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Silvio Lelli Shares His Journey In The World Of Wine

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31/08/2022 Silvio Lelli, the Founder of Nationwide Wines and Spirits, a Fine Wines Distribution Company, gives insights into the Import and Distribution business of Fine Wines in the U.S.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Silvio Lelli lived in Italy for the longest time where he got his first taste of wine. Fast forward a few years and Silvio went on to discover the art of storytelling. This led him to start a Film Production company with a Bachelor's in Communications and English from Villanova University. After discovering his love for wines in South Africa, he returned back to the States and worked with several renowned wine companies like E. & J. Gallo and the Allied Beverage Group. After acquiring ample experience and being actively involved in producing content, Silvio started Nationwide Wines and Spirits in 2007. He is also the founder of PROLIFLIX, a film production company that focuses on advertising wines and spirits.

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Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to join the alcohol industry?

I didn’t get into the wine and spirits business, the business got into me.

As a child of Italian immigrants, I went to Abruzzo, Italy every summer. My relatives, were farmers who had livestock, grew vegetables, and pruned vines of Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo grapes that they sold on the open market. Naturally, they kept their premiere grapes for wine to be drunk at home. I remember, the wine was so potent, that they cut their wine with water at dinner. This was the first wine on my palate.

Immediately after high school, I was enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Fortunately, I was stationed in Sigonella, Sicily, and worked the graveyard shift. After work, I would pop off the moon roof from my Mazda RX-7 (the only Mazda in Sicily at that time), I’d drive to the coast, sleep on the beach by a cove made of Mt. Aetna lava, go cliff diving afterward and swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Afterward, I’d drive to Momma’s restaurant with Nero d’ Avola vines trestle over their gravel driveway and enjoy homemade lunch with a glass of Momma’s wine. It was an amazing time. When my four years were up, I took an extended vacation and drove all over Western Europe by car. I went to vineyards in Italy, Spain, and France. I kept a journal of these experiences.

These experiences helped me to become a creative entrepreneur who loves the art of storytelling. My first company, after serving in the service and earning my bachelor’s at Villanova University, was a film production company called Dolfin Films, Ltd. I wanted to tell stories. On July 4th, 1997, it just so happens that I met a woman from South Africa on vacation in Boca Raton, Florida. It took three years as plutonic pen pals to fall in love but eventually, we married in South Africa. We honeymooned in Cape Town overlooked by Table Mountain and the vineyards of Stellenbosch. We met the winemakers, drank from the casks, and had a glorious time. I found my second love in wine and I knew where I was headed. The road less traveled for me was rooted with vines.

As soon as I returned, I applied for an account executive job with Bartolomeo Pio Inc., a subsidiary of E & J Gallo. I was told that I beat out a hundred people for the position, but my experience with wine was worldly. Here I also learned about spirits selling Rémy Martin and Pernod Ricard. Eventually, I was recruited by Allied Beverage to work in Center City Philadelphia. While working the territory with my manager, I queried if she thought it would be a good idea if a camera followed us during what we were doing? She flat-out thought it was a bad idea. That’s when I knew that I was going to start my own and create a show based on what I was doing. That show shot years later, is called “The Silvio” and has been posted on YouTube.com/NationwideWine.

Being the CEO of Nationwide Wines and Spirits, what does your day look like? How have the experiences in the past helped you transform into this role?

I’m an early riser. I enjoy working out first thing, then reading my paper/journals while having my breakfast. I also attempt to squeeze in 10 minutes of quiet time before going to the office whereby the hectic workday chimes in. I greet my teammates, coordinate our priorities, and thereafter, I am on the phone, a lot. It’s all about relationships and maintaining those relationships. Fortunately, for me, I enjoy the business and I like speaking with others. Naturally, I prefer to meet people in person, especially the first time around, but if we cannot accommodate our schedules, then the phone is the next best option. I despise having to coordinate schedules via email for a zoom conference or a phone call because it is just an unnecessary step that requires more time. Time is a luxury I prefer not to waste; I do my best to maximize the use of it.

Silvio Lelli

I always thought I was a good businessman when I started, but I was naïve. My trajectory skyrocketed because I was absolutely determined but that trajectory was unsustainable. No one ever tells you in the beginning that “overnight” success stories usually take ten, fifteen years, maybe a lifetime to happen. The financial resources, the mental fortitude, and the intellectual capital required to move the momentum forward need to be replenished. Today, I am methodical, careful, and persistent. I am still determined but I will not allow myself to burn out. More importantly, I want to be there for my family. My priorities were always business first, family second, and health last. Until I found myself in ICU with Covid, double pneumonia, very low oxygen, and an A1C of 14. Suddenly, the man that could move mountains was not allowed to get out of a hospital bed. I was very scared, but my attitude was good. I felt that the good Lord told me to slow down, to be quiet, and to listen. I am a much better person because of the experience. My priorities now are health first, family second, and then work. 

