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Friday, April 29th, 2011
LI wine importers seek to crush competitors
by John Callegari
With 60 vineyards producing more than a half-million cases annually, Long Island has made a name for itself as one of the top wine-producing regions in the country.
But in the battle for shelf space, the local importers of Old World wines from countries like Italy and France are seeing the biggest gains.

Take Lindenhurst-based importer La Vendemmia, a 15-year-old firm that is moving into bigger digs to handle steady growth in its imported Italian wine business.
The firm topped 100,000 cases for the first time in 2010 and has added 130 accounts so far this year, bringing its client base to 800. Most - 75 percent - are restaurants, the remainder are retailers such as liquor and wine stores. The company sells predominantly in the New York metro area, but has a few accounts in Illinois and as far west as California.

“We had to borrow storage space,” said Dennis Pinto, a founding partner of La Vendemmia. “So it was obvious we needed a bigger warehouse.”
Pinto credits much of the firm’s success to a narrow focus. La Vendemmia imports 23 Italian reds and whites, all produced by the same winery in the Veneto region of Northeast Italy. Cost is also a plus.

“We have a chance to sell at a lower price point, which restaurants will always look at,” Pinto said, noting that by selling directly to restaurants La Vendemmia avoids paying distributors. “As long as the quality is there, as it is with ours, we’ll never lose a client.”

Huntington-based Vintwood International has found success in the same strategy. The firm, which once imported wines from all over Europe, now focuses exclusively on Italy’s San Giuseppe vintages.

“Over the years, we narrowed it down to one country and then one brand,” said Frank Gentile, the firm’s president. “There’s a saying that if you’re a banana, you’re just one of the bunch. That’s how it was for us. With French wines, we were one of the bunch.
“Our expertise has always been more in Italian wine, so we decided to focus on that. Italian wine is the largest selling import in the world.”

Both firms have also benefited from the steady growth of wine sales in the United States, which last year became the world’s No. 1 consumer of wine. America still trails Italy and France on a per-capita basis, of course, but sales rose 5 percent in 2010, the 17th consecutive year of growth.

In another first, U.S. retail wine sales outstripped those of domestic beer on such major beverage-consuming holidays as Memorial Day and July 4, according to MarketWatch.

While competition remains tough, the recession pushed U.S. consumers toward lower-priced labels, which has also helped importers like Vintwood, which ships to 26 states.

“Business is up in some markets and flat in others,” Gentile said. “Being even is the new up these days, though, and we’re doing better than that, so I’m happy.”

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