Profiles, Wine Biz

Domaine Dardagny[Imports] and Building a Home for Swiss Wines in California.

Written by Simone Popov · 7 min read >
Chexbres vineyard, Switzerland

I first met Dylan Stine and Brandon Austin at an anniversary event for the San Francisco Wine School, where I am known to moonlight as a “cool substitute teacher” (or at least I try). As David Glancy, the owner of the school, was telling the room about the country-focused “Wine Scholar” programs (French, Spanish, and Italian Wine Scholar) the school was offering with the WSG (Wine Scholar Guild), Brandon, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion- added “Swiss Wine Scholar” to the list. Though the room missed this statement, I was fortunate to be close enough to hear and appreciate the comment. At first, I admit, I chuckled. Then, somewhere between discussing the wonderous terroirs of France and pouring French wine, I pondered.

Even to the most learned in the world of wine, the terroirs and varieties of Switzerland are a mystery, as little is known and even less is exported. Before me were two pioneers championing the relatively unknown Alpine country (in wine terms, of course),  promoting its winemaking heritage. Their enterprise is daring, innovative, and perfectly aligned with the Dispatch mission of viticultural exploration. I had to know more.

A few weeks later, on a rainy Oakland afternoon, I sat across from the two explorers, separated by a mound of Ethiopean meats, injera bread, and a bottle of wine, to learn more about their journey, mission, and outlook on the future of Swiss viticulture.

No time to read? Want to try Swiss Wines? Click the link here and use Code [WINE]DISPATCH for 10% off any order. Supplies Limited

But First, A Primer on Swiss Wine

Though viticulture in Switzerland is a mystery outside of the country, the Swiss have cultivated the vine for 20 centuries. The Romans first established vineyards in the country in 58 BC. This historical pedigree puts Switzerland in the same historical conversation as the vineyards of France. Nonetheless, Switzerland’s landlocked location and neutral geopolitical position kept its wines out of the conversation during the various historical wine booms of the 1800s and 1900s. Thus, the vignerons of the alpine country turned to the domestic/ tourist market, creating a broad range of wines to appeal to everyone. Most Swiss wine is consumed within the country, with only 2% exported.  

Swiss Wines grapes
Image Credit: Swisswine.ch

 The country’s current plantings are only 15,000 hectares (comparable to Alsace AOC, which is approximately 15,500 hectares). Yet, compared to Alsace, which focuses on seven primary grapes, Switzerland cultivates and vinifies around 250 varieties. Local “indigenous” grapes are planted alongside international varieties and even more unique Swiss hybrids, contributing to an insane diversity of cultivars. The signature grape of Switzerland is the early-ripening Chasselas (aka Fendant or Gutedel, depending on whom you ask), known for producing fresh, racy, light wines, but local grapes Petite Arvine, Humagne Rouge, and hybrids Gamaret, and Garanoir can be found growing on hillsides alongside the more familiar Gamay, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and even Merlot.

Swiss Wines
Image Credit: Swisswine.ch

It is crucial to understand one should not group Switzerland into just one wine region despite its relatively low plantings. The country is a veritable melting pot (some may say “fondue”) of cultures, with three distinct cultural and language identities. The country’s German-speaking, French-speaking, and Italian-speaking parts and the various Cantons (regions) present a unique profile of vignerons, terroirs, and expressions. There is much to explore and phenomenal wine to enjoy.

Image Credit: Swisswine.ch

The Inception of Dardagny Imports

“…there was a real opportunity to get more involved with the family legacy.”

Dylan and Brandon’s journey into importing Swiss wines started, as many family businesses do, with a few informal discussions over the kitchen table. However, what made the project possible was their deep connection to Switzerland. Dylan is a half-Swiss; his mother immigrated from Switzerland in the 80s. Through his mother and vigneron uncle, Dylan and  Brandon (who became Dylan’s brother-in-law) gained an intimate understanding of the Swiss culture and wine. They frequently visited the motherland, tasting the local wines, and soon recognized an opportunity.

“There were a lot of changes in the Swiss market; more wine was becoming available in Switzerland, and very little was available in the U.S. And the Swiss wine that was available was crazy expensive. There was an opportunity to get more involved with the family legacy.”

An Unpredictable Future

After doing a fair bit of research and picking up every piece of information on importing available from books, YouTube, and other sources, Dylan and Austin set off on their journey at the onset of 2020. They soon faced the daunting challenge of the COVID pandemic, which created delays in the supply chain for wine logistics.

“We noted a shortage of shipping containers coming from China in February as a cause for concern. Then, in March, the shutdowns came”.

It took a bit longer to receive the first shipment, but fortunately, Dylan and Brandon had low overhead and were entirely self-funded; thus, they were flexible enough to weather the storm.

The Paradox of Choice

Domaine Dardagny first imported the wines of Domaine du Centaure, the property in the village of Dardagny outside of Geneva, cultivated by their uncle.

“Our uncle grows twenty different varieties, all from estate fruit.”

This diversity presented Brandon and Dylan with their first major decision.

“Do we think the U.S. market will want wines they are familiar with, or would they prefer indigenous varieties like Chasselas, Petite Arvine, Gamaret, and Garanoir?”

They soon settled on a compromise, importing twelve different wines, six being traditional Swiss varieties and the other six being recognizable international varieties.

