Wine Distributor Zachary Marcus Cesare Harris
Specialises in Italian Vintages
By: Zachary Marcus Cesare Harris - Oct 14, 2020
If you don’t tell your own story, then others can control the narrativeOne of the funniest wine tales in my life starts like a humorous joke. A Black man and an Italian-American man sit next to each other on a plane, across from an Irish-Catholic priest on the way to Italy; but there is also another Italian American and a Russian Monsignor too! My seatmate is surprised when I say that I want to become an ambassador of Italian wine.
We part in Frankfurt, only to wind up reconnecting in Munich on the way back, for a flight to Paris and then back to Munich. The other Italian American tries to quiz me on Italian wine and realizes I’m legit. Our flight out of Paris has to turn back – cargo door wasn’t secure, which could have meant disaster – and we set down in London. I offer to share a bottle of wine with them at dinner and some extra virgin olive oil (evoo).
While there, my seatmate is telling me about the wine under his label; he is still hesitant to think that I am the real deal. I whip out the evoo, and tell them how to taste it, and it blows them away; it’s from Agraria Riva del Garda where my “fratello” works. I then open the bottle of wine, and everyone is blown away. For the rest of the trip, we travel as a unit.
This friendship culminates into me doing the [almost] impossible, being at the front of the procession during the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy. You’ve seen the one in “Godfather” movies where there is the statue being paraded around town and people are attaching money to it.
That man was John “Cha Cha” Charcia, the unofficial mayor of Little Italy. He’s been in “Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos” and a host of other shows and movies. In the next year, I would unfortunately attend his funeral, giving an interview for the memorial video that other people would show respects and thanks for.Wine connects people.
I am the President and CEO of Ikavina Wine and Spirits, LLC and the brand-owner of “Wanna Be” Wines; the meaning has a lot more, just remember that Yahoo and Google made no sense at first. I am essentially the rebel of Black people in the wine industry, and I am one of few African Americans involved in importing and distribution. Even rarer is my focus on Italian wines first, then Portuguese (I am a Soul Wines ambassador, and the organization is about helping some forty plus small producers in the Douro, several of whom I am already doing business with), and then Spanish. I also have connections with producers in Croatia, Slovenia, Moldova, Macedonia, Greece and some other places.
On my desk are a slew of business cards not put away, and there are four binders full of business cards that I have been collecting since 2006. Each month, I send out an update to the wine producers whose products are under my label, and sometimes to those who want to work with me to keep them abreast of things. I have dined with some of their families, become familiar to some of their pets, and just keep up with how them and the special people in their lives are doing. And many of them are concerned about me as well, especially in this time.
For years, the Black audience has been either ignored or under-served by the folks in the wine business in the United States. This means, importers, distributors, producers and retailers, and their personnel. There is the assumption that we all like sweet wines, or that they’ll make their money on us from beer and spirits. I can tell you that there are a ton of wines that Black drinkers would love, either right now, or as their palate develops.
That same bottle I shared with Cha Cha an ‘nem was loved by a Black friend who watched my cats while I was away. She was immediately interested in going out and purchasing a bottle but the unfortunate thing was that the importer of said wine told the producer that there isn’t a market for it in the US. Cha Cha had also went out when he got back and purchased an overpriced bottle of the same style of wine.
Of all things, people normally recognize me at trade shows by my fashion sense, which consists of a fancy vest, dress shirt with French cuffs [and cufflinks], dress shoes and either jeans of dress pants. And when they talk to me over and/or about wine, the passion in me emerges, and people have said that my whole facial expressions and tone changes, including a devilish twinkle in my eyes; my passion shows through.
But what they also recognize is that I am Black. If they’re very observant, they’ll notice my eyes and how they take in everything, and they’ll notice my style of movement. I usually get asked if I am ex-military or a cop – yes and I also worked for my college’s police department; the gaze can make some folks uncomfortable, but in it, I am asking and positing answers to a slew of questions to whatever I am looking at.
After all, I am born on the day of the Human Portrait. And at a trade show, something on my badge might indicate that I am in import and distribution, and so the conversation is going to take a different tack than that of a writer, educator or somm. My conversation with a producer is about more than what is in the bottle, it is us getting to know one another.
