Monday, February 15, 2010

Wine Biz Interview Number 5 With Michael Sullivan Of Beaune Imports

Anyone that has been reading this blog for any length of time is by now very familiar with the names Beaune Imports and Michael Sullivan. Beaune Imports is my favorite importer, the first company to take me to my now beloved France and its founder Michael Sullivan is one of the people in my life that I most adore. He was instrumental in helping me find this, “voice” that seems to speak to all fourteen, (or was it sixteen now?) of you. I love Michael’s palate, think he is more than fair, (kinda way too…just sayin) with pricing of his wines and his words of praise and support have done more for me personally than he can ever know. When I started this whole interview deal he was one of the first people I thought of and one of the first to agree to do it. So here he is, me amigo, the man that changed my life in more ways than one. French wine importer Michael Sullivan of Beaune Imports...

How many years ago did you start, my most favorite import company…like ever, Beaune Imports?

We came up with the crazy idea in 1990. The first container arrived in the spring of 1991.

What inspired you to start importing?

A number of things…
1) My wife Sylvie and I were both passionate about Burgundy, considering she was from Beaune and we had lived there together for a little over a year. Upon returning broke to the states in 1989 we realized that we could no longer drink the wines that we had grown accustomed to.
2) Knowing that we were friends with some very cool winemakers.
3) Somehow thinking that we would be qualified to select other wines that might interest people in CA.
4) Making a few phone calls to shippers, customs people and the Feds to figure out that, based upon what other importers were charging for their wines, that we would have a running shot at making it work, through the accumulation of sweat equity, by working harder and doing all of the work ourselves.
5) Not listening to the nay-sayers who told us that it would never work…
6) The love of the French culture and the desire to figure out a way to spend our time in both countries.

If you had to import California wines into France, Jess Jackson or E&J Gallo?

Made even more complicated now that Gina Gallo is married to Jean-Charles Boisset…hmm. Probably would tip towards Gallo based on an adolescent period spent with their wine-coolers.

What is the single hardest part about your gig?

Managing cash flow. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be so complicated.

Boxers or Briefs?

I prefer lay-down cases to stand-ups any day. They’re better for aging wine.

If you suddenly became allergic to French wine…what would you drink?

German Wine

Who is your favorite buyer that wears pants?

Assuming that the question means buyer of wine for a retailer or restaurant, it would have to be the French buyer at a little known shop in Signal Hill. Samantha Dugan, know her?

You are aware that socks and sandals is so not cool right?

I have heard rumors to that effect, though I tend to not listen to others when deciding whether something is “cool” or not.

How, if at all, has the French wine peddling business changed it the past ten years?

It has changed considerably in the US as large retailers have become more and more powerful due to the gray market. Fine wine has become a commodity for many, and this has changed the landscape. That being said, it keeps us honest, which is probably a good thing.

Have you ever sneezed while peeing?

Funny you should ask. Answer is yes.

You used to work at Chez Panisse right? Dinner party guest, Alice Waters or John Waters?

That’s a tough one because as you know Chez Panisse, and Alice are about as close to family as one can get considering I grew up there. That being said, and I’m assuming that you mean the film maker, I think that Alice would agree with my decision to choose John Waters for this one meal.

Finish this sentence, “The wines that thrill me are"

all under 14% alcohol and all come from soils that contain either slate, flint or limestone

Are there any wines in your portfolio that you don’t really enjoy drinking?

I’m having a hard time with Southern Rhône wines these days.

Are you afraid I will ask you which ones?


Hangover cure of choice?

A 50 mile bike ride.

Would you rather drink a bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet or eat three tablespoons of bottled mayonnaise?

You got me there, though it’s easy. I’ll take the Cab.

Airplane reading: The Star or Blogs?

The New Yorker.

Are there any estates that you have been courting and are dying to get your hands on?


Are you afraid I am going to ask you which ones?

You can ask all you like…

Vacation: Ethiopia or Long Beach?


Your trips are becoming the stuff of legends, (okay I might have made that up but…) what are the best and hardest parts about doing those?

The best parts are: driving around the most beautiful parts of France, meeting with interesting people (some of which are my best friends), occasionally eating well, going for a good run in the vineyards of an area that I don’t know, learning something new along the way, which happens almost daily. Oh, and then there’s the wine…
The hardest parts in no particular order: are tasting red burgundies before malo, freezing my butt off hour after hour in some very cold cellars, getting sick in the middle of a trip, watching my travel companions hit the wall after I warned them not to eat so much cheese and dessert early in the trip, not getting a run in on a given day when I thought that I had it all planned…

Best story about one of the people you took on your trip? You may leave their name out, if it about me please do….

Southern Rhône valley, spring of 1999. I believe that we had been tasting the ’98 vintage, so we’re talking fairly high alcohol wines, and one of the guys with me was an intransigent non-spitter. Needless to say, when we got to the hotel at around 6pm, he was well past his prime. After giving the dinner meeting time of 8pm, we all proceeded on to our rooms. It being dark out, more than one of us dosed off, but we all made it downstairs for the meeting time except the swallower. Not waiting around for long, I called his room from the reception and informed him that it was 8:00 and that we were out of there in 5 minutes. In less than 5 minutes, he was downstairs with his suitcase ready to check out… The look on the receptionist’s face when she realized what was happening was classic. Needless to say, the other four of us were on the floor in uncontrollable hysterics, literally, for 15 minutes.

