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Entrepreneurial Oenophile

  • Rafael Flores, of Artisanal Cellars, fills an order of wine to be distributed that day at the company’s White River Junction warehouse. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Rafael Flores, of Artisanal Cellars, fills an order of wine to be distributed that day at the company’s White River Junction warehouse. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Adam DeSellier, of Quechee, selects several bottles of wine for a client’s order at Artisanal Cellars in White River last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Adam DeSellier, of Quechee, selects several bottles of wine for a client’s order at Artisanal Cellars in White River last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Miguel Flores, left, and his brother Rafael Flores collect invoices before filling orders. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Miguel Flores, left, and his brother Rafael Flores collect invoices before filling orders. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rafael Flores, of Artisanal Cellars, fills an order of wine to be distributed that day at the company’s White River Junction warehouse. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Adam DeSellier, of Quechee, selects several bottles of wine for a client’s order at Artisanal Cellars in White River last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Miguel Flores, left, and his brother Rafael Flores collect invoices before filling orders. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

White River Junction — Not far off of Old River Road, tucked in the back of a massive warehouse, there is a wine lovers dream.

Hundreds of cases of small-batch wines are stacked along the walls, boxes bearing the names of top-notch European, Latin American and U.S. winemakers, labels not found in most grocery stores or on the shelves with the big-production industrial brands, wines crafted from varietals of grapes that don’t instantly spring to mind.

In the center aisle, wooden racks cradle bottles of the best vintages, a case or so here and there of a certain year, maybe a vertical or two, all worthy of holding back, allowing them to mature in the perfect cool temperatures provided by the space.

“I had no idea six years ago when we started this that we’d have reached this level with all this wine stored in here. I still find it really exciting,” said Rafael Flores, explaining last week how he has the warehouse arranged by countries, in a way, somewhat like a 19th century map of Europe with Austria occupying the largest space, overshadowing the smaller number of cases from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Argentina and the U.S. representatives are off on the side.

Flores is the founding partner of Artisanal Cellars, a wine importing, wholesale and distribution company he started in 2007 with not quite three dozen carefully selected wines in his portfolio, selling them to restaurants and wine stores mostly in the Upper Valley and northern Vermont.

Since then, the company has grown 15 to 25 percent a year — well above the national industry average — and now, Artisanal Cellars handles between 220 and 300 different wines, has direct sales and distribution all over Vermont, and its recently started import division sells wines in all the New England states except Connecticut. They also are sold in New York City, Georgia and Colorado.

The company has four full-time employees and openings for two more.

Almost from the start, Flores’ brother Miguel “Gel” Flores joined as warehouse manager and delivery driver after he returned to the Upper Valley from in Colorado. In early 2011, Winthrop Pennock, who lives in Brattleboro, became a partner. Pennock is a New England Culinary Institute graduate with years of wine management, retail sales and restaurant experience. He also covers the sales in Southern Vermont. Erica Amster took over the New York City import market last year. And two recently vacated sales positions are in the process of being filled in Burlington and northern Vermont.

The company sells between 5,000 and 6,000 cases a year (60,000 to 72,000 bottles) in Vermont and an equal number in the rest of the country, Flores said.

At least one of his wines retails at near $200 a bottle, but most are in the $30 range and a number are selling for less than $10. One of his largest Upper Valley accounts is Norwich Wine and Spirits, but the wines also are available at the Hanover Co-op Food Stores in White River Junction, F.H. Gillingham & Sons in Woodstock, the Woodstock Farmers’ Market, Woodstock Hops and Barley, the South Royalton Market, Windsor Wine and Spirits, Singleton’s Market in Quechee, Taftsville Country Store, Chapman’s in Fairlee, Third Branch Wines in Bethel and Fenix Fine Foods in Randolph, as well as a number of area restaurants.

Vermont is a good place to buy wine because consumers are price sensitive, so prices are marked up about 25 percent, far less than other states, he said, adding that the lower prices make his unusual wines more of a bargain in the state and that has helped the business blossom.

