A small warehouse and office building tucked away in a modest Belle Chasse industrial park may seem like the farthest place from the sun-kissed hills that produce the Brunellos and Rossos from Italy’s Tuscany region or the gently sloping valley in the south of France that births Château Miraval’s Rosé.
But each year, Lirette Selections imports those wines and hundreds of others from more than a dozen countries, distributing them to retailers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
“Because we’re small and don’t have brands, we’re not in the big supermarkets at all. We do a little with Rouse’s and Whole Foods. Nothing to write home about,” owner and founder Matt Lirette said. “Our focus is on small bottle shops and on-premise sales in top restaurants.”
The U.S. imported 125.4 million gallons of table wine valued at $2.02 billion during the first half of the year, according to the National Association of Beverage Importers. The majority of those imports were made by very large companies dealing with larger wine producers.
Lirette Selections specializes in artisanal wines, small batches of hand-crafted products. The company now carries about 900 items and has nearly 400 customers. Those include Bayona Restaurant, Restaurant August, Keife & Co., and Swirl Sensational Wines in the New Orleans area, and Cuban Liquor and Calandro’s Supermarket in Baton Rouge.
The bulk of his business comes from 250 customers, mainly restaurants in New Orleans.
Lirette licensed the business in late 2008 after trying to convince his previous employer, a bulk liquor distributor, to establish a wine division. Lirette had established a wine business for the distributor. But wine wasn’t a top priority for the distributor, and it wasn’t ever going to be. Lirette decided to strike out on his own.
He used the network of suppliers and growers he had built up over the years as the foundation for his own firm. Lirette had spent the previous 17 years in the restaurant business, 10 of them as the wine buyer for Chef Emeril Lagasse’s company in New Orleans.
Lirette’s resources included hard-won expertise in dealing with brokers, and import customs and duties, not to mention connections to dozens of growers, many of whom reside “in the middle of nowhere” in France, Italy and other foreign countries.
He spent the first several months in business prepping the office and warehouse space on Derrick Road, ripping out walls, hanging sheetrock and revisiting his contacts and customers. It wasn’t until about midway through 2009 that Lirette Selections actually began making sales. Even then, things moved slowly.
“After year one, I thought, ‘There’s no way. What was I thinking?’” Lirette said. His five-year business plan? Out the window.
But things picked up in the second year — 400 percent or 500 percent growth doesn’t sound so impressive when you’re starting from nothing — and in each year afterward. Lirette would not disclose sales figures but the company has grown from one employee to 10, mainly people who tired of the restaurant industry’s grueling schedule. During the busy season, Lirette Selections moves 60 to 70 12-bottle cases a day, five days a week. On the busiest Friday nights, the company may move 150 cases among customers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
Lirette Selections is one of only a few Louisiana firms that import wine, and it’s also a little different than the unusual small importer.
The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires companies to get an Importer’s Basic Permit. The bureau has issued 59 of those in Louisiana, but only a few of the companies with permits remain active, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website.
“A lot of these little importers that pop up end up having to pitch the product to a wholesaler,” said William Earle, president of the National Association of Beverage Importers.
Lots of wholesalers are large firms and won’t take a product unless the importer invests “a whole lot of money” in marketing or the product already has brand recognition, he said. The result is that small and midsize importers stay the same size unless they can make the deliveries and warehouse the wine.
“You have to decide whether you’re going to stay really small or grow and invest in other resources,” Earle said.
Lirette is planning to grow.
Lirette’s original business plan didn’t target New Orleans as the primary market. He intended to distribute statewide and still does.
After establishing a foothold in Baton Rouge, the company is expanding its presence and doing the same in Lafayette. Lirette Selections also plans to expand to Shreveport and Lake Charles.
The company recently added a range of spirits, such as brandy, cognac and vodka, as well as craft beer.
Still, wine remains the company’s main business, and New Orleans accounts for roughly 75 percent of that — “I think because we have such an international clientele here,” Lirette said.
Conventions draw visitors to New Orleans from all over, and many of those people have sophisticated palates, Lirette said.
The New Orleans market has really grown, he said. In the early 1990s, the big trend in New Orleans was Oregon wine, and that consisted of négociant, or wine broker, burgundy. Today there are so many interesting choices available, it’s difficult to list them all.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter @tedgriggsbr.