Wine Classics: Staying connected in Canada despite border shutdown

The U.S./Canada border has now been closed for more than a year. But Wine Classics International’s relationships with its suppliers and the Canadian duty free operators is stronger than ever, Sherri Gidney, Sales and Marketing Travel Retail Manager at Wine Classics, tells TMI.

The two countries closed the border on March 21, 2020, and the closures have been extended to at least April 21. Although a few border stores remain open for essential travel, the majority of the duty free stores have been closed with devastating results for their business.

Despite the closure, Wine Classics has been in constant contact with its suppliers and its Canadian duty free operator friends, a close relationship it has maintained for more than two decades.

“The pandemic has allowed us to strengthen our communication and sup- port,” explains Gidney, listing some of the special efforts the company has made to stay in touch. “We created a cocktail challenge for the duty free operators. We are starting a Wine Classics quarterly newsletter by email. The pandemic has also allowed us the time to tailor our brands and promotions by location,” she said.

“Our communications with our suppliers has allowed us to discuss what we are doing in Canada and all over the world and what we are planning for the next 3-5 years. Of course zoom calls have been key.”

The cocktail challenge was a high-point. In November, as part of the FDFA Until We Meet Again series, Wine Classics partnered with FDFA, challenging the border stores to create a custom cocktail for the holidays with the winner receiving prizes and a congratulation video from Crystal Head owner Dan Aykroyd.

Chris Foster, whose Queenston-Lewiston Duty Free Shop is one of the border stores that has been forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the cocktail competition was a way for the Canadian duty free industry to stay connected during challenging times.

“The latest FDFA ‘Until we meet again’ Challenge may seem like a little way to keep the association and our members active and interested but this goes miles in continuing to build on our current business relationship. As you are probably well aware the Canadian Duty Free industry is much more than a business, it’s family,” says Foster.

“Sherri has done an excellent job keeping in touch throughout these times and continues to check in regularly. Per- haps more than most, I have the opportunity to work closely with all suppliers, in all categories. We are looking forward to the day where we are able to get back to normalcy and sip a drink together again!”

Jeff Mackie, whose T.S.M. Custom Millwork Ltd. builds fixtures for the duty free stores throughout the region, says Wine Classics positive attitude and continued partnership has not wavered even as business has suffered.

“There’s no question that 2020 was a difficult year for the Canadian Travel Retail Industry and 2021 will continue to have its challenges. I am optimistic for the future and working with Sherri and the team at Wine Classics to strengthen our partnerships with both the brands and the retailers is integral to our long term success,” says Mackie.

Some airports have been able to open their stores, and Wine Classics has been working closely with Dufry and Aer Rianta despite slow traffic and sales.

“I am proud to collaborate with Sherri Gidney and the Wine Classics team; we have built a strong partnership that allowed us to innovate over the years including the first ever Crystal Head Wall Bay,” commented AerRianta’s Pauline Bonhomme.

Wine Classics celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. Wine Classics founder Jonathan Hemi (center) with Sherri Gidney, Brian Meret, Lola Stankovic, and Hemi’s family.

Jonathan Hemi and Wine Classics

Wine Classics, which was started in 1995 by Jonathan Hemi, marked its 25th anniversary in 2020, although the pandemic did not give the company many occasions to celebrate.

But Hemi made a great effort to keep a sense of normalcy, said Gidney.

“It is crazy that a full year has passed since this pandemic began, bringing so many ups and downs for so many. The one constant has been Wine Classics and its owner Jonathan Hemi, whose support was there through all of this. He employed all our staff for the entire year,” she noted.

“Jonathan has been very flexible. And we are still celebrating small wins and staff member’s birthdays with socially distanced lunches. We also have a cocktail hour zoom call every week to catch up.”

Lola Stankovic, Wine Classics Trade Marketing Manager, says the character of the company and the people she works with shone through during the crisis.

“Being a part of Wine Classics International for the past 7 years has taught me the difference between working for a good company and working for a great one. Having strong and passionate leaders such as Sherri Gidney and Jonathan Hemi, who strive for authenticity over perfection, while continuously helping to refine skills and knowledge of all the team members, and ensuring that the needs of our TR family are prioritized, is what makes Wine Classics International a proud partner with our Suppliers and Duty Free customers alike,” says Stankovic.

“I am very fortunate to work with so many wonderful hard working, committed and supportive people at Wine Classics. Jonathan Hemi, Brian Merit, Lola Stankovic, Nancy Ferrante and myself have all worked very hard over the years to build a strong foundation for this successful business in Canada Duty Free. Our number one strength is our communication with the suppliers (Edrington, Iceberg, Heaven Hill, Henkell/Freixenet, Russian Standard, Konzelmann Winery, Crystal Head and Signal Hill Canadian Whisky) we represent and of course our amazing Canadian Duty Free stores. We are so fortunate to work with so many wonderful people Catherine West/Dufry, Pauline Bonhomme AerRianta/Canada, Chris Foster and team Peninsula Duty Free, Jeff Butler and team Thousand Islands Duty Free, Nancy Enright and team Philipsburg Duty Free, Mike Maskery and team Ambassador Duty Free, John Tompkins and team West Coast Duty Free and the list goes on. We have built strong partnerships, continuing though COVID and looking forward to having the Best and Strongest years ahead.”

Sherri Gidney, Wine Classics

Peninsula Duty Free’s Chris Foster, Sherri Gidney, Herbert Konzelmann, and Bonnie Gates (Peace Bridge), with Lake Ontario behind them.

New brands and domestic success

While travel retail is suffering as a result of the pandemic, Crystal Head Vodka and Signal Hill whiskey are thriving in the Canadian domestic market, says Gidney.

“We launched Crystal Head Onyx in the domestic market where it is doing amazingly well. We are looking forward to the launch of our annual Crystal Head Pride in June 2021 after its successful launch in June 2020. Signal Hill is also positive domestically,” she says.

Wine Classics has added new brands which it will launch as business in the channel resumes. Among them are Henkell Freixinet and Konzelmann Winery (Niagara on the Lake), one of Canada’s oldest producers of wines. Established in Stuttgart, Germany in 1893 by Friedrich Konzelmann, his great, great grandson Herbert Konzelmann relocated the winery to Niagara on the Lake, Canada in 1984.

“We are looking forward to building these businesses in Canada Duty Free,” says Gidney.

Wine Classics and Alexander James merger creates North American spirits powerhouse

A little more than one year after leading Canadian company Wine Classics International and iconic U.S. distributor Alexander James and Company merged, the two respected wine and spirits distributors are operating stronger together than as individual entities.

The acquisition allowed their business to increase its global footprint, with offices in Miami and Toronto, and warehouses in Miami, Newfoundland, Vancouver, the UK and Singapore. AJ&C executives Ned Carpenter, John Alexander and Ignacio Melero formalized their long-standing relationship with WCI and are officially working together with Jonathan Hemi in a business that now covers Canada, the United States, and Latin American airports as well as land border stores and cruise lines.

Together, the companies have built an impressive supplier base including Edrington, Treasury Wines, Crystal Head Vodka and many more.

The company’s strong, diverse team of Brian Meret, Sherri Gidney, Lola Stankovic, Sarah King, Nancy Ferrante, Lonnie Lafirenza, and Joan Koch are able to communicate and meet with customers and suppliers on a consistent basis with team members in Canada and the U.S.

“Our customer relationships have always been the key to both of these businesses and as one we look forward to continuing our strong committed partnerships in the Travel Retail industry,” commented Gidney, Sales and Marketing Travel Retail Manager.