the best possible bulk wines that can sell is more of a challenge. If I don’t do it, I wouldn’t be in business much longer.”

He thinks he has found a good candidate in a Montepulciano that can be available to retailers and restaurants for $6 a bottle, an attractive price point for restaurants to pour as a house wine or a wine by the glass. Montepulciano, with a long history and greater consumer awareness in the US, would be an easier sell. But it is entering a more competitive part of the market.

“There are so many wines out there. It really makes you despise the business aspect of it. I just love wine.”

Beyond the grave

Greg just got an unusual endorsement about the quality of his wines.

Greg recently got a call from Sam’s Wine saying that a customer wanted 18 bottles of Pipoli aglianico bianco and they were scrambling to fill it. Greg asked why one person wanted so many bottles of the wine and the reply came that a recently widowed woman was pouring the wine at her husband’s memorial service-at his request. In his will, the woman’s husband had specified that he wanted certain olive oils, cheeses and Pipoli bianco to be served. Greg asked if the couple had ever been to the winery and the answer was no. Greg was also out of stock on the wine and had to have some flown in from an out-of-state warehouse, such was his honor at the request.

As our call wrapped up, Greg is hoping for some more orders from the land of the living and returned to his work in the warehouse preparing samples for a trip to Las Vegas. His career may seem like a gamble to him at this point, but his passion, knowledge, contacts, experience and language ability all contribute to helping his odds.

* * *

To find Greg’s wines try Sam’s Wine and Spirits, which ships to many states or try wine-searcher to find them in IL, WI, or NV.

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