Meridian Prime: An import himself—from Stellenbosch to Pelham–Ross Toombs brings his South African wines stateside so you can finally sip the best out of Africa.
Ross Toombs is about to become your role model. A wine pro, he made deciding what to pour easier by starting his own importing business in his 30s. You can’ t have his life, or cool accent, but you can borrow his knowledge and buy his native wines. Tired of cheap wines misrepresenting his alma mater, he began importing the best out of Africa, from the Afrikaans equivalent of Napa.
His firm, “Meridian Prime” is named for the Prime Meridian, the line of longitude of 0 degrees which must be passed between crossing between North America and Africa—like his imported vintages. The Vuvuzela, an iconic symbol of the last World Cup, was originally made from Kudu horn and was traditionally used for communication between far off South African villages in remote rural areas. The modern Vuvuzela, like its namesake wine, VuVu Cellar, combines similar elements of tradition and innovation. The Xhosa word ‘Sela’ also means to drink, and so we invite you to drink Vuvu Cellar, and celebrate an expat’s new venture to bring the great quality wines he grew up with stateside. The company also promotes wines made by Christo, a black South African forced to quit school at 14 to work on a sheep farm. He had a knack for grapes, moved to a table grape farm, and eventually a vineyard, and is now an Assistant Winemaker for another of Meridian’s imports, Eikendal.
Thanks to a $50,000 loan from Community Capital New York, you can sample wines from vineyards closest to the Cape. Vines in the Hidden Valley get lots of sun but are cooled by the winds from the sea in a perfect maritime and mountain microclimate in the shadow of Table Mountain. White wine grapes mirror the Rhone’s, with peach and nectar flavor coating the mouth, and the unique locale gives the wines nice balance and an unusual blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. Reds are equally delectable.
Great value, great taste. But not yet in wide distribution—so be among the first! The back story:
How did you get your start in the wine business?
In 1993 I was accepted to the Afrikaans university, Stellenbosch. Doing university in my second language, Afrikaans, seemed more challenging, and it was a long way from home, the equivalent of Florida to New York, which offered me the opportunity to reinvent myself. I studied Industrial Engineering, but Stellenbosch is located in wine country. My sister also attended, studying viticulture, the art of growing the vines. Another sister went on to marry a winemaker, Neil, who produces Vuvu Cellar.
How did your business get off the ground?
I arrived in the States in 2000 and was surprised by the lack of good South African wines in the US. All that was available seemed to be mass produced low quality wines that we wouldn’t be caught dead drinking in South Africa. (Like having US wine represented in another country by Boones Farm.) I wanted to change the image of South African wine in the US. I picked a business I’m passionate about, and set out to right a wrong. It took two and a half years to get all the federal and state licenses. And I still work part time as the Director of IT for an aluminum and steel importer. It was a win-win to be able to start Meridian Prime and still have the ability to support my family and earn a salary through IT, and allowed me to weather the two and a half year period it took to get importing and distribution up and running and to get my business plan and business strategy right. By the time we got our wholesale license for New York State, we had product from the right wine farms ready to go, and had that time to understand the industry and develop a game plan.
How did your business evolve?
With a loan from Community Capital New York, I was able to hire a full time Vice President of Sales, who used to work for our largest competitor. He has been amazing at building our account base very rapidly. We went from 0 customers to 30 customers in 12 weeks. Some very high profile; we were selected to be one of the few imported wines served at the newly reopened Tavern on the Green. We are very focused on South African wines, but we have a diverse portfolio and bring in one Argentinian and four French wines. We have just been granted exclusive distribution in the US of two excellent South African producers, Balance and Willow Way wines. An independent analyst said Balance is such great value for money and taste it has the potential to sell 1.5 million bottles a year, which is the volume of South African wines imported in its entirety to the US in 2011. It’s a game changer for the South African wine industry and for us.
How did the loan from Community Capital New York help?
It was critical. We wouldn’t have been able to hire and the business would have stalled. We struggled to get a loan from a bank. Banks were exceptionally excited by the business plan, and we’d get through two or three meetings, and then they’d look at my personal equity and we’d be in a bittersweet situation. I’d gone down to three days a week, dipping into savings for two and a half years, walking a tight rope. Banks didn’t see my working three days a week outside the business as a plus. CCNY was the first place that actually looked at the big picture. They said ‘Let’s look at the potential, the sacrifices you made, let’s make it happen. We like that you are continuing to work while you launch.’ It was incredibly refreshing and incredibly professional. And it was life-saving.
I was able to hire Sam as VP of Sales, and buy enough inventory to ramp up. I also believe in giving people a chance to work in this business part time, and have hired a part time sales rep, so he can try his hand at selling wine, working in a field that is his passion, on a commission basis. This approach lets people change careers without risk; we have drawn our core team from multiple disciplines, people experienced in accounting, marketing, and finance by creating a raw opportunity in a safe way.
What makes you different?
We want to maintain a culture of challenge. That’s also why I’m hiring people who want to be in the wine business, and who have empathy with the retailer. As a wholesaler/importer, we don’t add any value to the product. We don’t make the wine, we don’t box the wines, and we don’t label the wines. A distributor’s value to the retailer is customer service. We don’t have rules about minimum quantities to make it easier for small retail wine shops with cash flow issues. We don’t shut down in June and July as some distributors do, so retailers are not forced to buy in bulk to get through these periods. Our strategy from the beginning was to meet the retailers’ needs. So we consciously bring wines in six packs (instead of the industry 12), more expensive for us, but we take the hit on the margins. It allows retailers two cases of two different wines and puts more South African wine on the shelf. Six packs allow retailers more flexibility. And we impose no minimum quantity order on our customers.
What did you wish you knew?
We wanted to be a big distributor, so the strategy was to act like one and make it happen. It left us with a portfolio at a rate of growth that would stagger most distributors. So what I didn’t know made me unafraid. Taking on Balance Wine could have been daunting—it’s destined to be a national brand in the space of 24 months. Which means I have to become a national distributor in a very short period of time. When you’re not focused on the hurdles, you don’t have fear to impede you.
We’re going to work with an outstanding winemaker in South Africa whose background is marketing. This is a perfect pairing. Such good chemistry. We both want to shake things up from the way the South African wine industry has been molded. We’re going to market Balance Wines under $10 a bottle, a quality wine better than the price it’s selling for, to fill a gap in the market, and a true varietal that as a South African I’m proud to have on the shelf.
We’re also doing a grassroots approach—wine tastings. The only way to actively grow the market share is by getting people to taste them. We convert customers one taste at a time.