Australia to Ontario with B & W Wines
Today, Australian wines are everywhere—from the top shelf at your local wine shop to the menu at five-star restaurants and the cellars of oenophiles throughout the country. But in the early 1990s, Australian wines were an oddity in Canada, unknown to mass audiences. The transition from obscurity to prominence is due in no small part to the hard work of B & W Wines, one of Ontario’s premier wine brokers and an early champion of Australian wines. We at Breakthru Beverage Canada are proud to join with B & W, which has grown into a major player in the industry, moving 65,000 to 75,000 cases of wine from around 50 wineries each year. But how did it happen? We sat down with the two founders—Jordan Bender and Howard Wasserman—to hear how they started, what they look for in a wine and where they see the industry going next.
Breakthru Beverage: Jordan, what was the impetus behind B & W wines? How did you first get a taste for the wine industry?
Jordan Bender: I got into wine in kind of a funny way. My wife and I had an engagement shower 28 years ago. We didn’t want people to bring us gifts, so instead we had everyone bring a bottle of wine. All of a sudden I had 50 bottles of wine, and somebody brought the Robert Parker wine guide, his first reference guide. Most of the bottles weren’t very serious wines, but I started looking stuff up, that’s just my character, and I got into it. Then I met up with this old friend that I hadn’t seen in years. That was Howard, who I knew from high school. We discovered we had this mutual interest in wine. We started a wine tasting group. From there we were both interested. Howard said, “I’m going to go to wine school in Australia and I’m going to take wine marketing.” He went there. The school thing wasn’t really for him. He wound up leaving after a few months and he came back.
Howard Wasserman: I’m a dropout from the University of Roseworthy in Adelaide.
BREAKTHRU: Wait, back up. How did that happen?
HW: In 1994, I saved up for a vacation and was going to Kenya and Rwanda for five weeks to go gorilla tracking. Then I got a call from the Embassy and they said “you can't come.” I was like what do I do? My closest friend in the world lives in Australia. She said, “Come to Australia, you have nothing to lose.” So I went to Australia and every day I would look at something and start to cry from the sheer beauty and magnificence of everything. I realized I just wasn’t happy anymore in Canada. I had to change my life. I came back after the five weeks and tried really hard to fit in, but I just kept thinking about coming back. I gave notice in April and that November I moved to Australia and eventually attended university. I started my adventure in Australian wines. We didn’t have any good Australian wine in Canada. I would just buy wine off the shelves in a couple of the liquor stores and wine shops. They were amazing.
JB: Howard said to me, “I can’t handle the school thing, but I love wine, you love wine.”
HW: I said, “We’re never going to make any money, but how would you like to start a wine importing business bringing in all these amazing Australian wines?”
JB: I was introduced to all these incredible Australian wines that were not here in Ontario. Nobody knew anything about Australian wines. I was crazy enough to say yes to Howard’s idea. We started importing Australian wines to Canada. The joke was that no one had heard of Australian wines, and we started importing these premium brands which had a great domestic following but they were very expensive. For example, we were walking around—keep in mind this was probably going back 20 years ago—walking around with $30 bottles of Australian Chardonnay. People were like “Excuse me? I’m not paying $30 for an Australian Chardonnay.” Howard would walk around with a full case of wine for sampling. You just don’t do that in business now. If we do a tasting we have a few bottles. He would literally have a bucket of 16 bottles open to taste with people. It was quite something. We learned on our feet.
BREAKTHRU: How did you overcome that resistance from customers? If nobody has heard of these wines, how did you get them to pay premium prices?
JB: I would say a couple things. One, the wines were very good. Our timing was really right on the nose. Australian wines took off over the next five years. All of a sudden you had these volume players that came into the market and this thing really took off. Then Robert Parker, the reviewer, started reviewing these premium brands and awarding them with crazy scores. He liked those big fruit-forward wines. That’s what they were producing in Australia. He would rate them crazy numbers and then people wanted them. That was definitely a big part of it. The other part of it is the role we played in building demand in Ontario. Howard has a big personality. He is the face of the business. He did a very good job. He makes connections very easily. He’s a very warm guy. Everything just kind of fit. As we progressed we had to expand our portfolio, but we still maintained with Howard and I at the core of the business. We began this business because we’re passionate about wine. It wasn’t just a business for us. We really loved wine and still do love wine.
BREAKTHRU: Have you always loved wine?
HW: Yes. Wine has always been something I’ve loved. That’s what brought Jordan and I back together again after all those years after high school. The wines were always soulful for me. Wine, food, travel. We’re all going to die but if I’m going to go, I’m going to go fighting and having a good time doing it.
JB: After the “wine shower” I was definitely into it. I’m intrigued by subjects where there’s various components involved. There’s so much around wine that’s interesting. Wherever the wine is coming from, the terroir, the different flavors from the different places, the different grapes. I love looking for the ones that are harder to get. Then we start tasting all these things and having these great wine experiences. Getting your hands on one of these difficult to find bottles is always a big kick for me as well. So I built a collection over the years. Expanding on my engagement shower collection.
Read Part Two of our interview with B & W’s founders and their newest partner, Jim Lisser.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.