For Michael and Harmon Skurnik, wine was a part of daily life before they were even old enough to taste it legally. The brothers, who are now at the helm of New York City-based distribution and import company Skurnik Wines & Spirits, were introduced to wine in the 1970s. They recall family dinners where wine was an integral part of the meal—long before it had a place on most American tables. Fast-forward several decades, and the brothers have built a thriving business based upon their family’s shared love of wine.
Michael—who serves as CEO—and Harmon, the company president, credit their mother, Ruth, with launching the family’s love affair with wine. When she and their father, Nat, returned to New York from a vacation in France in 1970, they built a wine cellar in the basement of their Long Island home, stocking it with Bordeaux and Burgundy, as well as wines from the Rhône Valley and Germany. Michael and Harmon were teenagers at the time, but it made an indelible mark. They both went on to work at wine-focused restaurant Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center, and later opened their own distributorship to begin selling and importing wines.
“We find and curate high-quality wines at available prices from all regions of the world and bring them to market,” Michael says. “The company has grown way beyond what I thought or hoped for.” Harmon adds that the brothers’ shared experiences with wine at the dinner table created the cornerstone of what Skurnik Wines & Spirits is today. “We got this experience and this love of food and wine at a very young age,” he says. “We’ve had healthy growth almost every year we’ve been in business. We’ve evolved from a New York distributor into a full-service distributor in eight states, and a national importer selling to distributors in all 50 states. We’re quite proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Skurnik Wines & Spirits has benefited from steady growth for more than 30 years. Revenue topped $130 million in 2018 and was more than $145 million last year. In all, the company represents roughly 860 brands and moves about 800,000 cases annually. Wine makes up most of the inventory, totaling 716 brands and 715,000 9-liter cases a year, followed by spirits at 105 brands and 55,000 cases, and sake at 43 brands and 30,000 cases. Skurnik serves as a direct importer and distributor for 359 wine brands in its eight distribution markets, and is the national importer for an additional 182 wines in states beyond its distribution footprint. Furthermore, the company distributes an additional 323 wines and spirits, spanning domestic labels and products brought in by other importers.
“Our fascination with the beverage industry and the passion we have for wine and spirits continues to grow, and that’s what drives us,” Michael says. Harmon adds that wine continues to be the most significant part of the company’s business. “Wine has always been the most important aspect of what we do, and it remains that way even though spirits are our fastest-growing segment,” he explains. “Wine is 87% of our revenue.”
History In The Making
Michael started the eponymous distribution business in September 1987, and Harmon came on two years later. The duo began their distributorship in New York with six California wine labels, and domestic wines remain the largest chunk of the portfolio by revenue. They made a major investment in spirits about seven years ago, and added sake three years ago. Both segments are growing rapidly. The Skurniks’ distribution footprint has expanded significantly in recent years, as the company has added distributorships in four states since 2017. Skurnik Wines & Spirits now has a distribution presence in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.
Despite all this steady growth, the brothers admit that they’ve never had a master plan for building their company. “We didn’t start out with a grand design,” Michael says. “We’ve managed to diversify our business interests extremely well on both the supply and distributor sides.” Harmon agrees, adding that he and his brother’s biggest assets have been their ability to curate great wines and spirits and their knack for hiring the right people to help manage and grow the business. “We’ve had growth every year, except in 2002 following September 11 and 2009 following the Great Recession,” he says. “In many years it’s been double-digit growth. We’ve always felt it’s important to grow slowly and steadily.”
The last few years have been particularly notable in terms of growth. Along with adding more distribution networks and continuing to add wine and spirits labels, the company moved its main offices from Long Island to New York City in 2014. Michael calls the move to the Big Apple his greatest epiphany, and credits it with much of the success and growth that’s followed. Along with office space, the headquarters in Manhattan’s Flatiron district has a showroom, a bar, and a large area that can be used for educational seminars, events, and meetings.
To coincide with the move, the company changed its name from Michael Skurnik Wines to Skurnik Wines & Spirits and updated its corporate logo to reflect its more modern and varied portfolio. “In the last five years, we’ve seen growth in every part of our company, in part because of this move,” Michael says.
