If you were to ask Rob Kuchar to describe his family, he would have a hard time knowing exactly where to stop.
Story By Ryan Hedspeth
Photography by Raul Sojo Montes
Starting would be easy. He would begin with his wife, Amy, his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Aylen, his parents, Amy’s parents, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins that he grew up with in the rural farming community of New Lothrop, located just outside of Flint, Michigan.
The challenge would be for him to know where to stop listing the family he’s collected along the way. You see, Rob is not a handshake kind of guy. Meet Rob and you’ll quickly understand, it’s all about hugs, positivity, and the company he keeps.
This is not only a personal philosophy but one that has guided his path through the global, wine import business over the past 22 years.
“I had no real intention of getting into wine,” says Rob. “When I was in college, I worked as a merchandiser for my roommate’s father that ran a local Budweiser distributor. I ended up becoming good friends with one of the local wine managers that shared my territory and when a sales route became available, he offered me a job and I accepted. I had no idea what I was doing but he was a great guy so figured he would show me the ropes.”
He caught on quickly but it wasn’t until a few years later that Kuchar found his true passion for the wine business, on a business trip to California that had him touring the wineries of the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Napa, and Sonoma.
“When I saw the miles and miles of vineyards, the fields, it felt like home. I immediately realized that the most important people in the wine business were the ones wearing flannel shirts and jeans, the family farmers that had been honing their craft for generations. That’s who I wanted to work for,” says Rob.
And that is exactly what he set out to do.
A few years later, Rob and his wife, Amy, relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina where they started their own wine business. This began their journey of identifying small to mid-sized winemakers that could use help in getting their products to market.
“There are many family owned and operated wineries around the world that want to grow grapes and make great wine, but don’t want to invest in creating brands, forming sales and marketing plans, managing distributors, or hiring a sales force to sell into the US market. That’s where we come in.”
The concept actually had roots back in New Lothrop.
“My cousin, Jay, who has been an integral part of the company from the day-one, his family had two exchange students – one from Chile, named Luis. Years later, Luis contacted Jay and told him about his close friends who owned a winery in Chile and they wanted to learn how to sell wine in the US. When we had samples sent, the quality was so good I thought they gave me the wrong pricing. They now produce our Contempo Chardonnay, Dry Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Carmenère.”
As it turned out, Luis’s friends were at Vina La Rosa, the longest continually owned and operated family winery in Chile. The Kuchars have now been working with them for over six years with new products in the pipeline.
The winemakers Rob and Amy consider a part of the Boutique Beverage family have continued to grow to encompass family-owned wineries throughout Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, and in the US.
“We started with a kernel of an idea that grew very rapidly,” says Amy. “We also quickly came to realize that we needed help so we recruited some of our own family back in Michigan and beyond to help us out.”
With a distributed team and collective family working remotely from Michigan to North Carolina to several of the top wine making regions in the world, Boutique Beverage was finding great success but something was missing.
“We liked Charlotte but it wasn’t until I had to cover a vacant distribution route for a few months in the Cape Fear region that I realized this was where we needed to be. I knew Amy would love it and this would be the place we would want to start our own family,” says Rob.
The Kuchars started spending some time in the area and in 2013 moved the entire operation to Wilmington, North Carolina.
Today, the import and brand development agency, Boutique Beverage, as well as the sales organization, Executive Beverage, and their 18,000 square foot distribution center continue to connect family-owned wineries from around the world to wine consumers in the US.
While the 19 varietals and 31 labels that make up their portfolio are available in restaurants and bottle shops, their focus has always been on bringing high-quality, high-value wines to market through grocery retail. While highly competitive for importers the size of Boutique, grocery is where the Kuchars feel like they can best connect with the wine drinkers that value their model.
“The grocery store is where you shop for your family,” says Amy. “The families that produce our wines enjoy them as a part of their family experience and we develop and price our brands to be enjoyed the exact same way.”
Competing for shelf space with Gallo and Constellation, behemoths in the wine business, has required Rob and Amy to get to know the retailers on a personal level as well.
According to Rob, “I’ve been very fortunate to have created meaningful connections with some of the leaders in the grocery wine business. It all started with Ed Cook at Harris Teeter which began in one store and evolved into our wines being available chain wide. From there, we’ve moved into relationships with Kroger, Lowes Foods, Food Lion, Ingles, and many others. We are so appreciative and simply couldn’t have done it without their support.”
Six years later, what do they think of living in Wilmington?
“Wilmington offers an amazing energy and sense of community,” states Rob. “It’s creative and entrepreneurial, and people are doing great work here. The lifestyle approach to being about your business and your business being about you, it just drew us in. Sure, the beach and everything the Cape Fear Region has to offer greatly appealed to us but what locked us in was the group of friends we met here. They’ve felt like family from day one. For us, it’s family first and we really missed being so far from Michigan.”
But do you remember that wine manager in Michigan that gave Rob his start in the wine business?
That’s Mike Spaven of Coastal Beverage, one of Boutique’s distributors located right here in Wilmington. His wife, Mary, works for Boutique as well. As does Rob’s mom, Monica, and Amy’s parents, George and Pat, who semi-retired to Wilmington a few years ago just in time to welcome their granddaughter, Aylen, into the world.
With a smile, Rob muses, “I suppose we’ve managed to bring a little bit of Michigan to Wilmington but what we’ve built here is so much larger than any of us individually or where we physically stand today. Pick up a bottle of wine, pour a glass, and imagine where those grapes started their journey. Now, consider all those people that positively affected it along the way. Those are our people and I couldn’t be more thankful to be a small part of their efforts.”