“I think that shows that we’ve done a pretty good job promoting what we have to sell here (in Vermont), but most of our future growth is going to come through our import business.”

In Vermont, Artisanal Cellars sells wines from small producers all over Europe, Argentina and the United States, but the importing division brings in only Austrian wines, which are sold in Vermont and elsewhere. Plans are in the works to start importing new lines of wines from Portugal, Spain and Germany, and new markets are being negotiated for the imports in Chicago and in California.

“We’re not a big company by any standard, but it’s sort of a nice feeling to have all this wine being sold out of this warehouse here in White River Junction,” he said.

Flores, who will turn 43 in November, lives a few doors away from his parents in Wilder with his wife, Ariel, and two young children. He grew up in Hartford and graduated from Hartford High School before heading off to the University of Arizona, where he studied music and developed an interest in wine, working part time in shops and restaurants.

While studying for his doctorate in musicology at the City University of New York, he started working part time at 67 Wines, a 70-year-old Manhattan institution across from Lincoln Center that features an inventory of 8,000 wines. Flores, who is an accomplished guitarist and percussionist, soon found working at the store more interesting than his music studies, and he joined the staff full time. “It’s a huge store, and it was a real learning experience. We had winemakers and importers in there all the time, and I got to know them and a lot about wine.

“I was intrigued by the whole wine culture. The history, the geography and the artistry really appealed to me.”

After a couple of years at the store, Flores and Ariel decided they wanted to move back to Vermont, and perhaps use their small savings to open a retail store in the Upper Valley.

“We pretty quickly realized that we didn’t want the confinement and the restrictions of running a retail shop,” so with the support of his wife, who landed a job in the schools, Flores was able to devote his full-time efforts to Artisanal Cellars. “I had the contacts that I had developed in New York, and they knew I was knowledgeable and trusted me. That helped a lot.”

Getting into the wine wholesale business doesn’t take a great deal of money. It’s largely conducted on credit from production to the final point of sale. As long as you have the experience to find the right brands, a place to store the wine and the ability to sell it, then you can get into the business. If you pay your bills on time, then you can keep operating.

“The wine business is largely about trust. The importers provide you with the wines, and you sell them. I was given terms of 30 to 90 days, and if it was taking longer to sell some things, they’d extend the terms. I’ve always paid, and I don’t owe anyone now,” Flores said.

In Vermont, his customers have followed the same rules, but working in his new territory into New York has been a bit of an education. Some accounts don’t feel the same pressure to pay bills, he said. “It’s a different philosophy with some of them. We’re still trying to figure it out.”

The United States is the largest wine market in the world and has held that position for the last 19 years, according to figures compiled through 2012 by the Wine Institute, a California wine industry association.

Since Flores started in business in 2007, consumption in the U.S. of all table wine from foreign and domestic producers has increased almost 16 percent, or 102 million gallons, going from 647 million gallons to 749 million, with sales of $34.6 billion, the report says.

Most of the wine sold in the U.S. — about 58 percent — comes from California, but imported wines have climbed by nearly 50 percent since 2001 and are expected to continue to grow as American consumer taste becomes more diversified, the report says.

Although the big named varietals — Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio — are still the most popular, Flores said he’s seeing a trend among people, whose beverage of choice is wine, toward well-crafted wines produced by smaller winemakers.

“The usual suspects (popular varietals), when done right, can be joyous, but we’re seeing people more interested in trying things they may not have ever heard of and from parts of the world they’ve never tried. There seems to be a move toward more esoteric varietals and toward the ‘natural,’ organic wines, artisanally produced wines from a certain terroir. I think we’re going to continue to see growth in Vermont and in the rest of the country with the kinds of wines we’re bringing in.”

And even as the wine business grows, Flores hasn’t given up on his passion for playing music. In recent years, he’s been to Cuba accompanying the women’s singing group Feminine Tone, and he’s playing with Dartmouth College professor Hafiz Shabazz’s group, the World Percussion Ensemble.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.