I met Amy Atwood a couple years before she launched her company, which was at first called “Clear Skins.” I respected that she was diligent, ambitious and wanted to do something other than “work for the man,” so to speak. One of her sales people asked me what I thought of her when he was thinking about selling her wines in San Francisco and I told him she was no bullshit and he was going to need a thick skin. That was meant as a compliment.
It took some major cojanes to go out of her own in 2009. The economy had just crashed and most of the wines she was carrying were unknown quantities. There were not too many others who were willing to throw their lot in with natural wine at the time. She has continued to sell wines from some producers who – in my view – have gone through rough periods. Other importers, especially those who have young companies, can be understandably gun-shy but she’s stood by the wineries she represents and her fidelity has been rewarded as the winemakers who come to mind have steadily improved.
Amy has garnered the admiration of numerous people I hold in high regard. A variety of women have told me that her success has inspired them to start their own companies. She has become one of the leading natural wine distributors in California, working with Jenny & Francois Selections, Savio Soares Selections and the Selectio Naturel import portfolios as well as Uncouth Vermouth, a superb handful of domestic and Australian growers, and her own wine label, Oeno Wines.
When I started the Natty & Nasty interviews with women who work with natural wine, Amy Atwood was one of the first who came to mind. Here’s her story, part of it anyway.
PSB: How did you get started in the wine industry?
AA: My passion for wine started when I was bartending and restaurant managing in Australia, during the late 90’s. Upon returning to the U.S., I worked for several wine distributors and importers as a sales manager. Once I understood the business side of wine sales it became important to start selling the wines I love to drink. So the focus of my company is representing mostly natural wines, made by small production wineries.
PSB: When you started your company – and I remember when you told me you were doing this – natural wine was really on the fringe. Starting a business is always risky but you took a pretty big gamble. What made you go in this direction?
AA: I had been working for conventional wine importers and distributors for several years. But on my own time, I started exploring natural wine, read Alice Feiring’s first book and drinking these wines at home. I decided to combine my personal passion with my professional experience.
PSB: Did you find there was support in the industry for what you were doing?
AA: There was support from the east coast wine community: Jenny Lefcourt, Alice Feiring, Savio Soares, etc. In California, there was a lot of interest from top somms and indie retailers but they were not really familiar with these wines yet.
PSB: How has the reception towards natural wine changed since you started your company?
AA: There is much more broad-based support and understanding of natural wines than when I started my company. Even old-school wine buyers are more open to natural wines. And consumers are asking for it, which helps as well.
PSB: How have you gotten through the tough times that every start-up company encounters?
AA: Necessity is the mother! I just made it happen because I had no choice. I had no investors, no bank money, no family money, just me selling these ‘weird’ wines. So I had to make this work. I went knocking on every wine door, every day, for years. And I loved every minute of it. But yes, there were many 4 a.m. “WTF am I doing” moments.
PSB: Have you ever felt as if customers or buyers treated you differently because of your gender? If so, how have you dealt with it?
AA: This is lessening the older I get and the longer I have been in the business. But yes, of course, women are still fighting for equal respect and money in every industry still, including wine. I did notice early on that you have to clearly state what you want and need from customers; as in, please do not relegate me to your bottle list only, or I will go out of business. We all need by the glass placements to pay the bills.
PSB: How do you go about doing this (getting BTG placements) without seeming too pushy? Or is that something that does not even come into your consciousness?
AA: BTG is bread and butter for most wine companies. Most wine buyers understand this, but sometimes you have to remind them. (It) can be done in a humorous, light manner that is not pushy.
PSB: Can you talk a little about Oeno Wines? How would you describe them to a potential customer? Why did you decide to launch your own label and at the same time, why did you choose to work with a winemaker instead of doing it yourself?
AA: I started Oeno because it was hard to find BTG priced CA wines that were thoughtfully made. I work with a winemaker simply because I do not have time to physically make the wines on a day to day basis since my focus is running my distribution company. That being said, all winemaking decisions are made by me.
PSB: What do you make of the bro scene in natural wine?
AA: There is a bro culture in every segment of the wine industry, not just natural wine. Indeed it exists in every industry. So I focus on actively supporting and building a sister scene. I am uplifted by my many sisters in wine every day.
PSB: What advice would you give to someone, especially a woman, who wanted to get into the wine industry today and more specifically, wine distribution?
AA: Find a mentor you respect and work for her. Surround yourself with women you want to be like. Always give a helping hand to other women in business, whenever possible.