By Bob Barnes
“Paolo Domeneghetti, a native of Italy, grew up in the wine business and has an extensive experience in the restaurant and wine & spirits industry, spanning a period of more than two decades of progressive and successful experience in marketing, sales, management and ownership. In 1999 he put that experience to good use, as he and his wife Allison founded Domaine Select Wine Estates, a company dedicated to wines and artisanal spirits of the highest quality and which demonstrate excellence and tremendous character, particular to their origin. In 2010 the company’s accomplishments were recognized as it was named Food and Wine magazine’s Importers of the Year. We sat down with Paolo to learn of the path to his success and of his mission to bring diversity, expression, character and tradition to the beverage industry.
You grew up in Italy. Tell us about your upbringing and what led to you devoting your career to fine wines and spirits.
I was born in Venice and am the third generation in the wine distribution business. My grandparents produced and distributed wine in Venice and my father opened a distribution company in a new region in Ancona, Italy. So I grew up in the business and it was a tradition of my family.
What led to you moving to the United States in 1992?
After graduating from university I was going to help my family run business, but decided to first take a one year break to visit friends I had met when vacationing in U.S. when I was 17, and wanted to explore opportunities for new ways to do business in Italy, such as using new technologies. Terrific opportunities came about allowing me to stay in the U.S. and I went on to open a few restaurants on the West Coast and became partner in various restaurant projects in New York and in Miami, where I met my wife. At the time she was in the art business but loved the wine industry so I was able to convince her to get into the wine business with me. We moved from Miami to New York in 1996 and married a year later. So my life changed direction instead of returning home and my family wasn’t too happy about their youngest son going away and not returning, but they understood and supported my decision.
What motivated you in 1999 to found Domaine Select Wine & Spirits (DSWS) with your wife Allison, and what were the goals you set out to accomplish?
We worked with other companies and learned the business in New York and what people liked, to determine our own path forward. When we decided to open our own business we wanted to create a company that was out-of-the-box, for at that time most of the wineries and spirits were similar, with heavy oak, a lot of rich wines and more modern in style. It became our mission to do the opposite, to create a portfolio that represented diversity and character, going against the current so that we can highlight producers that had uniqueness, with more personality and from different parts of the world.
What were some of the first brands that you landed that you were most happy about carrying in your portfolio?
The first were a group of Italian brands from the Piedmonte region, including Borgogno. Then came some French wines with whom I had built a relationship with during my time in the restaurant business. Our idea was to focus on high quality estate wineries. We looked for suppliers who were doing something with more personality, who were artisans, and with a tradition of the land they were coming from.
What are some examples of products in your company’s portfolio that you are most proud of?
They are like my kids, so to ask which one you love more, is hard to say as they are all special. Several brands that stand out include COS, Movia, Jmaet, Ogier, Borgogno, Poggio di Sotto, Claude Dugat, Leclapart, Henri Giraud, Boillot, PJ Kuhn and Remirez de Ganuza, and additionally we have built several propriety brands such as Primaterra, La Maialina, QuattroMani and CDR that have become very important to us. Our spirits divison Classic & Vintage has been very successful in identifying, nurturing and building brands including Hudson Spirits and Averna (both brands later sold), Whistle Pig, Diplomatico, Lucano, Paul John and Varnelli, which continue to thrive and grow at dynamic rates.
You have extensive experience in the wine and spirits and restaurant industries paired with in-depth relationships you’ve developed through extensive worldwide travel. How have these experiences aided you in guiding your company?
Traveling for me is so important to learn about supply and the producers, to see other markets, other importers and understand where market is going and provide a broader perspective.
What criteria do you use in selecting the wine and spirits you import?
It’s still the same as day one. The four pillars are: diversity, character, expression and tradition. We look at marketability for the product and determine if the price/category will work in the U.S. and also at packaging and presentation.
How many producers do you currently have and from what countries do they come from?
We currently have about 100 wine suppliers and 20 spirits, which are mostly from Europe, but also New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Philippines, Japan, Mexico and the US.
In 2010 you were named Food and Wine Magazine’s Importer of the Year. Why do you think your company was chosen to receive this honor?
I believe we were chosen because of the quality we represent, with great producers and the integrity they have, and for the way our company always presents out-of-the-box, trying to have a different approach from other companies from a market point of view. And, we built relationships in the market with the best sommeliers and mixologists and through them we built relationships with the consumer.
We are very honored to have just recently earned a place among Wine and Spirits Magazine Top Importers of 2016 and we have been nominated for Importer of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
If you could educate the American consumer about fine wine and spirits, which aspects would you most like to convey?
The most important thing is with so many wines around the world, to understand honesty in wine and spirits and to learn the importance of the tradition and background of the products.
What does the future hold for Domaine Select Wine & Spirits and what would you like to see your company accomplish in the coming years?
We are in development with our Classic & Vintage spirits portfolio with new brands joining in 2017, and the integration of Robert Kacher Selections, a French portfolio which we assumed at the beginning of the year, has been very exciting. The business is always a work in process and our next steps are dealing with the environment of ever-technology and the expansion of our distribution at the local level, appealing to the consumer with honest wines, celebrating tradition and tons of history.
What are some of your favorite wines and spirits that you enjoy drinking?
I love champagne (and can drink it anytime), high quality rum to sip and enjoy sake with sushi and fish.
When you are not hard at work running your company, what do you and your wife Allison enjoy doing?
We spend lot of time with our four kids: our oldest Frederica (16), twin boys Matteo and Michele (12) and our little one Martina (4). We have a beautiful lifestyle at our home in Scarsdale, NY. We like to entertain and enjoy having our kids’ friends and our friends over for lunch and dinners. We try to spend time with the family in Europe every year to expose our kids to culture and tradition that are such an important part of our lives.”