Cheers to the Little Guy: How One Small Spanish Wine Importer Keeps the Barbarians at the Gate
“For me, it all started with the food,” says Sean Norton, owner of ¿Por Qué No? Selections, a small Spanish wine import company based in San Francisco. “I watched Anthony Bourdain on his culinary jaunt through Spain. He went to restaurants helmed by chefs who were doing these incredible things with food all over the country. Up-and-coming chefs want to do their stages in Spain at these places, not in France or Italy. From that point on I became obsessed with Spain. The wine naturally followed.”
We talked over a long lunch before a wine event I had scheduled for us that evening. Norton swung up to Duluth for the event during a market visit to Minnesota and I took the opportunity during some quiet time to learn how a small, hyper-focused, wine importer can not only exist in a sea patrolled by big ravenous wine companies eager to gobble up more market share, but get ahead of them.
“The differentiation is being deeply personal about it,” Norton says between bites. “You have to be open to discovering new things. I have a strong, trusting relationship with my grower-producers who meet my criteria for the wine I want to carry and drink myself. I am not trying to be all things to all people.”
The criteria for a ¿Por Qué No? Selections (PQN) wine reads like a natural wine enthusiast’s dream: Low-intervention in the vineyard, spontaneous fermentation rather than inoculation using native or neutral yeast, no additives thrown into the juice, no machine harvesting, native grapes farmed organically or biodynamically. “I like wine that tastes like where it’s from,” Norton says, “You won’t see international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah in my book.” His producers are all family-owned and operated, and the portfolio is trending to more women-owned businesses. Norton claims he has the most highly-concentrated women-owned Spanish wine portfolio in the United States, and, to his knowledge, he is the only importer focused on Spanish wine exclusively.
“It’s all about telling the story,” Norton continues, “and reminding myself that it hasn’t all been discovered.” Almost all of the twenty producers Norton works with are first-generation winemakers. Some got hold of family land that previous generations had farmed for themselves or sold the grapes to co-ops, and then used the newly-acquired land to start a wine business from scratch, whereas others received access to land with existing vineyards that had been neglected for decades, treating the vineyards as a recuperation project while nursing the hundred-plus-year-old vines back to health. “For far too long Spain had been dismissed as an un-serious wine-producing country save for a few legacy wineries. Nothing new was happening. The reality is that Spanish wine has never been more dynamic. And I am always learning something.”
For the wine story to be told properly, however, Norton relies on his distribution partners. “Finding the right distributor is almost as important as selecting the wine,” Norton says. “I can’t be everywhere.” He looks for distributors large enough to scale, yet small enough to give the PQN producers proper attention as these wines are not established brands. “If my distribution partners aren’t working to establish my brands – Anónimas, Barco del Corneta – whatever it is, in their own markets, then it doesn’t matter how good the wine is. Partners need to tell the story about these producers. We have to bring customers as close to the source as we can.”
Norton’s own wine story is as interesting as his portfolio’s. In 2000 he and his wife moved from Minnesota to California for a job opportunity in tech, but it was a visit from wine-loving Minnesota friends who planted the seed of a wine career. “They knew way more about wine than I did,” he remembers. Trips to Napa and Sonoma inspired a flurry of wine bottle purchases, a tasting room job at Ridge Vineyards, and wine classes at UC Davis. “Pretty soon I am traveling in Champagne, Burgundy, Italy, drinking these incredible wines, looking at amazing landscapes, discovering the importance of terroir. I knew I wanted to create a path out of the corporate world to the wine world, but had to figure out a way to do it.”
The path out of tech into wine was paved with intention. Norton discovered a wine-making group near his home in San Francisco and joined it to learn more about the process and “get my hands dirty.” A few years later he got a part-time retail job at a local wine shop, invested in a friend’s wine bar, and continued to take wine classes. “Quite intentionally, I got a taste of all of these experiences. I knew if I did all of these things, the right path would reveal itself. It’s like building the plane while flying it.”
The gateway to Spanish wine was the Bourdain-inspired trip to Spain in 2011, but the seed was sown in an unlikely place. “We are at a restaurant in Sevilla and I asked for the wine list. It was all sherry. Sherry! Sherry started me on the Spanish wine path.” A few years later at a sherry seminar held at a wine shop south of San Francisco, Norton met Alex Russan, an American who sold custom blends of sherry, the only one in the United States doing so, under the Alexander Jules label. “Alex had a distributor in Spain, in Andalucía, who introduced him to not just sherry producers but wine producers. That’s how Alex started building out his book to include wine.”
In 2019 Norton started working for Russan and “getting geeky on the sherry thing,” even teaching sherry classes and developing his own curriculum. His primary role was to find distribution partners beyond the core four states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois. After expanding to more states, Russan wanted to move on from wine and Norton agreed to purchase the existing inventory in April 2020. “That was it. All the things I was doing, getting the ducks in a row, learning as much as I could, was for this moment.” The transaction was complete in August 2020 and ¿Por Qué No? Selections was born. Tech life was over.
Today half of Norton’s portfolio reflects the original Alexander Jules wine, but the other half he has taken pains to build himself. He visits Spain at least twice a year so he can “get the dirt on my hands,” deepen existing relationships, and review new projects to import. “It’s gotten to the point where I am completely relying on recommendations.” He doesn’t take on all producers he meets, however. “I say ‘no’ a lot. After they’ve poured their heart out. That’s the hardest part. But because I don’t ‘half-ass’ it, it makes it easier for me to say ‘no.’” Norton works with approximately sixty wines across the twenty producers and is expanding through the East Coast and Texas, necessitating a new warehouse in New Jersey in addition to his Oakland location.
But how can he grow when the barbarians are at the gate? “Some of my competitors have approached my producers. They know that I am onto something special. I just got there first. I have to work hard to keep these producers, fight off these larger importers while nurturing my book.” His goal is to add one to three distribution partners and one or two new producers each year while staying focused. “I want to become the Kermit Lynch of Spanish wine,” he chuckles.
In the meantime, Sean Norton and ¿Por Qué No? Selections continue to lead rather than chase, championing producers like Baldovar 923 who make a zesty, food-friendly white from the Merseguera grape at a high-altitude facility outside of Valencia, and Anónimas Viticulturas, a project of two women winemakers devoted to elevating Galicia’s Albariño and Mencía varieties. “I am hooked on Spain. The wine, the food, the culture, the museums, the football. When I get into something, I get into it. There’s no turning back.”