The brothers are pleased to have the next generation of Skurniks involved in the business. Michael’s three children have all worked for the company; his daughters Lisa and Michele have since left the business, but his son Nathan is part of the wine sales team and son-in-law Oren Simon is the company’s controller. Harmon’s children, David and Erica, are both employees as well; David is vice president of special operations and is involved in many senior-level decisions on finance, sales, and portfolio management, while Erica is a domestic wine portfolio manager. “We never pushed any of them to join the company but we’re incredibly proud,” Harmon says. “We have a succession plan now.”
David Skurnik notes that as many as ten of his family members have worked for the business over the years, which aided the company’s overall growth. “We’ve evolved but haven’t changed,” David says. “As a family business through and through, we can keep ourselves grounded while encouraging smart growth. We’re dedicated to bringing the best wines and spirits to market for many years to come.”
Skurnik Wines & Spirits was founded as a distributor, and that remains its focus today, with wine and spirits distribution comprising 88% of the company’s total revenue. Skurnik started off in just New York, but eventually added New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to its distribution footprint—focusing only on those four markets for more than 20 years. In 2017, opportunity arose in California and the brothers jumped on it, creating the Skurnik Wines West division, which now has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Last year, the Skurniks acquired Ohio-based Vintner Select, adding Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana to their distribution network.
“We’re distributors first and foremost,” Harmon says, adding that the distribution business is going well. There are challenges, especially with compliance and consolidation, but the Skurniks feel well equipped to handle them. One of their biggest assets is their size relative to the market. Harmon notes that Skurnik Wines & Spirits represents a middle ground in the distribution tier because it’s independent and family-owned, but with a large enough scale and financial backing to nurture brands of all sizes. Michael adds that industry consolidation sometimes helps the company, because when the larger players merge it creates more opportunity for distributors of their size.
“There’s a need for a company like ours,” Harmon says. “We provide an alternative to the larger distributors and brokers, and a service to smaller wineries. Our partners and customers are thrilled. We run our business like it’s a small company but we continue to grow.” He adds that Skurnik Wines & Spirits has been especially well-received as a distributor in California.
Domestic wines comprise the majority of Skurnik’s distribution portfolio. One of the company’s first clients, Bonny Doon Vineyard, remains a key partner in California today, joining other notable producers like Tyler Winery, Paul Hobbs Winery, and Ramey Cellars. Beyond California, Skurnik Wines & Spirits also represents myriad labels from Oregon and Washington, including wines from Soter Vineyards and Cristom Vineyards. The company recently expanded into New York’s Finger Lakes region, signing on to represent producers like Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Ravines Wine Cellars.
The Skurniks note that while they delight in having a varied wine portfolio and don’t discriminate based on appellation or origin, in California today they’re gravitating toward cooler-climate wines from Santa Rita Hills, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Barbara. Going forward, they hope producers from the Golden State start to place more emphasis on terroir and wine-growing region over grape varietal.
“Michael and I taste and approve every wine that goes into this portfolio,” Harmon says. “Our portfolio’s signature is our palates. We’ve been adding brands at a pretty rapid clip in the last year or two, and we do it because it makes sense from a qualitative and business sense. Everything that’s in our portfolio is something we would drink ourselves. We’re proud to sell it.”
Winning With Wine
While domestic wines make up the majority of Skurnik’s business by sales and revenue, the company also has a robust imported wine portfolio that includes hundreds of wines from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. “We celebrate American wine,” Michael says, though he adds that he and his brother have a passion for imported wines since French and German labels were their first exposure to wine growing up. “We have quite an import portfolio and we’re very open-minded about where wine comes from. If the wine is compelling, we look at the price point and if that’s compelling, we make an investment.”
The Skurniks were pioneers in the grower Champagne segment thanks to their early partnership with importer Terry Theise, who’s active in the U.S. market in that sub-category of French sparklers in addition to his core focus on German and Austrian wines. Some of the company’s standout Champagne producers in the Terry Theise Estate Selections umbrella include Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Marc Hebrart, and Geoffroy. The company has several other notable import partners, including Europvin—which has a wine lineup that includes Spanish labels, Bordeaux, and wines from the Rhône—and the Italian-focused Marc de Grazia Selections and Indigenous Selections. For New World wines, Skurnik Wines & Spirits has partnerships with South American-focused Brazos Wine Imports, Australian-based Little Peacock Imports, and Greek company Diamond Importers.