How much time do you spend looking for new estates to import and how is it that you hear of them?

At this point, most of my prospecting happens through contacts via other producers, rumors or having had a wine in a restaurant in France or Spain. It’s not something that I spend a lot of time on as I’m trying to sell the wines that we already import more effectively.

Since I broke yer bawls about it, have you ever told another woman that it looks like she is wearing pajamas?

Nope, that was the first and last time.

When I told you that I had tattooed Beaune Imports on my body were you horrified or flattered?

Very flattered. Hell, I’m still very flattered when someone tells me that they look for our name on the back of a bottle. To have our name on your backside, now that’s something special

I know you are a very responsible and self regulating guy, (Yes, I am keeping a straight face) but have you ever been shitfaced with one of your buyers?

I see that the façade has worked on you as well. As you know too well, I most definitely have.

Hey, do you remember feeding shots to poor Bruno from Domaine Roland Schmitt?! Me either…

I do remember though I didn’t think that it was a good idea at the time. In this case, I turned out to be right as he had to bail on the next day’s activities.

You are charged with unleashing this, “Sans Dosage” beast loose on the unsuspecting wine world, through your gentle chiding, respect and mentoring…how do you plea?

I’m guilty of being an accomplice and I believe that there were others involved in this one. I for one am very proud of my actions in this crime…well most of them.

If I were to tell you that you that you have been one of the most influential, inspiring…sometimes frustrating, (dude, you are a tough nut to crack!) generous and supportive people I have ever met, would you share a bottle of Irish whisky with me?


I would like to thank Michael for granting me this interview, just so you all know….Michael is a very private person and one of those dear friends that is on my ass about sharing too much in this space. The fact that he agreed to do this, was willing to let people see a bit of what I am lucky enough to see all the time, well…it means a lot. His voice is always in my head, his words of support always in my heart and his vision, or palate is sitting on my shoulder when I taste wines from anywhere. I would never be the person I am, the writer, (word used very loosely) I try to be or have that palate that I do without him….I would walk through fire for Michael and he knows it.

Thanks Mister….for everything.


Thomas said...

Had one importer similar to Michael in Manhattan. A joy to work with passionate, humorous, smart people, which he sounds like.

Of course, I could be all wrong and he's just good at interviews ;)

Samantha Dugan said...

No it's not the interview, he is a pleasure. I fell in love with the wines he imports first, just happened to get a really remarkable friendship outta the deal as well, makes me feel pretty lucky.

Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

I always liked working with Michael back in the day when I was somebody in the wine business. Not only knowledgeable from a wine point of view, but a guy who grew up in many of the places where he represents wines, which gives him invaluable insight. Plus, as a guy who lives in California, I just like to say, "Beaune Imports."

However, as a rival for your heart, I hate the guy.

I love you!

Your HoseMaster

Charlie Olken said...

Hey Ron--

I know where Michael grew up. It was not in France. He just discovered it like the rest of us--except in his case, his parents, especially his father, the famoous wine historian, Charles Sullivan, also had something to do with his love of wine, I am guessing.

And, not revealed in this story is his brother's role as the founder of Acme Bread in Berkeley. A pretty remarkable family all in all.

Ron Washam said...

Hey Charlie,

Oh yeah, you're right. I had him mixed up with Ed Sullivan who had an illegitimate child with Silky Sullivan who won the 1985 Arc de Triomphe Grade One Stakes.

I had no idea Michael was the son of Charles Sullivan. Few people know that I'm the son of legendary wine cooler scion Frank Bartles. I'd rather keep that a secret.


Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

I read your comment and was like, "What the hell is he talking about? Michael grew up in Berkeley." then after reading your bloodline admission, well it all made sense.

My Puff Dadddy,

Yeah, I didn't mention the rest of the family as I was trying to shine my little hero light on Michael and all that he has accomplished, (he and his lovely wife) with his import company, but you are correct, very impressive family those Sullivans!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

OK, I was all mixed up about Michael BeauneBoy Sullivan, but, really, I'm a much more interesting subject for an interview. I made a point of sneezing the last time I peed. I kind of enjoyed it, and plan to do it a lot more often. But from now on I'm going to unzip my fly first.

See, come on, I'm funnier than these other people!

I love you!

Your HoseMaster

Michael Hughes said...

Very cool post. Its nice to read this because it reminds me that everyone is human no matter how "rock star" we make them out to be & also that whatever dream I have I should follow it. He did & I bet he never regrets it for a moment.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

You are without a doubt interesting, who else would sneeze while peeing just to get interviewed...on a no count wine blog no less, AND tell about it?! You are one of a kind and funnier than shit but dude, not gonna happen. If it helps in any way, I simply adore you.


What a nice comment and I will be sure to pass it along to Michael, (he does not read blogs, even mine unless I make him) I'm sure he would dig that. Gotta tell ya, (just between us, he would hate me saying this) he is such a humble guy, as far from arrogant or entitled as one can get. Knowing Michael is a real lesson on how to behave when you do well.

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