The owners of La Famiglia Corona Importers LLC opened the Baton Rouge-based wine import firm, thanks to what may be the most important key to a startup’s success: passion.
In this case, it was a love of the wines they discovered on trips to Italy, particularly those from the Piedmont region.
“We just couldn’t believe how much we loved Italy, and we were surprised to find that the Piedmont region, Piemonte, we thought had the best wines of any region that we had gone to,” said Greta Corona, who manages the company and is the only full-time employee.
That trip led to another and then another and eventually to a small import business focusing on artisanal wines, small batches of hand-crafted, individualistic wines. La Famiglia Corona is reluctant to discuss sales figures. But the company now imports about 25 products from a half-dozen growers. The company’s wines are carried by about 50 restaurants and retailers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. La Famiglia recently added a Texas distributor and hopes to one day expand to Alabama and Florida.
The Coronas — Greta is married to Dr. Ray Corona, a nephrologist — consider themselves more old-world wine appreciators.
“They tend to have better, in our opinion, balance between the fruit and the acidity and the tannins and the woods that are used,” Greta Corona said. “There is a tendency toward over-ripe fruit and overuse of oak in new-world wines that for us seems to lose the terroir of the grape itself.”
The terroir includes the environmental conditions, the soil and climate, where the grapes are grown. Enthusiasts say the terroir gives a wine its unique flavor and aroma.
The Coronas import wines made by people who believe in terroir.
“Basically, they feel that their job is to maximize the grape’s potential in the vineyard and not to mess it up in the cellar,” Greta said. “And we really appreciate that sense of reverence for the grape.”
The Coronas made their first trip to Italy in 2004. Ray’s great-grandfather had originally emigrated from Piemonte so it was a natural destination. The extended vacation was a reward for surviving a grueling stretch that followed Ray’s decision to leave the uncertain prospects of working as a chemist at Ethyl Corp. to go to medical school in New Orleans. Med school was followed by a residency in Baton Rouge and then a fellowship in North Carolina. Greta taught physics and chemistry at each stop.
In 2005, the Coronas took Ray’s father, Barry, now chairman of the board. In 2006, the family trip included Ray’s stepbrother, Jay Hall, the company secretary.
But each time they returned home, the family kept bumping into the same problem. The wines they loved weren’t available in the states. On one trip, someone playfully suggested the family start importing the wine.
“It was kind of a joke, and then we just kept really talking about it,” Greta said. “Had we known what was really involved in it, we probably wouldn’t have done it. But we were a little impetuous, and we did it.”
The Coronas quickly discovered importing wine involved lots of paperwork. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Importer’s Basic Permit application was fairly straightforward. But importers are also required to meet the regulatory requirements of the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Since the Coronas wanted their own small warehouse, they also had to navigate city-parish zoning regulations and undergo inspections from DHH and ATC.
The warehouse on Industriplex Boulevard also required investing capital — they bought a five-ton A/C unit and a backup generator to ensure climate control — and sweat equity. Greta and her father hung the foam insulation board for the 1,000-square-foot space and hired a contractor to spray foam the ceiling.
Still, the trickiest part of the business was finding a distributor. The Coronas broke into the business thanks to an acquaintance, but the match wasn’t ideal since that business handled mainly Hungarian wines. In addition, the Coronas had to pre-sell most of the wine, a time- and labor-intensive process. Another friend introduced them to Matt Lirette, of Lirette Selections in Belle Chasse.
Lirette was just getting his business underway at the time. He already had a pretty serious Italian portfolio, but the Coronas’ products convinced him to expand.
“They’re working with small growers that are making a hand-crafted, artisanal product that’s very authentic,” Lirette said.
Those are the types of wines Lirette’s business carries. With the distributor set, La Famiglia Corona focused on establishing the business. They drew on Hall’s experience as a business owner and that of Greta’s parents, who ran a company for many years. But neither company involved imports.
“We kind of winged it. Not the best way to go about things, I’m sure,” Greta said.
But it’s a surprisingly common approach to the import business, according to William Earle, president of the National Association of Beverage Importers.
“A lot of people tend to get into this because they’ve traveled to a wine-producing region of the world, and they see a wine that they’ve never seen before in the U.S.,” Earle said. Mainly that’s because the wine comes from a small grower, and it’s generally not commercially viable for that grower to export small quantities to the states.
Earle estimates that about 25 percent of U.S. wine importers are mom-and-pops like La Famiglia Corona. These companies usually have one to 10 employees and their products are usually limited to a city or several at most.
The United States has a three-tiered system for imports. There are importers or suppliers, wholesalers and retailers. Small importers often have to act as their own wholesaler, since most wholesalers are large companies and unwilling to risk their retailers’ shelf space on an unproven product.
It’s one of the reasons that small importers, like other mom-and-pops, fail far more often than they succeed.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has licensed about 10,000 wine importers nationwide, Earle said. But his association commissioned a study that found only 750 to 900 of those companies are actually importing.
“The mom-and-pops go into and out of business. Some that have a great product gain traction,” Earle said. “They know how to manage their business and make money out of this instead of hemorrhaging dollars. Those tend to stick around, but I think those are in the minority.”
Of the 10 Baton Rouge-area firms with an import license, only three are still active, according to records at the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office.
While La Famiglia Corona wasn’t exactly hemorrhaging money during its first years in business, it was more a labor of love than anything else, Greta said. In August, the company made the tough decision to relinquish its warehouse space. The move cut overhead by 60 percent and made La Famiglia much more profitable and Greta more of a wine broker. The company’s wines now ship directly to Lirette Selections, whose staff handles sales to restaurants and retailers.
La Famiglia also has a leg up on other importers because Ray and Greta are both fluent in Italian. Ray taught himself. Greta took classes.
Greta, who also speaks German, is now studying French. La Famiglia plans to expand its wines to include labels from France and eventually Germany.
Speaking Italian is an enormous advantage, Greta said. In the larger cities, like Florence or Rome, there are lots of people who speak English but in smaller towns little English is spoken.
“That’s true for the little places in Burgundy (France) as well. That’s one of the reasons I’m killing myself to learn French,” Greta said. “People look at you differently. They treat you differently, and it’s easier for them.”
This mindset has helped the Coronas build close relationships with their growers. Giovanna Rizzolio, one of the owners of Cascina delle Rose, describes herself as Greta’s aunt. Every year, Greta visits the growers, picking grapes, working in the cellar and pitching in wherever needed. When she visits Cascina delle Rose, Greta cooks a Cajun meal for the growers and workers. It’s her way of showing La Famiglia Corona’s appreciation for the growers.
This approach also means it takes more time to add the wines from new regions in Italy, France or Germany that will allow La Famiglia’s expansion to other states.
“In order to do that, we need more labels because all of our growers are fairly small,” Greta said. “We don’t have these big houses that make hundreds of thousands of bottles a year.”
Cascina delle Rose, one of La Famiglia’s most important growers, might produce 20,000 bottles a year of everything.
The Coronas’ business model also means there will be a ceiling on the company’s size.
“Hopefully in five years, we’ll be in more states and have a portfolio that includes more regions in Italy, French wines and German wines,” Greta said. “At this point that’s all that we foresee.”
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter @tedgriggsbr.