Maverick wine importer Doug Skopp (above) and his Houston-based Dionysus wine distribution company first came to my attention via our mutual friend and Houston Chronicle sports and wine writer, Dale Robertson.
"You've got to meet Doug," Dale kept saying to me. "He's the guy bringing in the Barberas you like so much." (Last month I wrote about the case of the family-run Trinchero estate in Piedmont, producer of one of my favorite Barberas and victim of "big" wine injustice: Wine industry behemoth Sutter Home recently forced the Trincheros to remove their family name from their labels under threat of trademark litigation. Doug is their Texas importer.)
Of course, I had already seen Doug's company's name on the back label of many of my favorite bottles here in Houston: He is the exclusive distributor of Rosenthal Wine Merchant, one of our nation's leading proponents and supporters of family-run European estates that embrace chemical-free farming and unmanipulated wines.
"About 50 percent of my business is Rosenthal wines," said Doug when he and I sat down in his office earlier this week. The rest are wines -- like the Trinchero -- that he has sourced personally.
"All of my producers are family-run estates," he told me proudly, "and I know the family at every one of my producers. I know their children and in some cases, I even know the names of their animals."
"I don't go for fruit bombs, I don't go for overly oaked wines. I want wines that go with food," he explained as he preached to my choir.
The story of how Doug came to the world of sincere wine is not an unfamiliar one. Like many in his generation of wine professionals, he abandoned a lucrative career in the corporate world (he was a rocket scientist) after becoming disillusioned with its trappings. An unplanned, extended stay in rural France in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy in 2001 opened his eyes to the wonders of artisanal winemaking and he never looked back.
"It was then," he recounted, leaning on an epiphanic trope not uncommon in the wine world, "that I decided I wanted to work in wine. I came back to Texas and incorporated my company, Dionysus."
As Houston wine legend Bear Dalton wrote in his newsletter ("Who is that masked man?") a few years ago, Doug was "a one-man show, traveling to France to visit producers and select wines and traveling between restaurants and shops in Texas to present and sell his selections. He was president and CEO, but he was also salesman."
And this is what has really impressed me about Doug and his operation. There are plenty of folks who decide they want to work in wine after emerging from a midlife crisis.
But in Texas, where the two big wine distributors -- Republic and Glazer's -- have done everything they can to stop independent distributors like Doug from thriving, he's managed to run a successful business and give us some of the world's most groovy wines against all odds.
Here's the thing. In Texas, unlike New York and California (which belong to the 21st century), you have to have your own warehouse and fulfillment network in order to obtain a license to distribute wine. This requirement -- which neatly hands the two big distributors a virtual monopoly on wine sales in our state -- creates an often insurmountable conundrum for would-be wine wholesalers: Either invest the millions of dollars needed to build temperature-controlled storage and statewide fulfillment or do it all yourself.
I've been told that the TABC often discourages new applicants from starting their companies. "The big distributors will just steal your successful brands away from you," said one small distributor, referring to his initial conversation with a TABC agent, who advised him not to apply.
Today, Doug's company is "healthy," he said, "with 11 employees, including part-time," covering Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.
But he built it all with his own two hands, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.
"When I first started out," he remembered, "restaurants and wine shops were accustomed to only buying from the big distributors. And they weren't interested in the small producers from Southern France, and then later Burgundy, that I was bringing in."
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Today, Doug sells some of my all-time favorite wines, from the incredible Rosenthal book -- think Bea (Umbria) and Ferrando (Piedmont), Cuilleron (Rhône) and Puffeney (Jura), just to name a few icons -- to the wonderful Trinchero Barbera, a wine that I truly cherish.
I, for one, thank goodness for Doug and the goodness that he delivers...