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Good Wine Karma: Ramón Escobar & Chufly Imports

Good Wine Karma: Ramón Escobar & Chufly Imports

Who doesn’t love discovering and delving into up-and-coming and lesser-known wine regions? In lifting the underdog amongst an overwhelming stack of information on classic wine regions? Humans are natural-born explorers, maybe sometimes fearful but always fascinated by the unknown. If you’re keeping with the times, you’ve undoubtedly heard whispers of a Bolivian winemaking scene. New York Times, NPR, and Condé Nast have all written about why this country is where you need to go to or drink wines from next.

Photo courtesy of Chufly Imports

The country has been making wine since the 16th century with the arrival of Spanish and Italian émigrés and their local grape varieties. The local brandy, Singani uses the Muscat of Alexandria as a base and has come to the US market thanks to film director Steven Soderbergh. But vineyards make up 7,400 acres here spanning three wine regions—Tarija being the largest and most established, the Valley of Cinti with its old, ancestral vines and sparkling bottles, and Samaipata. Vines sit at altitudes at an average of 5,200 give a unique feel to the grape varieties you may think know. And yes, we want to know. But choosing to purchase and drink these delicious wines is doing a lot more than just quenching your thirst.

If you’ve read these accounts, Chufly Imports and its founder Ramón Escobar always make an appearance. At the moment, his company is the one behind importing these Bolivian wines to the US, and beyond just introducing a niche category, his business plan is so much more than that. He’s looking to change the infrastructure, communities, and in turn, the lives of small producers in economically underdeveloped countries. And not just in Bolivia.

I didn’t want to delve into the technical aspect of winemaking in Bolivia for Changemakers but I wanted to know why Bolivia? How does this model work against a traditional importer? What can we look for from Ramón and his partner, Tealye Long, from Chufly Imports in the future? He also enlightened me to the ripple effect of a wine purchase—on a larger scale than just a nightly buzz.

Photo courtesy of Chufly Imports

Rachel DelRocco Terrazas: What are your goals as an importer? Because you certainly have a different central tenet to your business plan than most. Beyond where your wines are from, why are you there?

Ramón Escobar: My background is uncharacteristic in the wine world. It’s in economic development, international affairs, and foreign policy. I was a diplomat for 14 to 15 years until very recently when I took some leave to focus on the business. I looked to wine as a medium to drive transformative change—in an economic development and policy context. We often talk about free and fair trade—fair-trade coffee, fair-trade bananas. It’s a great concept, but at the end of the day, it’s a commodity. The value-add to that commodity is at the picking of the plant like a fruit or a vegetable. The coffee bean is picked and then sent overseas for roasting, and so the value chain doesn’t extend to the source country.

Wine is fascinating because it’s an agricultural product, but the whole value chain happens at that site. At least if it’s done in a good way and not the bulk juice way, you have some upward social mobility along the value chain. You have folks picking the grapes—great, dignified, and important work. Then you have the opportunities to learn aspects of the whole trade—how to make wine, going into the winery, destemming, learning the processes of pre-fermentation and fermentation, bottling, quality control, labeling. There’s nothing like that in the agricultural industry; that’s what drew me to wines. You have this whole unique value-add process, and then you have this ability to differentiate.

You have a whole history, a story behind the winery, a story behind the wine region. You have different levels of quality, and other elements of production and scale. If you can put that together, you can carve out a niche for that region or the wineries within that region. You can’t do that with quinoa or even coffee.

But this whole notion of transformative trade is where we should be heading and not just in the agricultural sector but also in other sectors, thinking about how we add value in the local ecosystem. Are we deliberate and intentional?

If you look at Central America and many of the migration issues that we’ve explicitly seen from Guatemala and Honduras, these were traditional coffee-grown regions that produce the most valuable coffee. They got the highest premiums. Yet, many of these coffee plantations are being abandoned because they’re still not profitable despite that premium. We looked at fair trade coffee, but what we’re looking at with wine, at least the idea behind Chufly, is that what we’re doing is transformative trade. We’re trying to transform an entire regional economy in the countries where we work. That sort of transformation extends beyond just the wine sector, which is also really appealing about wine and spirits.

You have other extensions beyond that core economic activity that can benefit and grow and the best example is tourism. What agricultural industry can have a thriving high-end premium tourism sector attached to it? All this is niche and nascent in Bolivia, and it’s only starting to expand.

Then there’s the bottling industry, for example. One of our products we insisted we would use is bottles made in Bolivia. Again to have that cluster development effect—that extends beyond just the winery itself and the vineyard and trying to have that more significant local ecosystem impact. We will only work in countries where the wine sector can be transformational and address some of the country’s developmental challenges. And in Bolivia, it’s apparent because Bolivia is the least evolved country in South America. But this whole notion of transformative trade is where we should be heading and not just in the agricultural sector but also in other sectors, thinking about how we add value in the local ecosystem. Are we deliberate and intentional?

There’s a family that makes artisan bags—these beautiful textile gift bags that we ask him to make. Every time we go down there, we ask him to make them, we buy them, and give them away at events. It would be a hell of a lot cheaper to buy bags from China or somewhere else, but there’s no impact with that. We’re supporting a family in a tertiary industry, not precisely the wine and spirits industry. But by being intentional, we’re able to support this industry because of the wine industry. We want to get back to that and then expand this family’s business opportunities.

Photo courtesy of Chufly Imports

RDT: Was there anything you looked at in the current wine world or any system or region you looked at and said that’s not sustainable? I need to do something different?

