It was a blustery, rainy day in mid-January of this year when I hopped the SeaBus in North Vancouver, on my way to visit Jessica Luongo and Marisa Varas, the principals behind AmoVino Distributors (one of the newest wine-importing agencies in our market).
Before I go on, I’ll eliminate any potential distraction by clarifying that Jessica has no knowledge of being any relation to Roberto Luongo, the former Vancouver Canucks goaltender. This has come up on occasion with others, because there was an added curiosity when she held a previous position at Burrows, Luongo & Associates, a wine agency owned by her grandfather Larry Luongo with yet another Canucks-linked name. All of this is coincidence.
It was while living in Italy to learn Italian that Jessica fell in love with wine culture, and she returned to Vancouver to learn everything she could about the business. Working at her grandfather’s company, doing everything from office administration to inventory management to marketing, she soaked up every aspect of the business, including forging ahead with a formal wine education through the globally renowned Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
As she was becoming increasingly determined to start her own company, Luongo reconnected via Facebook with Varas, a past acquaintance. They had attended the same North Vancouver high school, though they hadn’t known each other well at the time due to a three-year age gap.
Varas had just returned from three years in London—where she earned her business degree—and was exploring various entrepreneurial opportunities. Along with the fact that her parents were wine collectors, she had also travelled and lived in various South American and European countries, with the wine bug eventually landing on her as well.
It seemed to be the right place and the right time for both to begin this new venture. Although they incorporated their company in September 2015, it wasn’t until November 2016 that they imported their first wines. That year was spent attending as many wine tastings as possible here in Vancouver and travelling abroad to source new wines, along with all the untangling of red tape that is required to start this sort of business in our market.
Keep in mind that this isn’t an easy market for wine importers. We are one of the most heavily taxed places in the world, meaning we also have some of the highest wine prices. Finding high-quality wines worthy of interest at a price that can offer value and accessibility involves a fine sense of balance, which requires experience, smarts, and good instincts.
It can be a gamble for many wine importers bringing in a product to get a listing at B.C. Liquor Stores, which generally offers good distribution and a crack at sustainable, consistent sales (and income). The balance of wines coming into the market end up as part of the spec system, warehoused and available by the case to private retailers and restaurants. This model also provides a challenge, as restaurants don’t receive wholesale prices or discounts on wine, and smaller, independent eateries can find it a struggle to buy by the case, whether due to space or budget constraints.
At a time when other importers are feeling the pinch, and even occasionally downsizing, Luongo and Varas have opted to fearlessly dive right in.
“We’re bringing in wines of quality that have a niche, with a focus on organic, biodynamic, and family production,” Luongo told me on that stormy January day. “These wines are distinct and offer something unique for the market, and we’re excited about sharing them and honouring the people behind them.”
Although importing wine in B.C. can be challenging enough, I inquired if they felt that being young and female presented additional challenges in how others in the industry perceive them, whether here at home or when trying to get business done at international tables. Let’s face it, there are sexist people in all industries.
“Really, as silly as this sounds, we’ve been female our whole lives,” Varas said with a laugh. “So navigating a world where sexism exists isn’t anything new. But I should add that I can’t even think of examples we’ve encountered since starting the company. Maybe we’ve been lucky on that front, but it’s not something that distracts us.”
They’re obviously doing many things right, as retail stores and restaurants have been steadily buying their new offerings. In fact, they’ve also nabbed a coveted B.C. Liquor Stores listing for Katogi & Strofilia Mountain Fish 2014 (Peloponnese, Greece; $18.99), a red made from the country’s indigenous Agiorgitiko grape variety, loaded with bright and juicy black and purple fruit, along with a dash of fresh thyme.
It has quickly become a new favourite of mine, as has Donkey & Goat Sluice Box White 2014 (El Dorado, California; $48 to $53, private liquor stores), a premium, stunning white blend of Vermentino, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Roussanne, grown organically and biodynamically, and worth every cent (spotted recently at Kitsilano Wine Cellar and Broadway International Wine Shop).
Each of their wines brings an intriguing story to the table; I’m looking forward to seeing how AmoVino’s own story evolves.
Visit Luongo and Varas at the AmoVino website to learn more about them and their wines.