Posted on | November 1, 2013
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
When The Vintner Group’s CEO, David Townsend, decided to move into the competitive northeast market, there were a number of fine wine wholesalers he could have considered for acquisition. But he felt only one was a natural fit: Martin Scott Wines.
“Culture is what we are looking for,” Townsend explains. “We are not looking to try to take a company in a different segment of the business and turn them into a fine wine house. I’ve known Marty Gold and Scott Gerber for years, and they look at the business the same way we do. Martin Scott Wines feels like home.” Post-acquisition, the company will continue to trade as Martin Scott Wines in its distributed territories and will retain its staff.
Which is not to say the marketplace has been free of unease. At Martin Scott Wines’ September tasting in New York, more than a few nervous customers wanted to know what this will mean for the future of the wine house, and how customers will be impacted.
Townsend’s message to the marketplace is simple: The experience of doing business with Martin Scott Wines will only improve. “When we acquire a company, it’s because they are doing things right,” says Townsend. “My biggest rule is: Do no harm. Don’t come in and change things and mess it up.” Townsend acknowledges that the tri-state area marketplace is a very distinct place, and operates differently from other markets. His focus now is asking the Martin Scott Wines team what they need to do their jobs better—and figuring out how to enhance the customer experience.
Two Companies, One Culture
The Vintner Group (once known as The Country Vintner) is a Virginia-based importer and wholesaler of fine wine and craft spirits. In the wake of rapid expansion and many acquisitions, the company now has wholesale operations in twelve states throughout the mid-Atlantic and southeast, as well as the recent additions of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Consolidation is not a dirty word in the fine wine business, insists Townsend: “We clearly believe in a vision of a consolidated fine wine market that allows artisanal brands access to economies of scale while preserving their inherent family values.”
Founded in 1990 and growing to represent around 450 wineries, Martin Scott Wines has long occupied this same “middle ground” in a marketplace defined both by large wholesalers and many small fine wine houses. “Our size enables us to handle larger brands as well as small brands; we have the brand management structure in place for that,” says Gerber. “We are able to be very nimble and responsive to our customers—we don’t want them to have to go through layers to get to us. Customer service is everything to us.”
Customer service plays out in many ways, describes Eric Celt, senior VP, general manager, Martin Scott Wines. “It’s about having the most educated sales force; having our management on the street often in player-coach style—these are the things that differentiate us from our competition,” says Celt. And it’s what makes Martin Scott Wines and The Vintner Group such kindred spirits. “We are really big on trying to improve customer service. I see that as our number one, two and three jobs,” says Townsend.
Some of the things tri-state area licensees can look forward to? The Vintner Group has three Master Sommeliers and three mixologists on staff available to travel anywhere in the region for training and customer support. Also, better technology will alert customers of stock levels and give accounts the ability to submit orders in easier ways. “Our customers will start to see new order entry and web pages rolling out in January,” says Townsend.
Townsend sees tremendous opportunity for organic growth in Martin Scott Wines’ traditional market—New York City—as well as huge potential in the upstate New York market, New Jersey and Connecticut. “Martin Scott customers are extremely knowledgeable, which actually makes our job easier,” he observes. “They embrace the thing that we are trying to bring to market”
Staying Ahead of Trends
Also making the transition seamless is the crossover in portfolios between Martin Scott Wines and The Vintner Group’s other wholesale operations. “We are already working with most of the same suppliers in other markets, and we are also seeing the same trends,” Townsend notes. When Celt describes upticks he sees—like petit-chateau from Bordeaux in the $30-$40 range or Southern Italian wines or rosés from all over the world—Townsend nods in agreement.
“We have always worked to stay ahead of the curve,” says Gerber. “Our customers know we are incredibly tough with our portfolio standards. When we decide to represent a new property, we always go through a very thorough selection process. Our customers count on us to do so.” Martin Scott Wines’ reputation took time to build and is the very thing that made them attractive to a larger company. “Honesty, integrity and a customer-first philosophy—these are the principles we were founded on almost 25 years ago, and which will continue to guide this business in the future,” he adds.