Spanish touchstone

Olé Imports, founded by a student with no wine experience, is changing the way American consumers approach Spain. Jeff Siegel reports.

Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte of Olé Imports
Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte of Olé Imports

The story of Olé Imports, which has played a key role in Spanish wine’s growth in the US, starts with an underage college student sneaking into a hospitality class at a university that he didn’t attend.

Who knew that moment would lead to a company that, two decades later, imports 200,000 cases a year, does business in all 50 states, represents 70 producers from Spain and Portugal, and has started wholesaling its wines in three key northeastern states?

“Consumers don’t usually know the wines they drink, so they certainly don’t know the importers,” says Michael Quinlan, the wine sales manager at Table & Vine, a gourmet wine and food retailer with seven locations in New England. “But if you’re looking for the touchstones of Spanish wine, the way Kermit Lynch and Terry Theise are for French wine, then Olé, with Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte, is one of the two touchstones.”

Mata oversees sales and marketing in the US, while Orte makes wine for Olé and works with their winery clients in Spain. The duo and their company have focused their portfolio on wine that retails between $15.00 and $25.00 – a sweet spot, says Mata, that other regions, including and especially France and California, have abandoned in favour of higher-priced wine. In doing this, Olé doesn’t look for producers to flesh out its portfolio so it has a little bit of everything from everywhere; rather, it looks for wines that are unique, terroir-driven and that emphasise value.    

“This isn’t what most importers do,” says Mata, his native Malaga remains a part of his accent even after almost 20 years in the US. “And we know that and we try to do that. We want artisanal wines with a sense of place that are tremendous value. We don’t want the commercial brands that everyone else wants.”

A new approach

Everyone knows the problems Spanish wine has in the US market – that it’s impossible to sell at higher prices; that consumers will only buy wines from the best-known regions, like Rioja and Ribera del Deuro; and that small Spanish producers don’t have a chance of competing against the country’s multi-national wineries. 

Mata says he stopped paying attention to that stuff years ago.

“Quality is not the issue it was 20 years ago,” he says, “and there are no dirty wines any more. Today, it’s a branding issue, because the big retailers don’t know enough about the region to sell it.”

This attitude should be not be surprising. This is the same man who, as a 19-year-old college student in Miami, wanted to bring Spanish wines into the US even though he didn’t know anything about the import process – let alone the extremely complicated US process of the three-tier system, label approvals, and licenses. Plus, he wasn’t old enough to own an import company and really didn’t have any wines to sell. 

“But I was fascinated by the idea of making wine my life’s work,” says Mata, whose family had once owned a winery in Malaga in southern Spain. “And I wanted to continue that sense of family, to show people in the US what Spain could be.”

Around the year 2000, when he was still a student, Mata solved those problems. He met Orte, who sourced 400 cases of wine for the US market. He attended a beverage management class at Florida International University – he wasn’t enrolled as a student there, but he turned up to class so he could meet the instructor. That was Patrick ‘Chip’ Cassidy, known then and now as a top regional retailer and the man that the Miami Herald has called “the go-to guy for wine in south Florida”. Cassidy tasted Orte’s wines, liked them, and helped Mata find a distributor, Iberia Wines. 

Those 400 cases turned into Olé Imports.

“Patrick is very honest and easy to deal with,” says Todd Weilar, a long-time Olé customer who owns two wine shops in the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. “And sometimes, that’s hard to find with importers. But Patrick has always been straightforward with me, and I trust him. When he says to me, ‘Todd, you should buy this wine,’ I always do. And he has never steered me wrong.”

Reinventing Spain

The next step was to find Spanish wines to import that weren’t the brands – probably fewer than a dozen – that dominated the US market. In those days, the handful of Spanish wines available were usually cheap, more likely to be sold in grocery stores than fine wine shops, and leaned heavily towards red blends made with Tempranillo.

“We knew we could find artisanal wines of more quality at a better price,” says Mata. “There were hundreds and hundreds of young winemakers in Spain who were making incredible wines that no one knew about in regions that no one was familiar with. There were lots of new wines that were super interesting.”

