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Wine with friends

Vingevity has found that friendship and success go hand in hand

Chad Munsey and Fraser Burns sit down with a bottle of wine at III Forks with our own Brian Barquilla to discuss their backgrounds, how they came together to form their new company Vingevity (www.vingevity.com), and the recent success they have found—all while remaining friends. Below is the Q&A session.

Brian Barquilla (BB): You guys are friends and each accomplished businessmen in your own right and decided to get together on this new venture. Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Chad Munsey (CM): I was born and raised here in Jacksonville, but moved away to go to college. Shortly after college, I started bartending because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and that lead me into the restaurant industry.

After a few years of managing restaurants outside of Jacksonville, I moved back in 1996 and started managing Biscotti’s. I then went on to manage Bistro AIX and then opened The Grotto in 2001. It was the first, official true wine bar in town. I sold the business in 2007 and went to work for a big wine company in Santa Barbara, Calif.

When I was living in California and our corporate offices were relocated to Sonoma, I thought, “This is it. I’m going to be living in wine country—where for the last 14 to 15 years I’ve traveled to at least once a year. This is going to be heaven.” But quite frankly, there was just something missing.

Basically, it was the good friendships and sense of community that I have here. I spent a lifetime building those friendships and it’s difficult to be in a place that you think is your dream, but not have your friends to share it with.

I’ve always felt that Jacksonville was a great area to base a business and that it has a lot of things going for it.

BB: Now Fraser, you are quite the entrepreneur yourself, aren’t you?

Fraser Burns (FB): Well, I have lived vicariously through guys like Chad for most of my life as I am kind of the opposite of the restaurateur. My background comes from the pure business side of things.

I started my first company when I was 18 years old and, in 2000, started another company that I currently own and operate called Ocenture, which does wholesale private label development of products and services for Fortune 500 companies. I started branching out and doing some other things within the business world, such as I am an investor in the new Alhambra Dinner Theater, co-founder and chairman of a healthcare staffing firm, and a co-founder with Chad in our wine distribution company, Vingevity.

I’ve had a good opportunity to partner myself with intelligent people, knowledgeable people, and very passionate people like Chad to start businesses that allows me to earn a dollar with good friends and good opportunities. I’m a sheer entrepreneur at heart.

BB: How was the company conceptualized?

FB: That’s not a very easy question to answer; the idea really was forged over time. We are both passionate about many of the same things including wine. Chad’s knowledge in the wine industry and my background in building new businesses make for a great opportunity.

Basically, the way it all started was shortly after Chad returned from California we were introduced through a mutual friend and started to discuss a few possible ideas he had within the hospitality industry. Because of his past ownership in The Grotto, we were very conservative about competing with that particular company.

Our first conversation about a wine company was at my house over a glass of wine, I think it was a glass of Curran Grenache Blanc, it’s a great bottle.

CM: It was, yeah. It was brought to my attention by dear friends of mine—this husband and wife in California that are wine makers—that their wines weren’t available in Florida and they began telling me how they would love for me to represent their wines.

And over that glass of wine with Fraser, we started kicking around the idea of starting up a wine brokerage company. After doing some homework, I found that the large distributors weren’t really interested in these little, family-owned, small boutique wines.

FB: We decided that if we can’t get the ‘big boys’ interested in these brands that we feel bring value, quality, and opportunity for everyone here in Jacksonville as well as California and other communities around the world that we have family partnerships with, that we were just going to do it ourselves.

So we filed the required paperwork with the state, obtained a 7,500 square foot warehouse, filled it with wine, and took a leap of faith. We opened the doors for business and have been astounded by the support we’ve received.

BB: So tell me more about your new business.

FB: We have two segments of our business. One is our distribution company and second is our own wine brand where we produce a red and a white wine named Huguenot Cellars. On the distribution side, we partner with family-owned wineries from around the world to help them distribute their brands into Florida. Currently, we have about 70 brands, and that’s growing every day. The Jacksonville restaurant and fine wine shop community have been very supportive of our distribution philosophy; we really are doing things a little different on the distribution side.

CM: The other side of our business is our own Huguenot Cellars brand. We currently produce both a white and a red wine out of the central coast of California, more directly from the Santa Ynez Valley. Huguenot Cellars is a project that I was previously working on for some time and that we were able to push to completion because of our new partnership. It’s been a fun project. We are also working on a few more brands that will hit the market soon; our next project is called Esplanade, it’s going to be a Napa California wine with a little New Orleans attitude.

BB: Tell us a little bit about the infrastructure, such as the number of employees, trading area, whatever you feel comfortable with.

FB: I would prefer not to get into too much of our trade secrets, but I can tell you that our current trade area is the entire state of Florida. We currently distribute throughout Jacksonville to most, if not all, of the top restaurants, and we just opened up the Orlando and Tampa Bay markets. Our main goal is to expand throughout the state as soon as feasibly possible.

CM: We have coverage and the ability to ship throughout the state—and we have, down south and in other areas. Within the next long side of four months, we’re also going to have someone full time down in the Palm Beach and Del Ray area covering that south Florida market as well.

BB: What makes your business different from your competitors?