RE: Is there a market for these wines from frontier regions? I’m a firm believer that the answer is yes. The younger generations want diversity, new experiences. There are very few better windows into a culture or country than wine and food. There’s always going to be a market for the traditional wines we know about—the California Cabs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, and Bordeaux. There will always be a market for that, and there should be; these are great wines. What’s underestimated is that pent-up desire to see the world through wine and that’s where this economic impact thesis aligns with the market, particularly the younger consumers.

There just hasn’t been an emphasis on these up-and-coming regions, and I think that’s where we saw an opportunity. Suppose we can get in this space and set the tone for what it means to represent and what it means to be a frontier wine. In that case, we can  open people’s eyes to the idea that you can enjoy an incredible high-quality wine and still drive socio-economic impact. That’s the mission.

We’re insistent that if you can line up quality by telling the story of the adventure, the culture, the tradition from which it comes, and then the impact narrative aligns well with where the new wine consumer is coming from. We can make a difference that way because if you can displace a little bit of the common bulk wine production we see in the US market with these frontier wines, the impact can be more sustainable for those communities.

RDT: What was your initial inspiration to start in Bolivia?

RE: My dad is from Bolivia. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something in my life that would help drive that sustainable development back home. Because of all the reasons I explained, wine seemed like a great candidate. I always knew I would want to take whatever I started in Bolivia, and the development challenges there are serious, and the opportunity to make a transformative change is real.

The notion has always been that we can learn the ropes in Bolivia. It’s a challenging country. It’s geographically isolated. There are barely exports coming to the US in the first place, no maritime borders, so no ports. It’s a rugged, mountainous region. So we figured if we can do it in Bolivia, we can do it anywhere.

Photo courtesy of Chufly Imports

Right now, we’re looking at Mexico and looking to empower cool wineries that have a socially conscious outlook regarding how they operate their vineyards. Also, Lebanon, which is the same way. Lebanon is a special place because my wife is Syrian-American, and we had been involved with the Syrian refugee community deeply at the height of the crisis there. Right now in Lebanon, it’s one of the largest hosts of Syrian refugees in the world, and many of them are actually in the winegrowing regions. There are a couple of wineries supporting them, and we want to be supportive of that. So yes, Mexico and Lebanon are next.

RDT: I’ve seen a little insight into how you vet your wineries. Can you tell us more about your criteria for imports?

RE: For us, selecting the vineyards is incredibly important because we look at this as a lifelong partnership where we can all grow together and make a meaningful impact in the countries where we work. We have three categories of criteria. The first we call the story factors. What is it that the customer is first going to see? This includes the quality, the history of the vineyard, and different elements that sort of fold into that story. The second criteria we have are impact factors. This kind of dovetails into our impact thesis, which is this idea that we can drive transformative trade through wine and spirits. So what contributes to that? How are they doing that at a local level? Are they intentionally supporting the local ecosystem? Do they have workforce development programs so that their employees have upward social mobility? The third is partnership factors. Are these people who we want to work with? Are they enthusiastic about our mission as much as we’re enthusiastic about their wines? We want to grow together and make a difference.

We offer great value—in terms of quality wine for the price, but also the impact for the price. Our approach in reaching out to customers is very much the story we’re telling. It’s about shining a light onto the people behind the wines and putting you there with them.

It’s an elaborate spreadsheet with many different sub-factors into each one of those categories and it takes a lot of time and effort to evaluate, and we do it as a team. Everyone from the Chufly squad provides input into all these different factors, and at the end of the day, it helps us filter and understand which vineyards and partners can have the biggest impact.

RDT: How is this sustainable for you in such a competitive market? How are you approaching your communication? Are you for everyone?

RE: No, we’re not for everyone. To have high-quality wines from frontier regions, they’re pricey. They’re not wines to be competing with Cupcake or one of these big brands, and that’s fine. That’s not the market we’re aiming for. We offer great value—in terms of quality wine for the price, but also the impact for the price. Our approach in reaching out to customers is very much the story we’re telling. It’s about shining a light onto the people behind the wines and putting you there with them.

But it’s this story of upward social mobility and that’s the thing that we want to replicate a thousand times over.

RDT: Can you speak to the success you’ve seen in your business model? How is a purchase of their wines directly impact the families? Have you noticed that?

RE: The fact that they know there’s a champion gives them the ability and the confidence to invest in their people, their communities. For example, Aranjuez, one of our wineries, has developed a new program where, because of the popularity of their Tannat grape, and their Tannat wines, they’ve gone to some of the small suppliers in the region and started a building program for them to expand their plantations. They provide the financing to buy grapes to buy land to plant the grapes, and provide continuous technical advice on making that high-quality grape for premium wines.

This young woman, Esmerelda, her father has been a grape grower for a long time in Tarija and he started out owning zero hectares. When we visited, he was getting the first production from his 10th hectare of wine, about 25 acres. Because of his success in working with this winery, he’s been able to put his daughter through school and now she’s a nurse. For a country like Bolivia, that is absolutely a remarkable story because it’s so rare.

Usually, called a campesino, a farmer, farmworker, or small landowner in South America and Bolivia—if that’s what you did, that’s almost for sure what your kids are going to do. There’s little opportunity for growth. What usually happens is that a bit parcel of land gets divided up between kids. It gets less and less over time. In this case, Esme was able to graduate with a degree in nursing. She continues to help in the vineyard and help her father. But it’s this story of upward social mobility and that’s the thing that we want to replicate a thousand times over. We can do that if we’re just deliberate, thoughtful, intentional, and successful in this marketplace.