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Kindred Spirits

Disparate backgrounds addspice to this partnership

by Liz Schick

Joerg Klauck and Mike StoleseIn 1996, Joerg Klauck (left) and Mike Stolese left their employer, pooled their resources and launched Vermont Wine Merchants on South Champlain Street in Burlington.

When Sansi, Mike Stolese’s 3-foot-high, spirited, 2-year-old Great Dane, greets visitors at the entrance to The Vermont Wine Merchants property on South Champlain Street in Burlington, it’s a sign Stolese is nearby. Named for Stolese’s favorite Italian vineyard, Sansi often wanders through the 6,700 square feet of warehouse and office space, trying to tempt one of the 20 employees to play tug-of-war. If not wandering, she can usually be found at rest beneath the antiqued plank table in the wholesaler’s tasting room.

Sansi’s life is indicative of the way business is run at Vermont Wine Merchants: Everybody plays and works hard and is passionately dedicated to providing good wine to restaurants, resorts and independent retailers around Vermont. “If you can’t have fun in the wine business, there’s something wrong with you,” says Stolese. 

Stolese and his partner, Joerg Klauck, met 14 years ago, working for Hungarian Cellars, a small wine importer in Burlington, where they helped set up a distribution business. Realizing the relationship wasn’t working, they quit, and soon after used the contacts they had made to set themselves up in their own wholesale wine business.

“Joerg is German by way of Toronto, and I’m Irish/Italian, so we figured we were a great combination for the booze business,” Stolese jokes. 

Stolese’s interest in the bar, restaurant, food and wine business began when he used to visit and help out at his father’s restaurant in Livingston, N.J. After graduating from high school, he came to visit a friend in Burlington during foliage season. An avid fisherman, he fell in love with the lake and stayed for nearly two years, until he contracted pneumonia. His parents had moved to Illinois, where he went to recuperate. By 1980, though, he was back in Burlington. 

On his return to Vermont, Stolese spent six and a half years at Food Science Corp. in Essex Junction selling nutritional products and then managing the sports nutrition division. “When the entrepreneurial bug hit me at age 26, I was able to leave with a pretty solid profit-sharing package, which gave me the funds to start a food company, MJS Distributing.” As he explains, “In the seven and a half years I had the company, I was one of the first people to consolidate Vermont producers and distribute Vermont products throughout the state.” 

After selling the business, he bought Stoli’z Tavern, a small bar in Winooski, which he sold after two years. Burned-out from 10 years of entrepreneurial ventures, Stolese became the daytime bartender at Jake’s Restaurant on Shelburne Road for a year or so, and then managed Shelburne Depot, a small bar/restaurant, for six months, before working for the importer where he and Klauck met. 

J.T. Townsend and Kris NelsonHired in 1998, J.T. Townsend (left) was Vermont Wine Merchants’ second full-time employee. He and Kris Nelson are sales representatives.

Klauck’s road to wine distribution was not quite so direct. Having grown up in Toronto, he earned two degrees in American history: a bachelor’s from the University of Guelph and a master’s from the University of Western Ontario.

He landed a job with the Canadian subsidiary of McGraw-Hill  publishers as a history and political science editor, then editor of science and engineering and eventually became national marketing manager. His bridge to the world of wine appeared in the form of wineries that were clients to the small consulting firm he had from 1978 to ’93. 

In 1987, Klauck married an American who grew up in the Berkshires, he says. “We were married in the Mad River Valley, and Ann moved to Toronto as an oncology nurse. We were doing a lot of travel and decided to move here in 1993, as a mid-point between her family in Massachusetts and mine in Ontario. 

“Mike and I met in 1994,” he continues. “Mike knew Italian wines and had contacts in California through his family, and I had contacts in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.”

A resident of Starksboro, Klauck spends a good part of his week calling on key accounts such as Sugarbush, Mad River and Middlebury area businesses. “I do a fair amount of sales, some marketing, a lot of event planning,” he says. “We share pretty equally the liaison work we do with suppliers. Mike is strong in Italian wine; a lot of my interests are domestic — California, Oregon, Washington — and New Zealand and South African wines. You might say I’m interested in the New World wines, and he has a passion for the Old World wines.”

