Rusty Pape Fosters Growth at Prestige Wine Imports

Personal drive and competitiveness have guided Pape from his early days.
Rusty Pape of Prestige Wine Imports

Rusty Pape knows the import business from the ground up–literally. The senior vice president of Prestige Wine Imports has been in the business since he was a teenager. His family owned an import and distribution business in Chicago.

“They day after I finished college, I walked into the office and was presented with a broom,” by his father, Pape recalled. “I was the low-man on the totem pole. Did everything from warehouse cleanup to helper on the truck to driving a truck until I moved inside to sales.”

He learned compliance from his mother, who handled the back-office operations. “I had an opportunity to learn all the areas of this business. I knew what it was to take an order and make a mistake and how a delivery could be missed…I worked a fork lift and I knew the ins and outs of the warehouse. And that left me with confidence that when I was with other people I knew what it took to the job because I had done that job.”

Pape attributes much of his success to his parents. “They instilled in me the drive to succeed and win and compete as a young boy. I was brought up to compete. I was a high school and college athlete…And sales is a competition.”

He started in sales in 1980 working the streets of Chicago, which eventually led to a fine wines manager position in 1989. Two years later, he found an opportunity with Gruppo Mezzacorona and took a job as the regional Midwest sales manager for their newly formed U.S. subsidiary Prestige Wine Imports.

Building Relationships Builds Growth

Gruppo Mezzacorona is a large wine producer, made up of 1,600 families. “They’re the grower. They’re the bottler. They control their sales. They own Prestige Wine Imports 100 percent. And that’s their strategy around the globe,” Pape says. “What sets them apart is that no matter the size of the holdings, whether it’s one acre or 1,000 acres, everyone gets one vote.”

When he joined New York-based Prestige Wine Imports the company was selling 100,000 cases per year from its portfolio of Italian wines. Today, it sells more than 1.2 million cases. Some of the growth can be attributed to the increasing market for wine, some of it to what would become a Pinot Grigio trend, but more of it is about building relationships.

The key to the company’s growth has been distribution. Pape started with small, local distributors and then slowly grew to state-wide distributors as he proceeded to build sales in Wisconsin, Kansas and the rest of Midwest. Now, the company has a national distributor with Southern-Glazer’s carrying its portfolio to 27 states.

Another important part of business growth “is getting the right people. There are over 40 of us in North America who through hard work have built the company,” he said.

Confidence In Brand And Industry

At the 2017 Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association gathering, while presenting Mezza di Mezzacorona in a “Battle of the Brands” contest, Pape recalled a meeting with a buyer in which he was trying to get the man to try the sparkler. “I was trained not to accept the first ‘No,’ nor the second, either, or the third,” he said.

“Well, the man had a daughter who is 25, a millennial. He took a picture of the bottle and sent it to his daughter on his phone with the question: ‘Would you buy this?’ No tasting involved. She said, ‘Absolutely.’ That did it.”

Asked to predict what the next five years hold for the wine business, Pape said, “This is a really, vibrant, competitive industry. It is an industry that is evolving through consolidation and I think that will continue. I think there may be another large consolidation at the distribution level. But I think the industry is strong and going to continue to get stronger.”


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Published on October 6, 2017
Topics: A Day In The Life
About the Author
Leslie Gevirtz
Contributing Editor, Business

An award-winning journalist, Gevirtz spent more than 20 years covering disasters—natural, political, and financial—before becoming Reuters’ wine correspondent; a beat that guaranteed her colleagues were always glad to see her.



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