They like that I dispense with them having to tell me the whole story of the land, the founder and what not, as some folks want to hear all that as if it makes a huge difference to the taste. I can easily read the materials in front of me, and if I am not familiar with a grape varietal or region, then I’ll ask questions. Trust me, they get tired of some folks asking them questions which are irrelevant to anyone but a winemaker; yes, we commiserate and laugh about this.
Some of them are surprised if I ask them if they make a certain wine, that I am familiar with a grape varietal that many folks over here don’t know about, or know about the town that they are from. Between that and my love of Grappa and Aguardente, I have formed some great relationships. We might not be able to do business at that moment, but my honesty and integrity are respected.
Most producers are family owned and operated and would rather deal with someone who they can deal with for years, and whom they can trust.I am used to being at a trade show and being called and pulled aside by a producer who met me before, and remembers me, and wants me to try their latest releases.
At the last VinExpo NY, I had at least three different people pull/call me, with one of them being an employee of Marco Maci, Italy’s seventh largest producer. I got to meet the wife and as they had an importer already, I asked who it was and when I found out, told them that they were in great hands. They respected it as did the other party. In the import and distribution game, it’s just as much about making alliances as it is about standing your ground in what you believe.
Since 2011, I’ve been to Italy nine to ten times for wine business, Portugal five to six times, Spain twiceand the Azores once. 2019 had me going Spain, Portugal (quick layover where I went into town and had dinner at a spot I was at when they first opened), Azores, and Portugal in the first run which started in February. Then Spain again in March (small exclusive trade show) followed by Italy (VinItaly). Then Italy again: 1) Milan; 2) trip to producer in Lombardia; 3) producer in Siena who will let me private label their wonderful Super Tuscan; 4) Firenza for two days of one-on-one meetings with some thirty producers; 5) winery visits in Chianti and Montalcino (I would run into a winemaker from Piemonte I met in Verona during the Wine2Wine conference in 2018); 6) to Soave to visit another producer I am using; and 7) back to Verona for one day and night to see friends and associates between one bistro (Marie Bistro), one guy who with an antiques shop (Jorge Alberto), Verona Wine Shoppe (met the owner earlier in the year and he gave me a limited bottle of Barbaresco and one bottle of Grappa made by his son), the Verona Print Museum (Rossana Conte; her son Nico helped with the cleanup after the storms, and I got him wasted when he turned 21), and my favorite place to drink wine in the world where they always treat me good, Antica Bottega del Vino!
Jorge was telling me that the owner of a restaurant where I “danced” and changed the course of that night’s business was recalling that experience; Marie was a bartender there.If you brush me off because of my skin color, I don’t deal with you; I can find someone else who has something just as good as yours, if not better. Earlier this year, I met an importer of Barolo who actually said that he thought that the reason why there aren’t many Black people in wine is the same reason that there aren’t many Black kickers/punters in the NFL, because of their choice not to be.
Even the most stupid person could deduce that of all the predominantly Black schools, as well as HBCUs, with football teams, that there would be Black players in this position. It’s just that many white coaches don’t want to consider them; this used to be the same for Black quarterbacks. Needless to say, he got that work! But mind you, he said that this year.
What I represent to some of the other importers is a threat to their stranglehold of being to tell people over here what good wines are, and their propensity to overcharge for product. I keep telling producers that if not for racism, they would be selling much more wine over here.My goal is to bring good and great wines to African Americans, who have been ignored and under-served for decades by the industry in the United States, and I am not going to focus on white people because they have so many people plying them with stuff, but what I have they should be open to enjoy as well.
I started my own brand because I needed to control the story, from the labels to the marketing and sales strategies, and use that as a vehicle to get African Americans to start trying great wines. As they embrace the brand, they might be willing to try the next offerings.
Wines whose great reputations like Soave, Chianti and Lambrusco have been destroyed through years of mass-produced substandard offerings I can start to introduce great examples of. The producers who have chosen to work with me did not make the decision lightly, and the ones who want to work with me in the future also have gauged me as well. And I keep them abreast of what is happening here, because you can’t work with me and be oblivious to what I am going through as a Black man in America.
I will leave you with a funny tale. I have a dentist who is a friend from high school; good person. She is primarily of Italian and Irish descent/heritage. I brought her and her staff some of my wines one day and she asks me if I will put any images of white women on the bottles because white women also drink wine; I have images of Black women on many of my bottles. Her statement showed several things at once, most of all maybe the reason why my labels need to be just the way they are.Prosit!