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Pssst: Want to hear a secret? For decades, wine lovers have known to turn bottles around and read the back labels, looking for the name of a knowledgeable importer.

In the 1970s and '80s, Kermit Lynch, Neal Rosenthal, Becky Wasserman-Hone and others made national names for themselves by traveling the back roads of Europe and sniffing out spectacular wineries that lay off the beaten path; wine lovers all over the United States still consider their names to be guarantees of quality.

Here in Portland, we have our own long tradition of local wine wholesalers who source their wines directly from barrel cellars overseas. Although most foreign-born bottles get here via large-scale importers and national-level wine brokers, many of Portland's wholesalers supplement their portfolios with small gems they've found on their own travels through far-flung wine regions.

Lemma Wine Co. began supplementing its portfolio with direct shipments from Europe way back in the mid-1970s, when just a handful of wine shops were in town and supermarkets stocked wines only by the jug. In 1991, Philip Smith shook things up by dedicating his new firm, P-S Wines, solely to direct-importing. In 1998, Casa Bruno opened up shop with a directly imported container of wines from Italy.

There are countless more stories like these. But over the past couple of years, it started to look as if this tradition might come to an end. The Odom Corp. acquired the family-run McClaskey's Wine & Spirits and merged with Southern Wine & Spirits of America Inc. in 2008; Columbia Distributing acquired Mt. Hood Beverage Co. the same year.

At the same time, many smaller and midsize firms around town also were merging and changing hands. When all the dust had settled, industry watchers began to wonder aloud if Portland might go the way of other cities, where the wine market is generally controlled by large conglomerates and the only imports that make it to store shelves come in by the boatload, through national channels.

But that didn't happen. Instead, a new crop of direct importers and small wholesalers has opened shop ... and thrived. For example, a whole new species has emerged: the winemaker importer.

Scott Paul Wines, a winery in Carlton, rolled out its line of "Scott Paul Selections" direct imports in 2005 with just a handful of labels. Today, proprietor/winemaker/importer Scott Wright spends between six and eight weeks each year in France; his catalog now includes about 30 small producers from Burgundy and Champagne, and Wright even began bottling his own Chambolle-Musigny in 2009.

"I think we are the only hands-on winery that is also a significant direct national importer," Wright says. "It makes our tasting room pretty unique, because people get to taste Old and New World pinot noirs side by side. People come away with a better understanding of pinot noir in general. And it's a business we can grow as long as the market will allow without having to plant a lot of new acreage."

Up-and-comers Barnaby and Olga Tuttle follow a similar model: Their Teutonic Wine Co. imports 12 producers from the German Mosel, the Luxembourg Mosel and the French Moselle regions (all along the Mosel, or Moselle, River). The pair also make quirky high-acidity, low-alcohol wines in a style similar to the wines they import. "It is our goal to expand into a few more states, but we are currently out of many of the imports," says Barnaby. "The demand greatly exceeded our expectations."

What is going on here? Last time I checked, we were wallowing in a stubborn recession. Do Oregonians have such an insatiable thirst for offbeat wines that we can support a mini-economy of exotic wine imports?

In a word, yes. "If you go to other states, you don't see the diversity you have here," says Ed Paladino, co-owner of Southwest Portland's E&R Wine Shop since it opened in 1999. "We have a sophisticated, cosmopolitan market. It's part of the culture here."

It's difficult to quantify this phenomenon in precise numbers because the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) releases data only on the total number of alcoholic beverage importers, including wine, beer and liquor. However, the TTB lists 188 licensed alcohol importers in the state of Oregon. Oklahoma, a state with nearly the same population, has only 40; Kentucky, with a population that's a half-million greater than Oregon's, lists only 44.

How about New York, then? Home to the national headquarters of many spirits and wine importing firms (think Pernod-Ricard, Kobrand, LVMH), it should blow Oregon out of the water. But, per capita, it doesn't. Both states have approximately one alcoholic beverage importer for every 20,000 people. What gives?

The way Paladino sees it, our sophisticated tastes begat a plethora of direct importers, beginning in the 1970s. And, in a delicious cycle, the competition created by so many direct importers -- as well as a more recently arrived threat, the Internet -- causes more and more wine wholesalers to get into the import biz. This happens because, he explains, direct-import wines tend to offer more bang for the buck.

"They are able to get popular styles of wines at pricing that's a little bit better than what's available in the market," Paladino explains. "A larger company is bringing a wine into the United States and is reselling it to a distributor and then to a retailer. But a direct importer can find a similar wine and sell it directly to retailers for 10 to 20 percent cheaper, relatively speaking."

The bottom line: Next time you are shopping for a foreign-born wine, turn that bottle around. If the back label is imprinted with the name of an importer based in Oregon, give that wine a try. 

Meet two of Portland's newest direct importers  

Back label says: Estelle Imports

Proprietors: Chris Davis, Joe Ennis and Robert Ballato

Introduced: April 2010

Portfolio size: 82 direct imports from Spain, France and Italy, plus nine domestic labels.

Portfolio profile: "We are focused on small producers who fly under the radar; even the few cooperatives we buy wine from are small by European standards."

Where to find the wines: Pastaworks, Cellar Door, Cork, Vinopolis, Market of Choice, Fred Meyer, CorksCru, E&R Wine Shop, Navarre, Gino's, Apizza Scholls, Nel Centro, Eugenio's, South Park, Ned Ludd

Tales from the road: The trio collectively spends an average of six weeks sourcing wines overseas. "We do a lot of prep work before traveling, via friends in Spain, France and Italy," says Ennis. "We absolutely refuse to attend the giant wine fairs [trade expositions] where shrill marketing runs amok. You simply cannot exercise good judgment or maintain a discerning palate in those environments." Check out their travel blog at

Business model: "Efficiency, recognizing and working within our limits, taking on multiple roles, eschewing sleep. We do not sell nor are we interested in brands, depletion reports or marketing, or any other nonsense that has been built into this business."

One to try: NV Oriol Rossell Brut Nature Cava ($17)


Back label says: Petit Monde Wine Merchant

Proprietor: Olivier Rochelois

Introduced: June 2011

Portfolio size: 18 small, independent French producers

Portfolio profile: "Hidden gems" from "off the beaten path" in France, generally selling for less than $20 a bottle.

Where to find the wines: Beast, Le Bouchon, Carafe, Clarklewis, CorksCru, The Heathman Restaurant & Bar, Justa Pasta, Ken's Artisan Pizza, Kir Wine Bar, La Provence Bakery and Bistro, St. Jack, Carafe

Tales from the road: Paris-born Portland resident Rochelois will have spent nine weeks in France by the end of the year. He considered more than 1,000 producers and visited approximately 150 in order to select his portfolio of 18. "I drive my brother's landscaping company van around the French countryside, occasionally sleeping in it. I have meals with vintners and generally have a blast." Follow his adventures on Twitter at

Business model: "I am running Petit Monde on trois fois rien (three times nothing) -- a proverbial shoestring," says Rochelois, who flies on frequent-flier miles and jokes about "begging, stealing and borrowing" from friends, family and vintners.

One to try: 2009 Domaine Montrose Sud de France Vin de Pays de Côtes de Thongue (Languedoc) Cabernet Syrah ($12.50)

-- Katherine Cole  

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