“Initially, we saw that international varieties [like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon] were selling well. Later, we realized it was because we were mainly selling to family and friends who wanted to support us but didn’t necessarily represent the standard wine-buying audience. As we expanded to selling to retail and pouring at events, we saw that people wanted varieties representing the Swiss identity.”

Julien Ramu of Domaine du Centaure in the cellar, upholding a rich 400-year-old tradition of quality

Check out all Domaine Dardagny producers. Click the link here and use Code [WINE]DISPATCH for 10% off any order. Supplies Limited

The Inventory Dilemma

Another challenge expanding into the market presented was properly allocating Domaine Dardagny’s limited imported wines.

“With a lot of diversity, we noted that some varieties were selling quicker than others [in retail], and we could not get more in time. We lost a few good accounts when we could not meet their wine needs.”

Dylan and Brandon soon dialed back their offerings while increasing amount of bottles ordered per wine. Guided by the market, they axed the majority of international varieties. Not that these wines were not quality, they just faced more competition from the more established regions in Europe and the U.S.

“Maybe selling Swiss Cabernet in California wasn’t the best idea,” Brandon jokes.

Diversifying, Channels, Growth, and All that Biz

Swiss wine is scarce, diverse, and variable. The predominantly small family-owned climate of the Swiss wine industry makes standardization and state-wide distribution a challenge.

“Many Swiss producers with whom we are looking to work don’t have enough volume to export, and some can command a premium.”

Importing a diverse portfolio of producers and price points is more challenging, but Dardagny aims to have something for everyone. Domaine du Centaure currently represents the mid-range offering at $30-40. Recently, the brothers began working with the co-op Cave de La Cote in the Vaud, importing more affordable offerings that are accessible to a broader audience.

“We want to make an impact in California and have Swiss wines readily available in as many places as possible.”

In the future, the brothers are looking towards more premium offerings and smaller/more allocated wines to sell through the DTC (direct-to-consumer) channel.

NEAR CHEXBEX VILLAGE, RIVAZ, VAUD.

Explore the wines of Cave de la Cote. Click the link here and use Code [WINE]DISPATCH for 10% off any order. Supplies Limited

The Power of [Swiss] Culture

Promoting a region or selling wine with little to no initial brand recognition is daunting, especially in the industry with so many competitors all vying to sell you some [fermented] juice. However, Brandon and Dylan have unearthed a unique demographic by simply remembering that wine- aside from being a consumable and a luxury good- is a cultural product reflecting the roots and pride of the people.

“[We discovered that] there are about 100 multi-generational Swiss clubs all across the U.S.  There are 20 [clubs] across California. These are people in the community who are proud of their [Swiss] heritage and want to promote [and consume] products from their homeland.”

Domaine Dardagny’s connection with domestic Swiss clubs created opportunities to pour at various events across the state and the country, network and successfully enter markets by word-of-mouth promotion, and even connect with dignitaries and diplomats to discuss pourings for the Swiss consulate.

“The community of Swiss-Americans is strong. Our connection to the culture allows us to enter at the grassroots level. We are fortunate to have this community. They are proud to be Swiss, allowing us to build our foundation, have consistently scheduled events, and have a firm support base for us and our wines.

Curating the Portfolio

As one of the few importers of Swiss wines into California, as well as the only importer (that this author is aware of) focusing exclusively on wines of Switzerland, there is pressure on Dylan and Brandon to select producers and wines that authentically represent the country.

“Swiss products [like watches, chocolate, and cheese] are well known for their exceptional quality and craftsmanship. We believe wine deserves to be part of that conversation.”

Dylan and Brandon are acutely aware of the perception and lack of recognition surrounding Swiss wines. They have dedicated efforts to import the highest quality wines while keeping prices low.

 The level of the wines imported directly impacts how Swiss wine is defined in the export market.

The Future of Dardagny and Switzerland

There is still much on the horizon for Brandon, Dylan, and Domaine Dardagny Imports. They want to continue diversifying their selection, bringing smaller quantities of wine targeted toward events and direct-to-consumer sales.

“We noticed that even in the Swiss clubs, some people have an affinity with the German-speaking Cantons and others with French or Italian speaking. We want to offer the best wines from all six wine regions, even if some are too small for traditional distribution.”

There is much excitement over the growing recognition of the vinous quality of the Valais, the region with vineyards on the steep valley hillsides of the river Rhone, and the increasing appeal of the iconic Swiss grape Chasselas. The development of Ticino also particularly interests Dylan and Brandon. The Italian-speaking region is known for top-quality Merlot.  

“Switzerland has always been predominantly focused on white wines. We often found that our red wine selection was…lacking. But Ticino, with its Southern location and warmer climate, is amazing for Merlot.”

Note from the Editor: As far as I am aware,  there are no other regions where Merlot is held in such high regard and is a significant focus. Even in traditional Merlot-producing wine regions, such as Bordeaux, it is heavily blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Ticino represents the only region where high-quality Merlot is its true identity.

The Endless Exploration

There is boundless potential for Swiss viticulture. At the end of the interview, I felt like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of what Switzerland had to offer to the wine world.

Switzerland is more than just upscale banks, melted cheese, and luxurious ski resorts. It is a place with agricultural, local, and international pride.

Domaine Dardagny gives the U.S. consumer a unique view into this world of culture and tradition, one wine at a time.

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