We've interviewed some of the great established wine importers on these pages—Kermit Lynch, for example—but we also have our eye on a new generation of importers who are going about the business in unusual ways. Take Lyle Fass, whose company, Fass Selections, launched this year.
Fass calls himself 'a rebel wine retailer', selecting wines in Europe to sell directly in the US via email offer. He says his business model is based on a recent California law that allows an importer to sell wine online directly to the consumer as long as the importer doesn't have a physical store. We chatted with Lyle about how Fass Selections works and how it's different from the traditional importer-distributor-retailer arrangement—plus a few of his favorite bottles.
Tell us a bit about your path in the wine business.
I have been in the wine business since I started working. At 19 I got a part time job at a wine store in Boston, where I went to school and got hooked. Then took a detour and sold cheese in a wine store that had a killer selection of cheese. Moved onto helping open up a wine store in 1999 that sold artisanal wines called The Wine Bottega in the North End of Boston. In 2001, I moved to NYC and tried wholesale for a while but was not really a fan of schlepping around New York carrying a bag. I then worked in retail in NY as a buyer for Chambers Street Wines (twice) and also wrote the business plan and was the founding wine buyer at Crush and stayed there for 3 years. Then I worked for Grapes The Wine Company and wrote e-mail blasts for them. After I left Grapes, I started Fass Selections. The rest is history!
Tell us a bit about the Fass Selections direct-offering model. Why select individual wines rather than import a winery's full offering? Why sell directly to consumers and ship wine rather than having it in a retail store?
The existing 3 tier model is inefficient and does not really work well for either winemakers or consumers. A wine that costs $20 in Europe and is affordable for most wine drinkers can cost $60 at traditional retail.
I save money in 2 ways: 1) I buy direct from the winery and sell to the consumer, cutting out 2 layers of distribution. 2) I have very little overhead by eliminating the rent and staffing of a bricks and mortar store.
So that $60 wine that I mentioned previously, I can sell for $35 (after shipping, storage, regulatory and other overhead costs). This helps the consumer because they get a better price on the wine and it help the winery because people are buying more of their wines because they are better values than almost anything in the US market.
Our intent is to sell many of the wines from each winery. We like to spread them out over several offers so that we can more effectively tell the story of each wine. Many of our producers, mostly in Germany, have a large number of bottlings so no importer would offer them all.
You offer some pretty amazing prices on the wines you bring in—is this to the benefit of the winery? If consumers get accustomed to the lower prices, will the winery be able to sell the other wines you haven't imported, even if the prices have to be higher in the US?
Every wine I sell, I put a lot of effort into telling the story of the wine and the winemaker so if anything, our emails do a great job of helping wineries build a following.
Our wineries benefit because our customers buy much more of their wines than if they cost 50% more. I sold a $20 Haut Cotes de Nuits, a $22 German village wine from a top 15 producer, and a $50 quality Champagne for $33. In each case, many people were buying 6 or 12 bottles of a wine that they had never tasted because they knew that the prices were way below market. So the winemakers sell a lot more wine than they otherwise would.
For example, there is a lot of $50-$70 Burgundy on the US market—if you want to break in as a producer, it's very difficult even if you have great wine. I do leverage my reputation to sell wine but it's a lot easier for me because my prices are a lot lower.
Our wines never go on Winesearcher and we typically offer them months before traditional retailers, so fears that our prices will somehow prevent others from selling them are really overblown.
The people on my list will likely continue to buy the wines from me but my list is a small fraction of the wine buying universe. Most consumer have not bought from a particular retailer and will have no idea of the price at retailer A if they see it at retailer B. There's plenty of fish in the sea.
The wines we don't sell are also often sold into other markets either in the winemaker's country or to other countries in Europe.
What are your commitments to your wineries like? Are you planning to work with the same wineries again, or is that not guaranteed? Are many of your wineries working with other importers or seeking other importers?
We are only working with producers that are either already elite or very good and on there way to being elite. We hope to sell their wines every year. A lot of these are younger winemakers that we hope to sell for decades to come.
Some of the winemakers have other importers.
What's your ultimate goal with Fass Selections? Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I suppose that my strategy is build it and they will come. So far, it appears to be working. I'm fortunate to have a network of connections in Europe that has enabled me to find a lot of great winemakers. I have a good record of being able to discover the next great winemaker in a region and now, I'm lucky enough to import them and sell them at my own company.
So in 5 years, I'd like to be known as the guy who has a portfolio of some of the best winemakers in Europe. I already have some of the best winemakers in many subregions in France and Germany after less than a year in business. If I keep adding great winemakers to my portfolio, the rest will take care of itself.
Where do you like to go out to drink? Any wine lists you love these days in New York?
I love Terroir Tribeca/Murray Hill, Charlie Bird, Ten Bells, Estela, Bar Boulud, Ma Peche and Anfora and am dying to go to Contra. Mike Madrigale does an amazing job at Boulud. Pascaline Lepeltier [at Rouge Tomate] has a wine list where I want to drink every bottle and Jordan Salcito at Ma Peche and the other Chang restaurants is finally doing justice to David's food.
What are you drinking these days at home, either from your own imports or others?
I finally got all of my Fass Selections wines that I purchased and sampled and I just started to dive in and there is not a better feeling in the world than tasting your own selections in your own home. I still have goosebumps. I like lists, so here are the top 3 wines I have had recently that are non Fass Selections and 3 that are Fass Selections.
Fass Selections Wines:
2011 Thomas Bouley Volnay 1er Cru "Caillerets": Just will stop you in your tracks. It is that good. Amazing nose. Better palate. Dense, beautiful tannins, amazing finish, so drinkable, will age and age and ONLY made from 8 year old vines. The best red wine I have sold under my import brand.
2012 Caspari-Kappel Enkircher Ellegrub Spatlese Trocken: I already offered the 2011 and it was tremendous wine but with new wineries, the learning curve from vintage to vintage can be extraordinary. The 2012 version of this wine is the best wine I have ever tasted from Caspari and places in the class of elite Mosel dry wine producers. Classic Ellegrub with blue cooling fruits, amazing slate aromas and density. 2012 is very dense. Concentrated wine with just stunning finesse and power and some fine fine acidity.
2008 Thierry Richoux Irancy "Vaupessiot": - I sold the 2009 already and that is a tremendous wine but the 2008, which has not been released yet, is of the epic variety. Pinot Noir this far up north cannot be this good. It just can't, but it is. Vaupessiot is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest part of Irancy and this wine has it all. Freshness, dense fruit, huge structure and about as authentic as a wine can be.
Non Fass Selections Wines:
2005 Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg Auslese Trocken "S": This, since 2009, is now labelled Grosses Gewachs. This was maybe the best dry German wine I have had all year. Delicate yet precise in the classic mineral water style that this estate is so known for. It was goosebump inducing and changed after every sip, aromatically and palate-wise. Thrilling wine.
2001 Reinhold Haart Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Auslese AP #9: Most people think AP # 8 is the better of this bottling. I can't imagine it being better after drinking this bottle at Ma Peche a few weeks ago. Dense, vivid fruit, amazing 2001 cracklin' acids. 2001 for Piesporter Goldtropfchen is not to be missed. Epic wines made in 2001.
1971 Chateau Beycheville (MAG): This was stunning. So elegant as Beycheville should be with youthful fruit and wonderful balancing acidity giving the old wine amazing freshness.