FB: Our model is a lot different than most distribution companies. Based on an extensive amount of industry evaluation, we feel the large distribution companies have lost their way in how they manage their supply chain. We are a hands-on organization, and we value our relationships with our clients. We do not treat them as just another number; we truly care about their businesses.

With all the industry consolidation happening right now, the distribution industry has become a check-the-box business. Typically a new, untrained representative shows up at the restaurant door and simply checks the box of your order without understanding how their brands may affect the overall wine list.

CM: We want to bring the romance back to what the wine industry was about—relationships and food and wine. We learn the restaurant’s menu so we can bring them the proper wines that work with their menu. We want to teach the staff and educate them so they can educate their guests and be able to make suggestions.

It seems that every time you talk to someone who’s been to wine country, they say, ‘There’s this little place I went to in … have you ever heard of them? I can never find that wine in Florida.’ Now we are the distributor that’s bringing you that little place you love so much. It’s treating our customer base, our accounts, and restaurants as partners. We want to partner with them to grow their business, which will in turn grow our business

FB: The industry as a whole has also gotten away from relationship building. We are bringing the old school model of relationship building back. Some other big differences between our competitors and Vingevity is that our entire supply chain uses climate control delivery to make sure our products are delivered at its very best. Our warehouse and delivery trucks are climate controlled, and that is a big deal when you are transporting such a delicate product.

We are also using technology to our advantage, our drivers and wine representatives use iPad’s to check inventory and communicate with the home office. We are adopting very new ideas in a very old industry that is slow to evolve. And as you know, a nibble and a well-run company will gain market share every time.

BB: Most emerging businesses have an ‘ah-ha’ moment when they realize they are on to something good and excitement is at its peak. Tell me about yours.

FB: I am not sure we’ve had our biggest ah-ha moment yet. We are just scratching the surface and have a tremendous amount of growth opportunities going forward. I guess you can say our first ah-ha moment, if you want to call it that, was when we finally decided to compete with the large distribution companies and not just be wine brokers. Being our own distribution company was the only way to go—we understood that very quickly and made it happen very fast.

CM: I was going to say another ah-ha moment or realization was the first day we went into the warehouse and it was ours. It was like, ‘All right, we’re doing this.’ But the full Aaaaa-haaa moment hasn’t happened yet—but it will. We’re in this for the long haul, no doubt.

BB: What has been your biggest surprise?

FB: I do not think anything has totally surprised us yet, but what we are very excited about is the warm reception we have received so far. Restaurants like III Forks, Bistro AIX, Orsay, Biscotti’s, and Vino’s have all been early adaptors of our brands, including our Huguenot Cellars brand. In fact, III Forks is serving Huguenot Cellars, Cuvee de Blanc, our white wine by the glass.

I can tell you that it feels great to see our products having great success in the market. Jeremy the Sommelier and Curtis one of the proprietors here at III Forks has really gotten behind our brands and has helped us a great deal. Let’s face it, wine just goes better with great food and good friends. We truly value our relationships with these great restaurants and look forward to future growth with them.

CM: I can tell you a really cool surprise is when you walk into a restaurant and you order your own wine. It’s one thing to order a wine that you represent, it’s a whole other thing when you sit down at a table and order your own wine.

Business vitals

Owner: Chad Munsey and Fraser Burns

In business since: 2010

Projected growth: The business will certainly look a lot different than it does now in three to five years. Short term, we are expanding into the Orlando and Tampa Bay markets and within the next 12 to 24 months, we plan on being in the South Florida market. As far as our three to five year plan, we would love to have full coverage throughout Florida and then we will look to expand into a few other states like Louisiana and South Carolina.

We also want to expand our brand management and import divisions. In the coming years, we know our Huguenot Cellars and Esplanade brands should become a staple in many Florida restaurants and fine wine shops. Our plans are to grow the company using solid business practices and just keep building relationships.

I know over time our business model will allow us to scale effectively and allow us to provide a superior service to all our clients.

How you can do it

Take a leap of faith, but put together a very solid portfolio, especially when entering a proven, long-term successful market. It also doesn’t hurt that one business partner owned the hottest wine bar in town for years and knows almost everyone, and the other has a proven track-record for starting up new businesses. At the end of the day it’s all about relationships.

The story behind the Huguenot Cellars brand

Chad Munsey: The first evidence of modern wine making was in 1564 on the bank of the St. Johns River by the French Huguenots. There is a longstanding history with the French Huguenots who fled France, landed here, and built Ft. Caroline—and this kind of stemmed the naming of the brand.

Talk about an ah-ha moment! I was reading a book on wine history on one of my many flights and that’s where I learned about the history. It’s just an amazing background story. Many of the wineries that we represent have great stories associated with them and I don’t know if there is any other better story.

The genesis of the wine was I wanted a white wine and a red wine that somebody could put on their table and regardless of whom in the group liked white or liked red, everybody at the table would find something about that wine they liked. I wanted it to be the kind of quintessential everyday wine.

One of the big things I used to tell people was to drink what you like, eat what you like, and it will all work out. I wanted this to be a wine that people just opened and it’s good.


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