By Jean Falbo-Sosnovich @ NewHavenBiz
Where there’s a wine, there’s a way.
That’s pretty much the story of the Votto family and how its Votto Vines wine importing business went from the siblings selling bottles of reds and whites from the trunk of a Subaru to raking in more than $50 million in revenue last year.
The family-owned and operated Votto Vines was established in 2009, but the story of how the entrepreneurial business blossomed into a Forbes 500 and Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company began to take seed a few years earlier.
Before he became Votto Vines’ president, CEO and co-founder, attorney Michael Votto was vacationing with his wife, sipping a fine wine at a romantic Italian winery in Tuscany.
“We stayed at a small winery in Tuscany, the Chianti Classico region, and loved the wine,” Votto said. “We asked the winemaker, Alberto, where we could find his wine in the states and he said we couldn’t. That was our ‘aha’ moment. I came home and told my brother, brother-in-law and cousins that we should think about importing wine from small wineries in Italy, and the Votto Vines vision was born.”
Votto, along with his brother Nicholas Votto, cousins Stephen, Peter, and Leah Votto and brother-in-law Jeremy Jerome, are the company’s six original co-founders. Votto Vines has since grown to more than 30 employees.
Headquartered in Hamden, with offices in Manhattan, western Massachusetts and Florida, Votto Vines markets, imports and sells wines personally curated from wineries across Europe to 49 of 50 U.S. states.
The family’s focus since day one has been to seek out smaller winemakers who produce wines not available here and sell them to restaurants, liquor stores and retailers at a better price than the larger importers, Michael Votto said.
“We like to think of ourselves as different from your standard wine importing business,” said Nicholas Aceto, Votto Vines’ associate vice president of marketing. “Votto Vines looks to find the ‘hidden gems’ of the wine world, wines that are off the beaten path, that also capture the authenticity of their origins.”
Aceto said the family immersed itself into learning everything about wine and the importing business through “conducting extensive research and combing through thousands of wineries and appellations (where grapes are grown) to try and identify wines that have strong sales potential in the U.S. market.”
Votto said in the early days of Votto Vines, he and his family kept their day jobs in order to keep expenses low, while delivering wine out of their cars. This allowed the business to grow, start making a name for itself and build relationships with larger accounts.
“In 2009, we started with just a handful of wines and really knew nothing about the wine and spirits industry,” Votto said. “We learned through experience. Trial by fire is an understatement. In our first year, we sold about 10,000 bottles of wine, which is a rounding error to most companies in this industry. Today we work with hundreds of wineries and sell millions of bottles of wine per year.”
Votto said the company works with and imports wines from Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Stateside it also sells wines from California and Oregon. The family is known to travel to wineries and major world wine expos across the globe in search of the tastiest blends and best bouquets to please any wine lovers’ palettes.
In fact, Votto recently attended Prowein in Dusseldorf, Germany, one of the largest wine expos in the world. His mission was to find the latest varietals from dry whites to bold, tannic reds and everything in between, he said.
“Typically, we are looking for wines that are not imported by anyone else in the United States,” Aceto said.
Once purchased, the wine is shipped to the Hamden headquarters where it’s distributed directly to local markets in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, or sold to Votto Vines’ distribution partners across the country, Aceto said.
According to Votto, revenues have grown from about $100,000 in the first year of business to more than $50 million in 2021. Building a client base came the old-fashioned way.
“It comes through hard work and persistence like anything else, and we just continue knocking on doors, telling our story and finding compelling products,” Votto said. “That’s really the name of the game in a nutshell.”
Votto Vines works with hundreds of package stores, restaurants and retail customers. One of its largest retail clients is Stew Leonard’s, which sells Votto’s varietals in its spirits stores.
“[The Vottos] seek out delicious, highly-rated wines that our customers love,” said Blake Leonard, president of Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits, who is a certified sommelier, or wine steward.
Some of Votto’s best sellers out of nearly 300 wines it imports range from its Torrevento Bolonero (from Puglia in southern Italy) and Awaken Sauvignon Blanc (from New Zealand) to its Cousin Pete’s Bathtub Gin (from Long Island, New York) to the Castelli del Grevepesa Chianti Classico, which Aceto said pairs great with Italian dishes and steak.
Votto himself said he’s partial to “old world” red wines, particularly from Italy.
As for what’s next, Votto said the business is quickly outgrowing its 27,000-square-foot warehouse and office space in Hamden.
“We’re overflowing with pallets of wines,” Votto said.
Within the warehouse walls, Votto said there’s also a full bar for tasting events, along with couches, a flat-screen TV, basketball hoop, foosball table and arcade games to ensure a fun work environment for employees.
“While we’ve experienced great success on the business side of things, we want people to know that we’re a family business,” Aceto said. “Our executive branch has instilled a feeling of community within the workplace, where all employees feel like a member of the Votto family. We’re not sommeliers or wine snobs, we’re just regular people who love drinking and selling wine. We work really hard, but we also have fun, too.”