Alleah Friedrichs and her partner, Erin Geyer, started Bliss Wine Imports in 2013. I met Alleah at Rawfair in NY last November when she was pouring the wines made by Bertrand Habsiger of Fattoria dI Caspri from Tuscany. She seemed to have an effusive excitement for these wines and the others Bliss Imports that you find among relatively new importers and I most definitely don’t mean this pejoratively. Clearly, she and Geyer seem to have found something that they honestly and earnestly love. They now work with more than 20 producers from seven countries and are represented in five states. The work they’ve done so far, the process and their refreshingly unpretentious vibe is inspiring. Here is an interview with Alleah describing their journey, both literally and figuratively.
PSB: What ignited your love for wine?
AF: I developed a love for wine when I first arrived in Monterey, CA in 2008. Quickly, I discovered how magical trips to Napa could be. At that time it was because you could crank out five wineries in a day, fall asleep in a garden, then go out to dinner. I think I loved wine mostly because whenever the bottle came out, it was time to relax and spend time with friends. It symbolized an official time out and something about wine makes one feel smart and sophisticated.
PSB: How did you get into the wine industry?
SF: I moved to California in 2008 to get my MBA. That was the year I officially stopped doing what I wanted to do and started to do what I thought I should do. After getting a sweet SF apartment and some cool gigs in consulting at a clean tech start-up I still did not find fulfillment and true happiness. With a little inspiration from a friend decided in 2012 that I would like to become a wine importer.
Wanting and doing is the same thing for me so I immediately got going. It took until the end of 2013 to get licensed and I was totally out of fuel from my last job. My girlfriend also was sick of my stress and told me she was going to go traveling with or without me… so needless to say it was the perfect time to transition to the crazy world of wine.
PSB: Where did you travel?
AF: Funny enough the first wine country we went to was in China. We wanted to take a little vacation to Southeast Asia and when our Chinese speaking friend could come along we decided to go to China and I had heard about the crazy development of vineyards there and wanted to see it for myself. It really got started when we landed in Madrid and rented a car and immediately drove to Portugal where we hit up the Dao, Douro, Minho Valley, drove up to Rias Baixas, then over to Ribera del Duero and then to Rioja.
From there we spent a month in Bordeaux. We then went to Grenoble for a month and continued processing and working on the business. We returned to Spain and Portugal to re-visit the wineries we were most interested in after the off-site tastings we did in France. Our three-month visa was about up and we had to leave the Schengen zone, so went and lived in Croatia for the summer and did a good job combing over Istria and Northern Dalmatia. When we could enter Europe again we toured Austria and then spent five weeks in Italy going back over Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Abruzzo.
Quickly, we realized that the best wines were coming from tiny vineyards that were organically farmed and minimally “made”. We methodically tasted our way through thousands of wines and chose eight from four wineries to launch with. Thank god everyone loved them and our growth took off. We’ve been wholesaling for two years now and have organically grown our wine club and distribution with small distributors in five states.
PSB: Did you encounter any sexism along the way?
AF: Most winery appointments were arranged over email and winemakers didn’t realize that Alleah and Erin were two chicks. So a lot of the time we would show up to some very confused old men looking at us. They would normally be a little reserved but then after an hour or so of me asking them a million questions and diving into their philosophy they acclimated and were really wonderful. But it was always funny to see the initial WTF looks.
AF: I really don’t like paying attention to other importers because whenever I look at what others are doing I get nervous that I’m not doing something right or that someone else is doing something better. So I kind of live in my own world and choose products that I believe in. That might be what separates me from other importers. The one thing that shocks me is that so many importers source their wines at tasting events. I’m not sure if everyone else is just better at tasting wine than me, but I can’t actually evaluate and get to know a wine or winemaker philosophy unless I have a quiet space with lots of time. So we source 100% at the vineyards and really find our wineries with our own methods. Our wines are organically farmed and are all on the “natural” spectrum, many that are spontaneously fermented, unfiltered with very low sulfur. Even with that, only a handful of our wines are funky, most of them are still polished as funk is not our goal.
PSB: What advice would you give to anyone trying to get into the business?
AF: My advice is two fold. First, follow what feels good, not a “market opportunity.” Wine is romantic, but it’s also just a medium of applying oneself. Try to really ask yourself what do you want to do. If you want to tell stories and sell cool products, consider working for someone else. Owning your own wine biz probably involves more non-romantic and normal business activities that are stressful. Second, if you really do want to have your own business, you need to really ask yourself if you are providing anyone value. How are you helping someone else’s business must be the focus.
Bliss Wine Imports currently works with these distributors:
California – Alluvial Wines
Missouri – Lile Wines
Illinois – Niches Wines
Texas – New Vintage Wines
North Carolina – Paragon Wine Group