When they started the business in 1996, the entire office was half the size of their current wine tasting room and was sublet from an architectural firm in the building where the company remains. “We have a great landlord in Hank Adams,” Stolese says. “He helped us grow by letting us use additional space we couldn’t afford but needed. He told us to use the space for six months and if it worked out we could then talk about expanding. We owe him a debt of gratitude.” The company sold about 600 cases that first year.

Manon Eiker, Nikki White, Carey Havrilko and Jenn ClaytonVermont Wine Merchants has 20 employees. From left, are Manon Eiker, office manager; Nikki White, marketing and purchasing coordinator; Carey Havrilko, administrative assistant; and Jenn Clayton, logistics coordinator.

In December 2006, Vermont Wine Merchants’ warehouse held 1,100 different wine labels in 12,000 cases. That translates into 144,000 bottles of wine, which are turned over four times during the year, for a total of  576,000 bottles of wine sold within Vermont. 

Sales representative James Townsend, also known as J.T., joined the company in 1998, its second full-time employee. “The company’s growth has been phenomenal,” he says. “When I started, there were only four of us and we did everything: answered telephones, packed and unpacked cases, delivered the wine, typed up the billing.”

 “Working with Mike is, first and foremost, fun,” Townsend says. “After being together for nine years, we know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and wine styles. This isn’t a 9-to-5 job, as we often put on wine dinners at various restaurants and have wine tastings as late as 10 o’clock at night.” Even so, he agrees wholeheartedly with Stolese that, “while this is a business for sure, it sure is fun.”

By law, as a wholesaler, Vermont Wine Merchants can distribute only in Vermont. There are four other wholesalers in the state. VWM was the only company selling nothing but wine until recently. Stolese has begun to offer stemware — wine glasses, champagne flutes — and decanters as a service to his customers.

The company has a great customer list, says Amy Ezrin, a brand manager of wines from Italy at importer Michael Skurnik Wines in Syosset, N.Y. “VWM sells to great restaurants and retailers — people who are really passionate about wines.” Some of the company’s best accounts are the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski; Trattoria Delia, L’Amante Ristorante and Healthy Living in greater Burlington; and resorts, restaurants, retailers and ski areas from Stowe to Stratton.

Ezrin, who has been working with Stolese for over a year, appreciates the fact that he loves Italian wines. “And he has a great palate,” she says, “which means he’s really good at selecting wines and is able to put together a really good book.”

Stolese’s passion for wine is reflected by the company’s staff. “Every employee knows what he or she is talking about,” says Ezrin, and that sentiment is echoed by one of VWM’s customers, Beverage Warehouse. 

Jennifer Swiatek and George Bergin, the owners, are impressed by the contagious enthusiasm of the employees. “The drivers can talk to you knowledgeably about the wines they are delivering,” says Bergin. “They know more than a lot of people, and even give us a preview of what just came in on the loading docks, before our sales rep tells us.” 

Swiatek’s parents used to own Beverage Warehouse, so she has known Stolese since he began the business. “He has become a friend, even if,” she says, laughing, “he stays too long playing ping pong — he’s so competitive.”  

She explains that, at wine tastings at her parents’ house, there are always long, drawn-out ping pong fights between Stolese and other distributors, vying for the prize of better display space in the store. “Sometimes we’d go to bed while he’d still be duking it out.”

Since being married in August 2006, Stolese tends to go home a little earlier than he used to. He met Tracy Ovitt seven years ago in the company’s office building, where she also works, as sales manager for radio station WIZN. It took years before he gathered enough courage to ask her out for — what else? — a glass of wine. They live in Colchester with Sansi and a home gym, where he works out every morning at 6. In 2007, when Stolese turned 50, Tracy surprised him with a long weekend in Mexico. “She got me all the way to JFK before I knew where we were going,” he marvels. 

“It’s been fun every step of the way,” he says. •

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