Athenee Importers was established by my parents, Tony & Giota Englisis back in the late 1970s/early 80s. Back then wines out of Greece we mainly bulk wines with a pretty low quality threshold. They decided to part ways with their business partner (who wanted to focus on French wines) and focus on Greece's emerging wineries. With this thought in mind, they began working with Boutari. Back then you really only had a few big players in the market and everyone else sold their juice to them.
After about a decade of working together, Bourtari & Athenee parted ways. Afterwards, my parents decided to turn their backs on the big boys of the Greek wine industry and focus their time & efforts on the smaller, boutique producers that were starting to make a name for themselves. Their first major winery that they worked with was the Hatzimichalis Estate. The estate is located about an hour and a half north of Athens and is situated between the Bay of Evvia and Mt. Parnasos. Here is a link to the winery's website: http://www.hatzimichalis.gr/en/our-philosophy.
While many like to turn their cheek to the winery and criticize it for it's emphasis on International grapes, if you think back to the wine drinking population in the 1980s, anytime they thought about Greek wine (or much of anything else for that matter) retsina would immediately come to mind. For a winery to be producing international varietal wines that were good said allot. All of their efforts back then helped make the road easier for those who came after them. As a result, the name Hatzimichalis holds a place of respect in many people's minds for what the winery helped establish.
As the market began to realize that there were better quality wines beginning to come out of Greece, demand grew and the company's portfolio began to grow and the market started to change.
Even though I was always exposed to the business, I didn't get involved full time until I graduated college. The first few years were a HUGE learning curve. Trying to get a grip on the laws of the industry, the way things were done, and learn about wines was pretty intense. After a few sales calls on wine people, I quickly realized that I needed to get some formal wine education under my belt so I could be taken seriously. As a result I decided to take classes through the New York chapter of the WSET. All of the education culminated in my receiving the Diploma in Wine & Spirits in 2005. The Diploma is a great foundation but you always need to keep on tasting to keep your mind & palate sharp.
The late 1990s through the early 2000s were a period of intense change. Many of today's top wineries came into fruition then and our portfolio kept growing. A perfect example is GAI'A. I remember meeting Yiannis P at a wine tasting at Milos in 1996-97 when they had just released their first vintage of Thalassitis. A wine of that caliber had never been seen before and there was a great buzz behind it. We have been fortunate to work together for so many years and make a joint name for ourselves in the market. You can read more about them at: www.gaia-wines.gr
The 1997 vintage was an excellent one in Greece. Once the wines were being released into the market, people began to pay attention to us and the wines. Where we could only sell Greek wines to the ethnic establishments, some of the more adventurous sommeliers started seeking us to taste and work with the wines. It was an uphill battle however to get more mainstream people to taste the wines. Many a door was shut in our face when we walked in. However, for every 10 rejections, there has always been someone interested, positive and willing to learn. Those are the people that "get it" and have helped us get to where we are today.
The 21st century has seen immense change for our company. In 1997, Anthony Englisis, my father, passed away while on vacation. While it came as a great shock, we kept on moving forward. I am proud to say that Athenee Importers is owned and operated by my mother and I. In addition to running the day to day operations, we are always looking out for new and exciting wines and wineries to add to our portfolio. The internet has also been a great tool to keep those interested in our products updated on our events and happenings. Our website is quite comprehensive and has info relevant for both the consumer and professional alike. Twitter & blogging are now the next layer of getting the message out there.
On the distribution side, we have been fortunate to establish partnerships with some of the leading distribution houses across the United States. This had given credibility to our cause and has helped to establish Athenee Importers as the leading importer of quality products from Greece. Our focus is on educating the public while consistently expanding our distribution network so we can get more of our products into the hands of more consumers. We expand into a new market when we feel we've found the right partner. We prefer to be out of a market for the right reasons than be there for the wrong ones - those decisions only end up as a headache.
2009-2010 has been interesting to say the least. It's amazing to have demand for products in the middle of a financial crisis and not being able to fill the orders. The strikes in Greece really did a number on our ability to increase sales simply because we could not get product here. On many occasions people ask me what is the most difficult part of what I do and one of the top 10 responses is getting product to the US. Another difficulty that all importers face is product compliance. Since our laws in the US are so different than the rest of the world, many find it hard to believe that they need to have separate labels for the US with all of our required info on them. With the internet it makes life easier to get labels approved and keep on top of it. However, there are still times when I get the random e-mail asking whether or not we need an approval for a major change.....
With 2010 pretty much wrapped up we start to plan for 2011. We are currently planning our 2nd annual 3 city Road Show. We will be in Boston, NYC and Chicago in March. While there have been other tastings organized in the past, the largest criticism on them is that while there are many wineries present, the quality of the wines were all over the board. I like to think that our producers represent some of the best that Greece has to offer and that when an attendee stops at each table they will find at least 1 wine that they like and can relate to.
We also will be working on expanding our distribution network. Just last month we entered the Illinois market with Winebow of Illinois. We work with them in their other markets and we feel confident that this relationship will be a good one for us. There is also allot of opportunity to expand our presence within our distributors portfolios as well. Overall it will be a busy 2011 for us.