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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the name of a famous 1961 Broadway musical about a window washer who rises to the ranks of a high-powered executive, thanks to a handbook of the same name.
With the Tony awards last month and the (warranted) fervor ignited by the global phenomenon of Hamilton, musicals are on the mind. And the Great White Way, or, Broadway, has a rich history of shows about business: The Producers, How to Succeed in Business, and – as a bit of a reach – Guys and Dolls.
John-Paul Fortney, an American who lives in Paris, recently started a new business of his own: a wine export business. And what better place to start a wine business than in Paris?
I had the opportunity to speak with John-Paul about his new venture, which you can learn more about here. (Insider tip: they have a sale running now, through August 1!)
You founded the successful Culinary Tours of Paris in 2010. Tell me about your latest venture, wine sales. What made you decide to explore that area of business? And what are the details of your newest company?
As of November 2015, we started working on a project to export wine to our former and current clients in the United States. We are working uniquely with organic, biodynamic, and natural wine makers, several of whom had never before exported to the U.S. Our clients place their order through our website and we ship the wine from France to their door!
The idea to export wine to our clients came up quite suddenly. After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, most of our clients for the rest of the year cancelled their trips to Paris, which put us in a very difficult situation as a tour company.
One evening, about one week after the attacks, we had a friend (who happens to be an organic winemaker) that was staying with us in Paris and while he was here, we were helping him with his deliveries to restaurants and wine bars throughout the city. As I was receiving cancellation after cancellation for our tours, I started to think aloud of ideas to keep us afloat during this challenging time- should I pick up some shifts serving in a restaurant? Should I look for jobs in another domain? Should we start exporting wine to the U.S.? etc. When I mentioned this last idea, our friend mentioned that he did not have an importer in the U.S. and that he would be happy to work with us.
I went home and almost immediately typed out an email to 60 of our recent American clients to see if they would be interested in our project. Almost 2/3 of them responded within 2 days with enthusiastic support! From there, we got in contact with an American based transporter, met with them, and then began looking for winemakers who would like to work us.
For our first order, we worked with 7 winemakers, and for our current order, we are working with 10, and we may have another one or two join us in the coming weeks.
What were some challenges faced when you decided to start this wine business?
The most difficult is finding not just great and exciting winemakers, but finding some that did not have exclusive agreements with other exporters in the United States. We traveled to wine fairs in Beaujolais, Montpellier, the Loire Valley and Champagne, not to mention at least a dozen in Paris to find the right people. Sometimes we would travel for hours to get to a tasting and find no one was interested, or we didn’t think the wine would either travel well and/or appeal to many people’s palates. One day, we went to a small tasting consisting of ten winemakers in the 11th arrondissement in Paris and found three that agreed to work with us almost immediately. Even with lots of research conducted before our visits, there are certain visits where we just do not know what to expect.
What are the most rewarding parts of it so far?
To us, it has been rewarding to be able to help give exposure not just to some exceptional winemakers, but some exceptional people. One of the winemakers with whom we work used to sleep in the back of his van when he came to Paris as he didn’t know anyone here and didn’t have enough money to pay for a hotel room. Now his wine is selling in some of the best restaurants in Paris – Michelin-starred restaurants included! We are fortunate to work with some really genuine people and they are truly excited that their wines are making it to the United States.
We find it equally rewarding when we have received photos and emails from our clients telling us how much they enjoyed the wine. It was a surreal moment for us when one of our clients sent us a photo of their wines on their dining room table. We are happy that we can provide some unique wines for our clients from winemakers who take pride in both their work and the health of their vines.
Are the majority of your customers French people or internationals?
For the wine exports, we are currently only working with the United States. But for our tours, we see clients from all over the world.
In what way is Paris the perfect location for this business?
It really helps for us to be in France so that we can visit as many wine fairs as possible, to get to know the winemakers and visit them at their homes, and meet up with them on a fairly regular basis. I think that this alone gives us a distinct advantage over some importers that are based in the United States, in terms of finding exciting winemakers and staying connected with developments in the natural wine community in France.
Paris is full of so many opportunities and things to see/do/experience. Are you able to have a good work-life balance, while operating two businesses?
Absolutely! As you may have guessed, tourism has dipped this year so it has given us a decent amount of time to work on our wine exports. There is constantly something that needs to be done for both parts of our business, but my wife Julie and I are good at leaving time for ourselves to relax, to travel, to eat, and of course enjoy a glass of wine or two!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business in Paris?
It’s a good idea to find a good trustworthy accountant to ask for advice, especially if you are not French. It is quite time consuming to figure out all of the options that one has when starting a business, all the more so if French is not your native language.
Lead photo credit : Julie opening wine