The Schnook Side of Wine - Joe Dressner

“Let’s be reasonable. We have a three tier system here (in the U.S.A.). A wine that costs $9.99 retail usually leaves the vigneron’s cellar at $3.00 to $3.50. A producer wants to make $5.00 and everyone in the American trade considers him a thief! So the inclination in the trade is to buy from the cheapest sourcing out there to keep the prices low in the market and to turnover inventory. OK, wine distribution is not a non-profit business and we are looking to make money. But isn’t part of our responsibility to explain to our customers and to the public why it is worth paying something extra for good and great wine? Hopefully, the time will come when the buying public buys a wine for the quality of the wine and not for the perceived reputation of the AOC. Until that time, the abuse of the majority will dominate the vineyards of France and restrict what we are able to get into the hands of consumers. Let’s work together to try to turn this situation around.” — Joe Dressner

Joe Dressner sells wine. Obviously, he is not a normal wine salesman.

In his almost famous, “Three Tier Schnook System”, Dressner writes:

“My Thursday’s salesmanship highlight, was trying to convince two dead men who buy wine for an important retailer in Maryland to buy the Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon Blanc. Despite the numerous amusing anecdotes I told the dead men about the vignerons, they rejected the wine on the grounds it was too acidic. But they greatly enjoyed the Corbieres Chateau la Baronne Rouge 1999 and immediately ordered a large quantity that will be case stacked at their important store. The dead is a market segment I want to learn more about in the future, as I see my firm has enormous growth possibilities with this important group. On the other hand, we are not doing well amongst the far more numerous Schnooks.”

Most wine-sales types would consider such public comments tantamount to suicide. Maybe Dressner has chosen a suicidal route, as he has chosen to commit himself to two things: selecting wines defined by the essence of their terroir, and telling the truth no matter how much it hurts.

It seems that Joe has a problem when it comes to business: he only likes exceptional wines. “I have to work harder, but so what,” says Joe Dressner four coronary bypasses later.

Joe Dressner is partners with his wife, Denyse Louis (a native Burgundian), and Kevin McKenna. Together they comprise Louis/Dressner Selections, the New York-based importer of French estate wines that matter. Contrary to what most people think, Louis Dressner is not a person. “I have had people come up to me and say I bought wine from your father Louis,” says Joe.

As Dressner calls it they sell real wine. Real wine is made by the following principles:

  • Wild yeast fermentation
  • Hand harvesting
  • Low yields
  • Natural viticulture
  • No or minimal chaptalization
  • No filtration
  • Non-interventionist winemaking
  • Quality control

While these may seem like the basic rules in fine winemaking to you and me, they border on lunacy in the case-driven world of wine sales. The result of this “consumer bill of rights” is that the wines of Louis/Dressner are individualistic wines with a dynamic personality — just like Joe. Sometimes they may rub people the wrong way, but they are never boring.

The Muscadet from Domaine de la Pepiere is an excellent example of the wines Dressner selects. “Marc Ollivier has 40- to 90-year-old vineyards, top vineyard spots, perfect geology, he does not over-fertilize — he is the guardian of a natural resource. When Marc is on, these are the top wines of the AOC — wines that are not only delicious young, but that can also age 10, 20, or 30 years,” says Dressner. A claim that will raise the eyebrows of many who assume Muscadet can at best produces a tart wine to wash down oysters.

Dressner has a deep commitment to the wines of the Loire, offering no less than a dozen producers — and that’s only AOC Touraine. This is not a strategy that would be followed by many importers. In all, Louis/Dressner imports over 60 French estates each producing wines with a distinct individuality made by a producer committed to quality.

With so many small, artistically driven producers it is likely that from time to time they’ll come up with a unique barrel that cries to be bottled in its own right. That’s where “Cuvee Buster” comes into the picture. “I didn’t want a pretentious name so we called it after our dog — he’s funny looking and I wanted to poke a little fun at grandiose labeling,” observed Dressner. If you find a Cuvee Buster Selection, grab it. They are special bottlings of selections of less than 50 cases and they give the consumer a unique taste of what’s possible when economic concerns are thrown to the wind.

Louis/Dressner offers consumers an informative Web site at, but true to his nature, Joe Dressner takes it one step further by offering his own personal site where he can offer observations and insights that would be perhaps politically incorrect on the official company site. At The Wine Importer ( Joe offers up some of the wittiest observations on the wine industry you’ll find anywhere. Sometimes he even offers contests for readers, with free cases of wine or baseball tickets for the callers with the right answers — sort of an Internet take on radio promos.

While all this seems fun and lighthearted, there can be no doubting the seriousness of Joe Dressner’s commitment to growers that are dedicated to quality and to finding ways to bring those wines to American consumers. Louis /Dressner selections are worth a search.

Oh, there is one last thing Louis/Dressner requires of wines: “Enjoyment! Lastly, our most important ‘principle.’ Because the overblown world of overdone wines is fundamentally tiresome. We’re not looking for tasting specimens, but for wines that are great fun, and a great pleasure to drink.”

Mission accomplished.