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Girasole Imports is a boutique firm, specializing in the import of Italian wines to the United States. A story that tells some of the Italian wine excellence, carefully selected by Paula Barbarito Levitt and her husband Marc E. Levitt. “Under the Italian sun” is the quote that represents Paula and Marc.
Paula Barbarito Levitt, author of the popular food and travel blog La Bella Sorella, has a solid Italian background in the food and wine field, acquired by visiting every corner of Italy. Her dual citizenship (United States-Italy) allows her to better understand the limits and opportunities of both cultures, in order to be able to import tradition and innovation of small and medium Italian wine producers into the States. Paula organizes educational events also aimed at teaching the consumer about native Italian varieties. Marc brings his experience, gained in the world of international business to the company. Marc’s passion and knowledge of Italian wine grew out of numerous family trips to Italy over the years, fueling his love affair with the Italian people, food, culture and wine. Let’s find out more about this reality from Paula’s words.
When Girasole Imports was born, what were the difficulties you encountered at the beginning and what goals did you achieve?
The difficulties were two fold: first, starting a new business with all of the regulations that exist for importing and selling wine in California were daunting. The second difficulty was making sure we proceeded slowly with a solid foundation, and only then grew our business step by step. There are so many great regions, varieties, and producers in Italy and it was difficult to start with 10 producers and establish those brands, and then slowly grow to 15, then 20 and we are now 30+.
Compared to your beginnings, how has the demand for Italian wine evolved in the United States? Is there a greater knowledge on the part of your customers of Italian wines or do they trust exclusively your experience?
We have grown over the years so from our prospective demand for Girasole producers has increased, but it is difficult to determine if that demand is the result of new growth or people making a transition to Italian wines. Customer education and training wine store and restaurant staff is fundamental to us as they are the true sales people for the wines. We partner with retailers and hold tastings, virtual events in order to educate the end consumer. What we have seen through these efforts and with our portfolio is that the California consumer is getting more adventurous in their Italian selections. We have become a trusted name to many buyers and end customers. A Girasole Imports selection will mean a selection that you can trust to be representative of the people, place, family, and veriatal.
Are there wines more in demand than others, perhaps coming from specific Italian regions, or does the good name of Italian wine, regardless of the geographical area, still win?
Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti are still widely popular and important but people are now open to other regions such as Campania, Marche, Veneto, Liguria, Sicily, and Friuli. While most Californian consumers consider Italian wines to have a good reputation once they venture out beyond some of the more popular zones the consumer can become overwhelmed and confusion can set in. That is where the reputation of the importer can help and the education we provide to our customers (HoReCa) and the end customers. In California, due to the local wine culture we do find that consumers are more willing to experiment – perhaps Nebbiolo from Valtellina or whites from Matelica not the larger Jessi.
What factors influence the choice of the US consumer when buying Italian wines?
• Trust in who they are buying from – wine store, restaurant, waitstaff;
• Price • In some markets how it is made – vegan, biodynamic, organic, small producer, female run etc.
According to what qualitative criteria do you select the companies to be positioned within the US market?
How they fit in our portfolio in terms of overall provider to the California market. The producer must share the philosophy we have and embrace a personal relationship with Girasole as well. Of course, they must pass our taste panel of sommeliers and top clients. Finally, make sure that the selections can be competitive within the marketplace. There are many other top importers in California and even if our producers are the best many times one cannot be 50% more in price and expect to have any sales volume.
Pandemic: how has the wine export sector changed and what critical issues has it highlighted?
We were very fortunate in terms of weathering the pandemic and a lot of that had to do with one word – partnership. We hold dear the partnerships we have had with our producers and our HoReCa customer and that helped a lot. Having a diverse base of retail and restaurant clients was good as only restaurants were impacted for the first few months but retail sales picked up significantly as people were staying home and enjoying a bottle (or 2!) with a meal. We made a point of not missing any supplier payments as we know these families rely on export revenue especially during the pandemic as local restaurant sales dried up in Italy. I do think the pandemic has highlighted to many producers that if you do not have a true partnership, a caring relationship, with your importer, in times of stress, you may not be able to count on them. We have been contacted by a few producers that have realized this during the pandemic as they search for a new partner in the US market. Finally, we are still dealing with shipping issues for us in the West Coast and that has put a strain in terms of us needing to source a bit earlier and the producers to work with us and our logistics partners in getting shipment out of Italy to the awaiting customers in California.