How a Chilean Wine came to the US via China…and won awards

labelsDon Mateo Wines started with three global entrepreneurs, a passion for wine making and a vision to become world class.

So, what’s so special, you ask, lots of aspiring winemakers out there.

Yes, but how many have won four awards at the recent Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) convention? And, how many have had a journey that began in China?

I first met the partners running Don Mateo Wines in late 2010 and was immediately struck by their business acumen, gained in global trading, and applied to the wine world. Their story is interesting.

Andy Lam and his brother Matthew were successful exporters of various products and commodities to Chile from China. Over the years, the currency exchange swings hurt their business and so they turned the ship around and began importing wine from Chile. Their passion about wine helped, and they began buying vineyards and wineries. Added to that was the patience and tenacity to develop top quality wines. They hit the Chinese wine market at the right point in time and the business flourished._MG_0417

You can’t be a global wine player without the US market, so a third partner, Peter Loucks, entered the picture and applied his overall business skills to the wine business. Peter is smart and a quick learner so it’s not surprising that he soon realized that, unlike China, the supply of wine (Chilean and others) exceeded the demand. Consequently, growth here would be an uphill battle. Further, the mandatory wholesaler tier has become more and more difficult to deal with, as in “take on another wine brand, are you kidding?”

But, he knew that despite the hurdles, he had some key brand equities and assets. For one thing, Don Mateo is a memorable brand name for a Chilean wine and the brand symbol is both interesting and notable to consumers.


As you can see, the symbol/logo is the Moai (pr. mo-eye). These Moai are the monolithic statues of Easter Island, off the coast of Chile. According to their website “they reflect our commitment to discovery, craftsmanship and passion. These three elements have been the guiding principles for Don Mateo wines from Chile.” Might even stand for the three partners behind the venture. You never know.

If you asked the brand owners what is the single most important asset of their wines, their answer is most likely to be, the wine. Trust me folks, these are outstanding wines. But, in case you don’t believe it, think about the medals they won at the WSWA – three silver and a double gold.

silver and gold

Here’s the irony. Despite the entrepreneurial approach, despite their marketing and branding and, despite the high quality and good value, you would think wholesalers would be beating a path to their door. Instead, getting wholesalers to take on the line has been slow and difficult. Such is the state of the booze business and the plethora of brands on the market.

But, hey, the Moai on Easter Island have stood the test of time, so why shouldn’t Don Mateo Wines.

For you former Seagram folks out there… It might interest you to know that Jim Reichardt introduced me to them and their New Jersey wholesaler is Sam Ellias.

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And now, on to the foremost industry show of the year, at least in my opinion. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) 68th annual convention is in Orlando at the beginning of April. Once upon a time this was a key meeting point between suppliers and wholesalers. Speakers, exhibitors, award presentations were all a sideshow to the supplier-wholesaler hospitality suite meetings and dinners. Brands and lines were awarded and lost at this event. Friendships were made and solidified. Animosities were seeded and blossomed. All in all, it was one of the events that drove the business.

But there may be problems this year.

Last week, Wine and Spirits Daily reported as follows:

“WSD had heard rumblings that some DISCUS members will not be attending the WSWA’s annual convention this year. Initially we supposed this was due to disagreements over the CARE Act, but a number of distiller sources we have spoken to say the issues are unrelated and that it is a commercial decision.”

A commercial decision?  WSD closed the piece with:

“Our conclusion?  While we don’t doubt DISCUS’ reasoning for bowing out, it’s likely that disagreements over the CARE Act sped up the process.”

Ah, the CARE Act (aka H.R. 5034) – let me see if I can simplify the issue.

The CARE Act aims to clarify that states have primary authority to regulate alcohol. I can go on and on with details about letters to congress, lobbying rationales, assorted fine print gobbledygook and each side’s arguments and counter arguments.  But it’s simple — the wholesalers want to protect and solidify the three-tier system and the suppliers want to make inroads and cause some erosion.

So, back to the WSWA –

I don’t believe the attendance will be down. I also don’t buy the argument that “we see the wholesalers on a frequent basis already so why go to the event?” Because, it’s called relationship building. Because, the size of the line alone is not the answer for “winning the hearts and minds” of distributors and their salespeople.

As for the wholesalers, if the big boys don’t show in the same numbers as in the past, perhaps they will spend more time in the exhibit area and get to know the smaller suppliers and the new brands and players that may become the powerhouses of the future.

It’s fascinating to see each of the oligopolies battle each other. I guess it’s called the “irresistible force” meets the “immovable object.”

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