Two of the first Olé wines that were part of that process were the Cortijo, a $6.99 Rioja, and the La Cartuja, a $17.00 Priorat. In each case, says Mata, the wine offered better quality than what was generally available and cost less than its competitors.

“Part of their whole mission are those sorts of wines,” says Angélica Intriago, who owns DeSpana in Manhattan, a tapas restaurant that has a fine wine and spirits shop next door. “These are great quality wines, but they are also value driven, where comparable wines can be twice the price. That’s why, once they get into the market, they do so nicely. You’re getting great wine for less than $20.00.”

The catch, of course, is getting into the market. That’s one of the biggest obstacles facing companies like Olé, which don’t rely on name brands: “With the big retailers and distributors, they’re convinced by numbers,” Mata says. “It’s not the story that sells them. If the wines sell well, then they’ll believe the story.”

So Olé’s wines must be targeted to independents, who are interested in the story. This is the most common sales approaches in the wine business, where even the most mass-produced wines are said to have unique stories. In Olé’s case, though, there are genuine stories behind the wines.

“The wines are what they are,” says Mata, “and they’re not supposed to be the same. They’re like people you meet, where everyone is different, and where you talk to one person differently than you do another person. What the wines are about flows from that. We don’t want them to all taste the same. That would be very boring.”

That philosophy is something that retailers like Quinlan appreciate. “As I’ve watched Olé evolve, they’ve been much less concerned with having a broad portfolio,” he says, “but more concerned with not only value, but with what’s not typical. They have a Jumilla not because they’re supposed to have a Jumilla, but because they can identify great wines to sell that come from Jumilla.”

Hence the Olé portfolio, which features not only the Cortijo, but also the $10.00 Dacu, a single-vineyard Tempranillo from Ribera del Guadiana in southwestern Spain next to the Portuguese border, as well as the Barahonda Sin Madera, an organic Monastrell from Yecla that retails for around $12.00. Or, just in case those wines seemed too common, there is the $20.00 Berroia Txakoli from the Basque region of northern Spain, a slightly spritzy white made with the Hondarribi Zuri grape.

“These are special wines that are still a value,” says Weilar, whose two stores sell about 3,000 cases of Spanish wine a year, at an average of $17.00 a bottle. “They cut out the chaff, and bring in really solid wines.”

Marketing to the next generation

Spain’s growth in quality, value and popularity has many parallels from the past two decades. Mata points to Australia, Chile, and Argentina, but with one caveat: “They had growth, but also disruption,” and that disruption came when growth faltered on pricing – too much high-end wine in the former’s case, and too much cheap wine for the last two. Olé’s founders see a more profitable middle ground: “Spain can fill the spot where France was 20 years ago, and Spain is very strong in $15.00 to $20.00. That category is our sweet spot. We can fill that spot that France and California don’t want to do any more.”

But Mata understands that great wine that offers fine value does not make a successful business.  Hence, the company’s other emphasis, consumer education – something else that other importers make noises about but rarely do effectively.

“Education? They do, they do,” says Intriago, who points to the Olé back label – which many conventional wine brands fill with a mess of wine jargon and marketing puffery – as one of the keys to the process. Each wine has a map of where it’s from, along with intelligent tasting notes minus the jargon, and food pairings. Intriago says she has seen her customers look at the map and then “they get it, and you can see the click, and they remember about the wine”.

Finally, Mata and Orte understand their market. It isn’t aging Baby Boomers who want the same high-powered and high-scoring French and California wines they’ve been drinking for decades, but the next two younger generations, Gen X and the Millennials. These demographics, says Mata, are more willing to try wine from other regions, don’t necessarily equate high prices with high quality, and don’t feel compelled to drink Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay all the time the way their parents and grandparents do. In this, says Mata, sommeliers and even wine media have paved the way for Olé’s kinds of wine.

Quinlan says he has seen the same thing: “The wine world, and not just consumers, is more open now than ever. The trade is more open to recommend these kinds of wines because they know the audience for these wines is bigger than ever. They know there is an audience that wants great quality wines but doesn’t want to spend $25.00 or $40.00 for them.”

And that’s what Olé Imports has done so well for so long.



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