“As a wholesaler, we sell our own imports and the wines of other importers,” Michael says. “We don’t favor our own markets over others. We’re a marketing and importing company that also happens to deliver via wholesale distribution to on- and off-premise accounts. Our approach is different than many other wholesalers.”
Michael is currently interested in imported wines from northwestern Spain and also sees success with lesser-known grape varietals like Albariño, Tempranillo, and Trousseau. Harmon agrees that indigenous grape varieties are on the rise for many wine-producing regions, like Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, and he adds that lower-alcohol wines are making headway. “Customers today are more open-minded and willing to try anything,” Michael says.
Among Skurnik Wines & Spirits’ biggest wine success stories is one of its few proprietary brands: The Pinot Project. Michael launched the label in 2009 with the hope of creating a fruit-forward, approachable California Pinot Noir. A decade later, the wine is the company’s top-selling brand, producing more than 100,000 cases annually. It’s grown to include the flagship California Pinot Noir and offshoots like The Chard Project and The Pinot Project Pinot Grigio and Rosé. Even with its rapid growth, the Skurniks don’t have plans to try and replicate The Pinot Project or make major moves into the realm of wine production.
The company has ventured into the world of wine glassware, however, through a partnership with London-based glassware company Richard Brendon and wine critic Jancis Robinson. Offered through the Skurnik Hospitality subsidiary, the collection includes wine glasses and flutes, as well as decanters and carafes. These join a spirits selection that spans coupes, Highball glasses, Old Fashioned glasses, shot glasses, and ice buckets.
The Skurnik brothers have had a handful of spirits labels in their portfolio for more than 20 years, mostly small Cognacs and Armagnacs that their winery partners produced. Their first big commitment to the spirits category came about seven years ago, when the duo decided to enter the category in earnest. Today, they work with spirits import partners Back Bar Project and High Road Spirits to distribute myriad labels. “We built a portfolio to target the craft cocktail scene and mixology trends,” Harmon explains. “We have more than 100 spirits brands now. There was a time when spirits were viewed as competition for wine, but they’re complementary. We’ve built our spirits portfolio with a wine palate and it’s resonating with the marketplace. Our spirits portfolio is the fastest-growing in the company.”
He adds that jumping into the craft cocktail scene fits in well with the company’s image and strategy. Skurnik Wines & Spirits now has a spirits director and a full staff of spirits salespeople who work with the wine team to sell products on- and off-premise. Whiskies and brown spirits are doing well, Harmon says, adding that he’s also impressed with the mezcal category. “Our spirits portfolio is the second-largest in the company next to domestic wine,” Michael adds. “The spirits business has increased our wine business, and the wine business increases spirits sales. They dovetail really nicely.”
Skurnik’s spirits brands include the Giffard liqueurs lineup, El Dorado rum, Barrell and Pinhook Bourbons, Greenhook Ginsmiths gin, Azteca Azul Tequila, and mezcal labels by producers like Rey Campero, La Medida, Nuestra Soledad, and El Jolgorio. “The spirits segment is growing and now represents 13% of our overall distribution business,” David says. The vast majority of Skurnik’s spirits are distributed in their local markets and not on a nationwide platform.
Along with Japanese spirits, sake is also a new category for Skurnik, and it’s doing well. The company made its first foray into sake in 2017 and now represents more than 40 brands from import partners like Tokiwa, Banzai Beverage, Pacific International Liquor, Niigata, and Floating World. “It’s exciting to introduce people to new brands,” Michael says. “We look for the best in every category, at every price range, so we can bring products to market that people love.”
Looking forward, both Michael and Harmon agree that while more growth is likely for Skurnik Wines & Spirits, they have nothing firm planned for the immediate future. “The almost daily evolution of the landscape around us provides opportunity to grow,” Michael notes. “It probably means we’ll enter more markets, even though we’re not fundamentally depending on that. We’re wholesalers and importers. That’s our foundation.”