How do you make sure you can get your hands on the
wines you really love? If you’re Ronnie Sanders,
you start up your own wine import company. Having
developed a taste for good wine from his father when
he was young, Ronnie went on to create Vine Street
Imports in 1999, dedicated to boutique and artisanal
wines from around the world.
But the bug to develop his passion into a professional
enterprise was growing, and for a few years in the
mid-90s he supplemented his work in textiles by trying
his hand at exporting some California wines. As Far
East Wine Traders wines in his portfolio were sold
all over Asia including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia,
In 1998 a good friend, Michael Twelftree, opened
the door on Ronnie’s dream job when he asked
Ronnie to help him import his wine from Australia.
Twelftree knew he had the right person because of
Ronnie’s expansive knowledge of wine and the
way people gravitate to his enthusiasm. On his quest
to find the best wines, Ronnie has traveled all over
the world, hitting hot spots in Italy, Australia,
France, Washington, and several other wine regions.
He has also begun his own private label, Lost in Highway,
which gives him the chance to have his say on the
maturation and blending of his wines. He maintains
the same high standards there that he has set for
Vine Street Imports, where you can’t throw a
rock without hitting a great bottle of wine –
though I recommend selecting and opening the bottle
in a more conventional manner.
Jim Clarke: You developed a love for wine early
on; how did you build on that to acquire the wine
knowledge necessary to go along with your business
background and education?
Ronnie Sanders: My father was a wine geek
and an avid collector or Bordeaux. When I was a kid,
it was not unusual for him to open up a bottle of
Lynch Bages, Latour, or a Pomerol at the dinner table.
Neither of my sisters nor my mother really drank,
so usually it was up myself and my dad to kick the
bottle. My father died when I was 27 and left me with
around three thousand bottles of wine. At the time
my mother wanted to auction off the wine and I went
ballistic. This was his legacy. It was at that time
that I immersed myself in wine and wine culture.
JC: You’ve had the opportunity to
work on both sides of the coin as an importer and
an exporter of wines. What did you gain from working
in these two opposing aspects of the wine business?
RS: From my experience in the exporting business
I learned that in order to be successful in the wine
business, you need to be on the ground wherever you
are selling the product. I was exporting wine into
Asia and not spending enough time in the markets where
I was selling the wine. Now I am in the market selling
almost 50% of the time.
JC: How do you go about finding and landing
a new wine producer for Vine Street?
RS: All of the producers that I’ve found
have been friends of friends. We’ve had a very
natural growth, so we’ve never had to really
search brands out. They have always pretty much just
JC: Vine Street Imports is dedicated to
boutique and artisanal wines; what affects has the
so-called wine glut and the rise of economy and super-economy
wines had on your operations?
RS: In short, it hasn’t. That’s
more the lower end of the market that has gotten negatively
affected. Our products are made in small quantities
and the market can’t get enough, but we are
not a sausage factory - we can’t just make more.
Wine is an agricultural product and once a vintage
is sold out, there is no more till next year. The
Economy and Super-Economy end of the business really
has very little impact on what we are doing.
JC: How have the new, post-9/11 laws and
regulations on imports affected the way you do business?
RS: It’s just made it a little more
difficult to do the actual importing. Our containers
are taking a little longer to clear customs and they
are checking the documentation a little more closely.
Other than that, its been pretty much business as
JC: Without giving away any secrets, what
new areas of the world are you eyeing for new potential
wines for your portfolio?
RS: My favorite wine region at this moment
is the Heathcote region of Central Victoria. The Shiraz
from there is very different than anywhere else in
Australia or the rest of the world. The wines still
have the enormous palate length and depth that the
South Australian Shiraz does, but they are more in
the red fruit and spice spectrum and not the plum
and black fruit spectrum. I also think that Portugese
still wines are ready to explode. They have all of
the right elements: great weather, interesting local
varietals, and, now, the know-how to make world-class
wines. The level of foreign investment there is huge
and it shows in the quality of the wines. Lastly,
I was in Slovenia last fall and the wines there are
world-class as well. I especially like the white blends
that they are making from Tocai Friulano, Rebula,
Chardonnay and Sauvignon.