Victor Owen Schwartz, a New York-based wine and spirits importer, is among the lucky people who found success by following their joy. In the 31 years since he founded VOS Selections, the business has grown from a one-man operation to having a couple of dozen employees. It also grew from just a couple of stock keeping units (SKU) from France to more than 800 SKUs from wineries and distilleries on six continents, and grossing eight figures annually.
Schwartz graduated from college in the ’80s and went into commercial banking, but this New Jersey native’s first love was food and wine.
“I was a pretty good cook. I could follow a recipe, but I didn’t have that magic you need to be a professional chef. On the other hand, I was really good at matching wines to food.”
His parents, especially his mother, introduced him to good wine. They would visit Sokolin, one of New York’s fine wine merchants “to get her classified growth Bordeaux, back in the day when you didn’t have to break the bank for a bottle.”
He realized early on that he wasn’t happy in banking, but “it was a good introduction to business,” and came in handy later when he had to deal with financing, loans and hedging currencies.
So, he decided to “follow [my] joy.”
Like an oyster
Schwartz’s days start early.
“I’m dealing with suppliers in Europe and that’s when they’re up. These days, I’m getting a lot of harvest reports and I’m looking at those reports and pictures. There’s always pricing, and these days, the market is extremely interested in all aspects of production, and that’s an understatement,” Schwartz says. “We’re constantly talking about looking for natural wines, now more than ever.”
“My basic stance is to have honest wines. We’re going to convey all the information that we possibly can from our wineries and you can make the educated decision,” he says.
When he gets to his Midtown Manhattan office, he is in “either meetings with existing suppliers coming to town, or potential new suppliers who want to meet me. Being in New York City, everybody wants to see you.” Schwartz also spends time culling through dozens of daily emails from potential suppliers.
“I sometimes feel that being a New York importer, you’re a bit like an oyster. Oysters process gallons and gallons of water for nutrients. We sort of process gallons and gallons of emails to find the gem,” he says.
As for trying the samples that come in, Schwartz carves out time to taste with his managers, usually Friday afternoons. “It takes time to taste. You have to give the product respect. Someone worked very hard to make it, to ship it here, and you really have to put your mind to the region or the grape variety that you’re tasting.”
He also keeps a sharp eye on the finances, not just his, but his customers’ as well. New York State has a 30-day rule for wine and spirits retailers requiring all outstanding bills be paid within 30-days of delivery or the wholesaler is required to report them to the authority. The customers then find themselves on the COD delinquent list for failing to report.
“There are procedural things that many people in the business are not aware of and as an importer who distributes in state, we deal with all kinds of people,” he notes.
“We are in as much a service business as we are in a product business,” Schwartz says and for him. His customers can range from mom and pop shops to New York’s Sherry- Lehmann or chain stores like Total Beverage & More.
When the day’s meetings are done, he heads back to his emails where he will be handling suppliers on the West Coast, New Zealand as well as Japan for sakes. Often, he is working until 11 pm.
“I honestly think I’m never working hard enough,” Schwartz adds. “I really enjoy what I do.”