When we buy imported wines, we have an ally: the importer’s name on the label. It might be a company, it might be an individual. But when you find an imported wine you like, read the label and remember who imports it. Next time you’re in a store, look for that name on other wines. Chances are, you will find a palate in tune with your own.
The first importer to become an American wine star might have been Kermit Lynch, who turned his Berkeley, Calif., store into a national market with his 1988 book, “Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France.” (Still a good read, the book was reissued in 2013 as a 25th anniversary edition.) Other importers with national prominence include Leonardo LoCascio (recently retired) of Winebow, Monsieur Touton Selections and Jorge Ordonez. Robert Kacher Selections started locally, then grew to national prominence. The vinoscenti know to look for German, Austrian or Champagne wines with Terry Theise’s name on the label, or Burgundy and champagne from Becky Wasserman Selections. (Theise and Wasserman technically are brokers who work through importers, but their names on the labels are recognizable symbols of quality.)
Another name to look for is Franck, with a “C,” as in Franck’s Signature Wines. The name behind the label belongs to Franck Agostini, who founded his company, Promex Wines, in Bordeaux in 1992 and now has offices in Annapolis and Fairfax. (Agostini lives in Annapolis and travels to France several times each year.) His wines are distributed in 10 states and recently became available again in the District, Maryland and Virginia after a brief interregnum.
Agostini, 48, never slows down. Whether he’s opening and pouring wine or just talking about it, he is a human whirlwind who seems to have triple-strength espresso coursing through his veins. He swirls wine in his glass as though the fate of the world depends on it.
He focuses that energy on a portfolio of wines of quality and value, produced by family-owned wineries throughout France. “I look for small-to-medium-size wineries or growers who do everything, from viticulture to vinification and aging, all at the estate,” he says. “At a minimum, they should be Terra Vitis” — a French certification for sustainable, environmentally friendly viticulture — “or certified organic.”
Agostini, who represents 45 wineries, says he’ll study a winery for three to five years before adding it to his portfolio: “I need to see, smell and understand the terroir, taste a few vintages to be sure the quality is consistent, and feel the producer’s talent and terroir expression.”
Agostini grew up in southwestern France and confesses to a preference for Bordeaux as his favorite region. Château Franc Lartigue, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, has been in his portfolio for more than two decades. But he also is strong in wines from the Loire Valley, including a terrific sparkling wine from Château de L’Aulée and delicious sauvignon blancs from Domaine Cédrick Bardin. In recent years, he has been expanding his presence in the Rhone and southern France.
Agostini prefers wines with lively acidity and mineral quality in whites, bright but not jammy fruit flavors. There’s at least one exception: Aureto, a producer in Ventoux, a region in the southern Rhone Valley known for drinkable, good-quality, affordable quaffs, offers wines of power and extraction, delicious expressions of southern France, where grenache, syrah and carignan blend into a Mediterranean vacation in a glass.
He’s not shy about giving his producers advice on blending or styling their wines. “I keep reminding them, people drink their wines within a few days of purchasing them. They shouldn’t be making wines that are tough to figure out. I tell them to make wines that are accessible.”
Like many small importers, Agostini has wrestled with the U.S. wine distribution system. He recently switched from a large regional distributor to a smaller company that specializes in boutique wines.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s hard for sales reps at large companies to focus on smaller-production wines,” Agostini says. “Our wines became too niche for them.” He says the switch has helped make his wines available in more stores, especially in Maryland.