The wine business in Germany is steeped in traditions that are thousands of years old. Change is viewed as completely unnecessary.
So when Brent Wiest took over his father’s wine distribution business in the early 1990s, Rudi Wiest Selections, with the intention of expanding it far beyond its roots, he had to learn how to coax the owners of German vineyards and chateaus into the modern era.
“German labels up to that point had been very traditional, (with) gothic script,” Wiest said. “You put it on a wine shelf, no one’s going to buy it. It’s intimidating; they can’t pronounce it.”
At that time, there were no other companies building channels to import and sell Germany’s finer wines like Wiest was trying to do, so no one had ever gone to estate owners and tried to explain to them what they might have to do to get their product sold more broadly in the United States.
Most winemakers weren’t receptive to Wiest’s ideas.
“Their attitude was, ‘Well, Americans should learn to read German,’” Wiest said of the farmers. “I was like, ‘I don’t think you understand our culture.’”
Over time, Wiest said he was able to convert a few smaller vineyards to make some marketing changes, and when their sales took off, others followed suit. Now, Rudy Wiest Selections is the largest importer and distributor of German wine in the United States. While the San Marcos-based company only has 15 employees, their sales staff work all over the country.
Wiest was speaking to a group of business students at California State University, San Marcos, his own alma mater. Wiest explained to the students that in the wine industry, understanding the growers is essential.
“We describe (the winemakers) a lot as ‘artist farmer,’” Wiest said. “Artists aren’t always rational, they don’t think like business people, so it’s a lot more important to a winemaker that you understand their philosophies and are able to convey them to the market, and to your and their customers ultimately, than it is for your ability to come in an pay the bills.”
While it took Wiest years of flying to Germany and meeting with winemakers to develop a relationship of trust between his company and the growers, he said it’s paid off. A few years ago, a California wine giant tried to make headway into the German market, but Wiest said he thinks his company was able to stay in control because Mondavi tried to impress the growers more with money than an understanding of their needs and culture.
Wiest took over the company from his father, Rudi Wiest, who founded it in the late 1970s. The senior Wiest was originally from Germany, and used some contacts there to start the company.
When he decided to work for the company in his early 20s, Brent Wiest said he wanted to expand its size. He wanted to grow to it to at least a $5 million company, which he has since done, and then some. When his father ran the company, they sold about 2,000 cases of wine, now they sell about 90,000.
But he said that like the German farmers, his father initially bristled at a lot of his ideas, such as changing the marketing of the bottles, and giving guidelines to growers before the harvest so Rudi Wiest Selections can take a more proactive role in what wines are produced.
“(My father is) going to have his way of doing things, and I’m going to have mine, and if my son ever takes over, he’s going to have his way of doing it,” Wiest said. “It took both of us too long to figure out that the decisions that are being made are being made in the best interest of the business and they’re not being made just to slight the other person.”
Still, though he has used his stewardship to grow and modernize the company, Wiest told the San Marcos business students that keeping certain traditions alive has been vital to his success.
“Technology, finance, all these other things that can help a business aren’t everything,” he said. “The core idea, the core value of the business and understanding what it means to be successful are more important.”
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