What kind of Portfolio do you have at Nationwide Wines and Spirits? How does your company offer value to small and family-owned wineries and distilleries?

Within the first couple of years of business, the portfolio consisted of over four hundred brands. We were attempting to compete with the big boys but as I mentioned, that was unsustainable. As a young entrepreneur, I wanted to please all my vendors and they took advantage of that. They loaded us with too much inventory because I let them. It was primarily family-owned, small-production, earth-friendly, brands from California, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and Japan followed by small-batch distilleries producing everything from bourbon to rum to gins and vodkas. And when the dust settled, after the Pandemic, our focus now is Napa Valley and the surrounding AVA’s. We still focus on family-owned, earth-friendly, and small-production, but we prefer positive cash flow and deliveries from the West Coast rather than overseas deliveries. We intend to bring on brands from overseas when the timing is right.

You have been in the alcohol distribution business for over 15 years now, how do you think it has evolved with time?

Online sales were almost non-existent when we started. It has obviously become a huge factor now. This generation has become savvy about what they drink, and the next generation will understand more. Premium is better. Additionally, accessibility will be the name of the game in the future.

How does market intelligence help in driving the business forward? Can you tell us more about it and how your focus on growing Nationwide Wines and Spirits in the future?

AI, analytics, and market intelligence are useless unless you have the intellectual capital to know what to do with all that available information. Set your priorities first and then apply the information needed best to suit your company’s needs. Do not allow market intelligence to dictate the future of your company. Allow the market intelligence and all that it has to offer to implement your vision. If you’re confused as to what direction the company needs to take, then stay the course. Eventually, the wisdom will open up to you provided you are listening.

According to you, which wines and spirits are performing the best in the market, you are currently operating in?

Luxury wines from Napa Valley and the surrounding AVAs are performing the best.

What strategies do you use to gain distribution and increase volume sales in the U.S.?

Maintaining great relationships with buyers that have purchasing power is the best way to increase volume sales in the U.S. Those relationships do not happen overnight and take time to cultivate. Also, understand that being the best person you can be by treating others with respect is an intangible cause and effect that will create greater volume in the long run.

How do you approach social and digital media and how are you emerging from it?

The fight to influence eyeballs to your brands and for palates to sample your wares will always be the name of the game. Today there is so much media space to focus your attention on. You must be careful not to get lost. We enjoy making creative video content that tells a story. Currently, YouTube is a great platform for creative and informative content. 

Can you tell us about your company PROLIFLIX, how is it an essential part of your business?

I got into selling wines because every grape tells a story, and every vine is a lineage. PROLIFLIX is an advertising, marketing, and film production company designed to tell those stories and more. In fact, besides creating content for YouTube.com/NationwideWine, we are also working on two other film productions. One is a $15M budget film called “The Contrarian”. The other film, recently introduced by an award-winning writer and director I met at Sundance Film Festival during my Dolfin Film days, is an independent film. His team has already raised $581K with grants and tax incentives and is to be shot in, of all places, in Sicily.  

How did the change of tariffs affect your company? Also, what was the impact of the pandemic on your business and how did you tackle it?

As mentioned earlier, the tariffs changed our focus from primarily being an overseas importer to placing more emphasis on wine from Napa Valley and the surrounding AVAs. Prior to the Pandemic, we made many fruitful decisions by not overspending our budgets yet maintaining proper inventory. When purchasing diminished, we pivoted our focus and sold locally sourced disinfectants and gloves to the PLCB.

What are some of the challenges associated with the Import and Distribution of wines and spirits?

Being quoted one price and invoiced almost three times the amount due to market volatility is a big problem. Terminal handling charges, port demurrage fees, and landslide costs are going up. And although there was a brief reprieve because the administration opened the Los Angeles port 24/7, this will now be affected by the atrocities committed in Ukraine.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to the new Importers and Distributors looking to enter the Wine and Spirits industry?

Do what you love to do. Start small with a niche market and work your way into other market shares, little by little. And remember, have a contingency fund.

Finally. Which is your Go-To Drink and what setting do you enjoy it in?

My go-to is a great red wine with good food and awesome friends. Recently I’ve been enjoying Kurt Russel’s “29” Pinot Noir because it is sourced from Santa Rita Hills, California. Kurt, an incredible actor, happens to be an amazing winemaker who prefers making a Burgundian-style Pinot Noir which is lush, full of great fruit flavors, and well-balanced.

Interviewed by Shreya Kohli, Beverage Trade Network

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