Along the back roads of the wine business, miles away from the superhighways of the beverage conglomerates, the line between business relationships and friendships can blur through the years.
If you are a French winegrower, a fellow from America might one day knock on your farmhouse door near Santenay or Nîmes and tell you he is interested in selling your wine in America. Maybe you’ve thought about that idea, perhaps not, but you invite him in for a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.
The American later recalls that first day at the table, and subsequent ones. He is so happy to see the smile and feel the firm handshake every few months when he returns to the farm, tired and jet-lagged, to check the progress of the vintage and to enjoy a glass of recently bottled wine in the shade of an ancient plane tree.
In the United States there are perhaps a few dozen such small importers who roam the winegrowing regions of Europe, searching for someone with a great bottle of wine who has been overlooked by the big boys or, just as likely, is uninclined to deal with people he doesn’t think he can trust.
Peter Weygandt is one of these prospectors of artisan winegrowers. His home office is in a farmstead beside a narrow hillside lane a few miles from Unionville. On this afternoon he is shaken to hear that one of his Loire Valley winegrowers, Nicolas Reverdy, has just died suddenly in an accident.
“I started working with him in 1995,” Weygandt says. “He and his brother were just farmers.” The brother, Pascal, had called earlier today to break the news. “You form these relationships that are close, and news like this can be devastating.”
It can be, but as Weygandt remembers his years of buying wines—first in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, and, more recently, in other European countries and the New World—the anecdotes about his encounters with salt-of-the-earth winegrowers mainly bring slow-developing smiles across his face.
Weygandt and his wife, Maria Metzler Weygandt, own Weygandt-Metzler Wine Importing, and each year they import to the U.S. around 70,000 cases of wine from more than 100 producers in eight countries. Most of their growers are French, and Weygandt estimates that 80 percent of them were “discoveries—growers who had not sold their wines abroad before.
“The way it all started was in 1985 when Rick Ostrand of State Line Liquors let us tag along to visit his people in Burgundy,” Weygandt says. Like many major retailers, State Line, in Elkton, Md., does not directly import wine, but their wine personnel, like Ostrand, often visit producers so they can personally talk about their wines with consumers. At that time, Weygandt was practicing law, but his interest was increasingly turning to wine.
“We had had a big day and tasted a lot of wines,” Weygandt recalls. “Maria and I were in this restaurant, we were tired, our palates were dead. We ordered some mineral water and beer. The people at the next table heard our conversation and invited us to try their wines, then to visit them the next day at their farm.”
The man was Jacky Truchot, and when Weygandt founded his import business in 1987, Truchot-Martin was one of his first clients, remaining in the portfolio until Truchot retired along with the 2005 vintage. “When I first started, all I did was find people who were undiscovered—Laurent Charvin, Bernard Dugat, the Barthelme brothers,” Weygandt says.
In those first few years on the road, Maria and Peter often traveled to Europe as a team. A Bryn Mawr graduate, Maria spoke better French than her husband and would generally be the one to pick up the pay phone at a rural crossroads when they were trying to locate a grower. And, as they were just starting a family, their infant daughter Annalisa (now 31) accompanied them.
“We decided to call our business Weygandt-Metzler, because all the Burgundy growers hyphenated their names,” Peter says, “and it sounded more French.” As their other children (Ida, Susanna, Arkell) came along, Maria began spending more time in Pennsylvania and less in France. “And Peter’s French got better and better,” she says.
There was plenty for her to do at home, as much of the business correspondence was in French, and she took care of that. Today, Weygandt-Metzler has three employees, still very much the small enterprise. “There are still times when it’s a delicate and sticky situation, and I may be the one to write that letter,” Maria says, but otherwise she is now less involved with the business.
A law school graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Peter, 57, stayed in private practice for four years until the wine business got underway. (Peter’s older brother John, once a corporate attorney, is co-owner and winemaker at nearby Stargazers Vineyards.) Peter’s academic background before law school was in the liberal arts, and he carries along a book or two with him—”usually history or the classics”—on his frequent trips abroad.
A trip to Europe is usually eight days to two weeks long, and Weygandt typically flies into Paris, and then takes the TCV train to Dijon, if Burgundy is the first destination, or Avignon, if the Rhone Valley is first up. “I try to visit every property once a year,” he says, “and three to four times a year for Burgundy and the Rhone.”
In spite of the pleasures of good French food and wine, it is a backbreaking schedule.
“I usually have five to seven appointments a day and one in the evening,” Weygandt says. This last appointment is sometimes a scheduled overnight stay with old friends. “The French are different about business than we are,” he says. “It’s an extension of themselves.”
Occasionally, he may take along some of his U.S. clients, either distributors or retailers. “Most of the time we’re tasting the grower’s portfolio, usually in the cellar, asking questions,” he says. He carries with him spiral notebooks to capture the day’s activities, sometimes supplemented with photos.
When he is “prospecting,” he looks for growers who “are creative and committed to their own styles,” Weygandt says, “although I may make a few suggestions,” a common practice among importers trying to explain the peculiarities of the American palate. “These are good people who put a lot of themselves into their wines—and it should be noticeable in the quality and the nuances,” he says.
The U.S. side of the business is equally demanding. “Culturally, most small winegrowers in France don’t travel that much,” Weygandt says, “so I seldom bring them to the U.S.” Instead, he travels for them—as their man in America—who visits with distributors and retailers, often being asked to speak at an in-store tasting or at a wine dinner. “I like consumer events,” he says, “a necessary part of the business I enjoy.”
When Weygandt is home, he works in a two-room office with a great view of the Chester County countryside. It’s perched above an old garage a few steps away from the house he purchased in 1982. Wine shipments are stored elsewhere. He likes to cook—”but I don’t get carried away”—mostly traditional fare “with as few ingredients as possible.”
Of course, he drinks wine with dinner. “My first great wine was a Burgundy,” he says. “I love continental wines in general—the acidity, complexity, the balance.” For whites, he is partial to Gruner Veltliners from Austria, a country that has been a more recent addition to his portfolio.
But, after a few days back, Weygandt is planning his next trip, maybe this time with stops in Spain and Italy. And maybe more than 100 producers aren’t enough. And occasionally someone is dropped, retires, or is lured away to a larger importer, now that Weygandt has made them known in America.
“To me,” Weygandt explains, “it’s more about the hunt—finding that great winemaker who hasn’t been discovered.”