Chewing the Fat
From the Big Guys to Pint Size
New Mexico wine purveyor Dan Murray quits the corporate life to take a big chance
By Gwyneth Doland
Dan Murray, a successful salesman for large and powerful wine distributors, has been a familiar figure in New Mexico's wine business for a decade. But now Murray has quit his corporate gig and, with a small group of investors, bought a small Santa Fe company called Boutique Wines. Last week we chatted about wine, working for The Man and the transition to working for yourself.
You've just become your own boss, haven't you?
Some of our readers may be familiar with your name because for some time, a few years back, we worked together on a tasting panel that would review wines for La Cocinita magazine. We would meet up at a restaurant, drink a bunch of wine and talk about it.
Man, that was great, wasn't it?
Yeah, it was, but now people think all I do is go out to fabulous restaurants, drink wine and spend a few minutes writing about it. In fact, I spend most of my day cooped up in a little office, eating cold take-out and tap-tapping on my computer. I would imagine people think your job is a lot like our tasting panels, going to the finest restaurants and sipping champagne all afternoon. How do you spend your days?
It's kind of like what you just said. There's a certain amount of office time that I have to put in. I used to be the guy out there, taking incredible wines to Artichoke Café and saying to Stu [the wine buyer], "You've got to taste this wine." Now, I'm dealing with the wineries, going "Hey, you're this huge celebrity winemaker and I'm this little guy here in New Mexico and hey, can I get your wine for this marketplace?" And they say they've got five cases of wine they can give me. Sixty bottles of wine? That's nothing. It's incredibly hard to make any money on that. So I'm in this position of, "Do I take the crumbs that they're handing to me?" And yeah, I do, because it's great wine.
The great thing about Boutique is that I can do small things like that. What I can't do is deal with big companies who say, ’Yeah, we'd love to sell you our wine, but you have to sell 500 cases of it.' I can't do that. ... All that really takes away from the idea that wine is an agricultural product ... like fried green tomatoes or fresh roasted green chile. So much of that is lost in our business because people are so busy pushing cases. You know, "How many boxes are you going to move this year?" Boxes? I'm not moving boxes. I'm going to turn someone on to a great Barbera d'Asti.
You used to work for one of the country's largest wine and spirits distributors. Now you work at one of the smallest. What's that transition been like for you?
It's always scary to take that step. ... I had the big paycheck and the expense account and the great health insurance and I knew I was going to give it all up to work for myself and go without insurance. It was scary, but once I did it I wanted to keep doing it because the feeling is so great.
You and a group of local investors bought Boutique from its former owners. Who were they?
It was owned by two millionaires in Arizona who had a Boutique in Scottsdale. On a whim they said they'd open one up in Santa Fe because they had a vacation home here and why not? Well, you can do whatever you want on a whim, but after a certain point you say you only want to lose so much money. I've been selling wine in New Mexico for over nine years and I've built up a real base here. So what we did, buying this company, was we took away the weak link, these two guys in Arizona who would call up and say, "How are sales?"
Who are your investors now, are you able to talk about them or are they secret?
The great thing is they're not secret. My partner, who does the operations side, is Aaron DeVault.
Oh, Aaron was with Boutique before, wasn't he?
Yeah, that's right. Actually, he brought the deal to me. He said, "I can make sure the wine gets on the truck and you can sell it." The other 50 percent is owned by a lawyer, a retired doctor, another lawyer, a couple who owns some real estate—people who love wine but are so excited about it that they wanted to be a part of the business.
Wasn't Aaron doing sales?
He said to me, basically, I suck as a salesperson and I'm really not good at managing people. He was also managing a sales staff but he said, if I'm not a great salesperson, how am I supposed to help them become great salespeople?
Now you are a people person, Dan.
Well, some of the salespeople who have worked for me have said, ’Dan, you really helped me a lot.' So I figure, yeah, I can do it.
Take the two big distributors. National [Distributing] does something like $94 million in gross sales. Southern [Wines and Spirits] does about the same. Last year, Boutique did $1.1 million. There's a big gap between what this company does and between what they do. They employ more than a hundred people each. Boutique was a one man operation that slowly built to a six person operation. Now we're 10 because we added some sales people and another driver—I'm going down to pick up our new truck tomorrow. But sales here are up 45 percent since we took over in August.
The company must have had a niche, a particular strength in the wine industry, otherwise it never could have survived among the two huge distributors that dominate the wine business here. What has Boutique's specialty been?
We really focus on handmade wines made from handselected fruit, made mostly at family-owned or coop-owned wineries. We look to make sure they're of high quality and that they have the right quality to price ratio. We sell one cabernet that retails for $100 and people would say that's expensive. But if you look at it, taste it and compare it to the $165 you'd pay for Opus One [a very famous Cabernet blend], you'd say this wine is great. It's better than Opus and it'll cost you less. On the low end we sell a wine called Castle Rock. ... It's a Napa cabernet that's on the shelves for $9.99. People are getting Napa quality wine for a great price. Everything else in that price range is from California—not particularly Napa. You don't get the same flavors in a non-Napa wine. That's really exciting to us.
Do Boutique's offerings correlate to your own personal taste or are you looking to eventually expand or change Boutique's focus?
Well, when I was at National [Distributing] I wanted to get a wine from the Priorat region of Spain. When I was working for Winebow in New York City we had a bunch of them. Priorat is in the mountains north of Barcelona where they grow old-vine Garanacha—that's the Spanish Grenache—Cinsault and Carignan. You can get Grenache up there that's from vines that are over 100 years old. When I think of Grenache wines, I think bubble gum and fruit. But these old vines, the first time I tasted [wines made from them] I couldn't believe it. It's like cabernet sauvignon but with more fruit.
I fell in love with them and when I came out here I tried to get [National] to bring some in but they said I wouldn't be able to sell them. Now I'm working with Alvaro Palacios. His premier wine is $250 and they're sold out this year and we'll probably only get two or three bottles of the next vintage. But we sell all tiers of wines from Priorat now. People up here [in Santa Fe] are in love with them. We can't keep them in stock.
So you're loving it.
It feels so great to be out of the corporate machine. You know Wal-Mart's redoing the liquor sections in all their stores in the next few years and that'll be one more chink in the armor. All of a sudden, local wine shops and restaurants will be struggling and then what do we have? Then we're all buying [jug wine] at Wal-Mart.
It's a challenge being David in the David and Goliath story. I really didn't realize how small the small guys were. There's a huge difference. We don't sell any wines at Raley's or Albertson's or Costco. ... We live and die with Quarters, Jubilation, Geronimo and Artichoke [Café]. ...
Hopefully you live.
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