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 V.18 No.48 | November 26 - December 2, 2009 

Feature

The Importer

Spanish wine importer Ray Vigil has gone far, but his local roots run deep

Ray Vigil
Ray Vigil

You can’t help but notice Ray Vigil’s intense energy. His mind and body are always in motion, but his most noticeable characteristic is his positive outlook and contagious sense of possibility. When discussing his two favorite topics—cooking and wine—the Vin Iberian Wines founder becomes almost childlike in his enthusiasm. Speaking with him, you realize it’s his passion for these two hobbies, and not profit, that led him to his career as an importer of Spanish wines.

Five years ago, Vigil was working as a partner and general manager of Scarpas restaurants. Bored and tired from two years without a day off, Vigil hopped on a plane to the village of Lagos, on Portugal’s gorgeous southern coast. He lived on fresh bass and sardines cooked on the beach, washing them down with Portuguese wines. He also rented a car and took a trip through the back roads of Spain, unknowingly headed for a meeting with destiny. The adventurous New Mexican ended up in Pamplona. It was there, while browsing bottles in a wine shop, that he had an epiphany: Why not import wine to the U.S.?

“Immediately after this realization, I boarded a plane for home and scheduled an appointment with a lawyer for incorporation. I sold my house and, with the equity and some savings, I went back to Spain for six months to realize my dream,” Vigil tells the Alibi. “I drove throughout Spain, since I wanted to represent wines from all the major regions. I turned in one rental car with 28,000 kilometers. I tasted over 3,000 wines and ended up with 25, which make up the portfolio of my company, Vin Iberian Wines.”

Today, Vigil’s company is thriving. The key to his success has been an incredible shift in the market toward less expensive wines. With the downturn in the economy, the market for pricey, high-end bottles crashed. People began looking for quality values. Suddenly, Spanish wines were hot and, almost overnight, they became the fastest growing segment in the wine industry.

How difficult was getting the company started?

The logistics are nightmarish. I had to sit on my investment for awhile. I rented a warehouse in Sonoma because I knew that all the major wineries truck out of there. It took a year to get the licensing in order. I had to pass FBI and State of California background checks, as well as get an importer’s license. I arranged for shipments of wines from Spain, which take six weeks to travel from Barcelona to Oakland. They then had to be trucked to Sonoma, and in the meantime I had no distribution.

Your family goes way back in New Mexico.

I was born in Grants, went to Mitchell Elementary, Hoover junior high and Eldorado High School. My parents live in Albuquerque and my great, great grandfather was Donaciano Vigil, the governor of New Mexico [in 1847]. So yes, I am a local boy.

How did you choose your wines?

As I traveled through Spain, I looked for wines whose flavor profile maintained a sense of place and which were made with a combination of rustic and modern winemaking techniques. I wanted wines in which you can taste the soil made by winemakers connected to the earth. I was very methodical in choosing. I am a purist in my taste. I did not pay a marketing firm to help me decide; I went with what I loved. Nearly all my wines are biodynamic, made by small family estates with limited production, whose only way to survive is to care for their land.

“When I visit, the grandmother makes me prune vines and rake because she believes I, too, need to be connected to the land.”

Like who?

I sell an Albariño from a small family vineyard in Rías Baixas. The grandmother tends the vines, the daughter makes the wine and the niece handles exports. When I visit, the grandmother makes me prune vines and rake because she believes I, too, need to be connected to the land.

What are some of the other names in Vin Iberian Wines’ portfolio?

Some of my brands are Palacio Quemado, Señorio de Cruces, Alius Tinto/Blanco, Maius, Requiem, Torreblanca Brut and Brut Rose ... I also import an olive oil called Tritium.

Are they selling in New Mexico?

My New Mexico market is up 75 percent this year. Restaurants Amavi and Boca are huge supporters of mine, as well as Susan’s Fine Wines and Kokoman [in Santa Fe]. The Quarters wine shops do an incredible job with my portfolio [in Albuquerque].

Is this a job you’d recommend to others?

Of course, although importing is a risky proposition. The market is down and it’s tough getting started, but there are many undiscovered wineries and regions out there. I’m not getting rich but have the richest life anyone could dream of. It’s all about sharing what I love and making a decent living. I show my wines at some of the best restaurants in the world and have wines in places I’d never dreamt that I’d be welcome in. Next month I fly to Spain, followed by trips to Italy, New Zealand and Argentina, looking for more and better wines to add to my portfolio. Best of all, I always get to come home to Albuquerque. Hell, I’m living the dream.

 

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