South Florida fans have known Paul Castronovo for more than two decades as the irreverent host of the syndicated Paul & Young Ron Show on local radio, but now he’s trying to parlay that brand recognition into the wine business.
Several chance events during a 2008 vacation in Italy lead Castronovo into creating his own wine label Castronovo Vineyards. It started with a random meeting in a trattoria in the Lake Cuomo area with a wine salesman who introduced Castronovo and his wife Gina to a whole new world of Italian wine varietals. Then came a three-hour drive to Abruzzo to meet the Galasso family, the owner of San Lorenzo winery. The family had no one importing its wine in America and decided Castronovo’s notoriety as a famous radio DJ would be a perfect match, so they spent the day literally wining and dining him.
Castronovo loved the wine, but he knew nothing about the wine business and wasn’t sure he wanted to start. That changed on the plane ride home from Italy when he ended up meeting Bruce Hunter, the president of Shaw-Ross Importers, a division of Southern Wine & Spirits. During the trip, Castronovo and Hunter began working on the beginning of what would eventually lead to a partnership.
“I certainly didn’t go to Italy to start a business,” Castronovo said. “I love wine, but I didn’t know anything about the business. I started calling every guy I know. I didn’t want to stick my name on a label unless it was a great wine.”
The Castronovo Vineyards Montepulciano arrived in Florida in December 2009, sold 1,200 cases during its first year and then doubled in sales the following year. Sales saw a 112 percent jump in 2012 compared to the previous year. Last year, the vineyard introduced a Pecorino, a white wine, which has already been selling out in certain locations. Both wines retail for an average of $15 per bottle. Coming next year is a more expensive reserve wine.
In total, Castronovo Vineyards has sold 4,850 cases. The wine is currently available in 1,100 accounts and in seven states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Castronovo wine is on the shelves at major retailers like Total Wine and Publix and on the menu at a diverse group of South Florida restaurants ranging from Joe’s Stone Crab to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.
But it’s still in its early stages of development and the process has been a challenge for Castronovo.
“I thought this would be something that happened overnight and the money would be rolling in,” he said. “The product is rolling out and that’s a good thing. The money will come.”
After chatting with Castronovo about his wine business, we asked him to write out his answers to a few questions:
Q. What have you learned about the wine business?
I’ve learned that I love wine but that there’s way more to the business than just tastings and eating at great restaurants. I also learned that if I don’t work the product it’s not going to be successful. I figured that since people know my name, that restaurants and chefs would simply take a call from me and I would be right on their menus. A chef may love me and the wine, but he may not be the answer man. Find the answer man, the GM, a corporate guy and get him to taste the product. Then they may add the wine, but will it be by the bottle or the glass? By the glass is where the volume is, and that’s not an easy position to get on a menu.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge?
Teaching people how to say Montepulciano D’Abruzzo.They’ve got giant companies with huge marketing dollars trying the do the same thing that I am, get my wine into their store and on their menus. It’s not automatic. I have to make a connection with somebody at the restaurant or store and they really need to want my product.
Q. Tell us about your role in the wine business and how much time you spend on it.
I spend about 10 to 15 hours a week working on the wine whether it’s through marketing or contacting restaurants. Thankfully I’m not the winemaker but the face behind the product. I also do radio commercials every day for the wine on all five radio stations that the Paul & Young Ron Show are heard on. That’s been the single biggest reason that the wine has taken off. Everyday I hear somebody say, “I’ve heard about your wine, I’ve got to try that.”
Q. How much money did you invest in launching this business?
Initially, it was a five figure investment, when you account for the hard costs and the time invested. My deal with the Galasso family at San Lorenzo Vineyards is that if my land can’t keep up with the demand, I can contract out with them for more grapes and more juice. It’s beneficial to both of us.In the first two years we also laid out quite a bit of advertising dollars with Clear Channel, my broadcast company (another five figures). It was a smart move, who better than my audience to expose my wine to.
Q. When do you expect to turn a profit from it?
Profit? What’s that? I think we’re one or two years away. I’m still investing every penny back into marketing and promotions. We’ve done some unique in- store promotions as well. For instance, we sent the managers of the top two Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza locations that sold the most Castronovo wine to our vineyard in Italy. We have sponsored a couple of different charities as well. We also have laid out quite a bit of product each year at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. That’s a necessary evil, where else are you going to get your wine in front of hundreds, maybe thousands of people at one time.
Q. Tell us about how your partnership and arrangement with the vineyard and your partners works?
I don’t know anything about the actual wine making. I’m leaving that up to the Galasso Family, they’ve been at it for five generations. What my wife Gina and I do is actually decide which varietals we are going to sell; we’ve chosen and designed the labels and handle most of the marketing. I’m the face of the wine. Shaw-Ross imports the wine and opens many doors and Southern Wine and Spirits gets it out to the on and off premise locations.
Q. Celebrity-endorsed wines aren’t necessarily successful. What do you think makes your product and situation different?
I think it’s because the people that are drinking the wine know me and have for many, many years. I’ve developed a certain amount of trust with my audience and the product is really, really good. Some celebrity wines have come and gone overnight, why? You have to do more than just pop your name on a bottle and hope that it sells. You have to work it. Dinners, signings, appearances, etc. That’s what I’m doing, and I have a radio show to tell people A) about the wine and B) where I’m going to be.
Q. Any advice for someone wanting to get into the wine business?
Here’s my advice if you’d like to make a small fortune in the wine business: Start with a large fortune.
Q. Talk about the challenges you have faced getting your wine carried in local restaurants and on store shelves?
When I started I had a list of about 80 to 100 restaurants that I wanted to contact. Once I had contacted all those and had a pretty good success rate, that’s when things got a little bit tough. I have to rely on the sales staff at Southern Wine & Spirits.
Q. How have sales grown since you introduced the wine in December 2009?
In year one, we were at 1,200 cases. We doubled that in year two. This year should be significantly better since we added Publix and the new wine (the Pecorino). Interestingly, the white outsold the red at a recent appearance. The store managers were surprised. I wasn’t. Once people taste it, they really love it. The hardest thing has been getting the people that are already carrying the red to automatically carry the white. You’d think it would be a no brainer, but it’s still got to be sold.
Q. Who were the people in the industry that believed in your product from the beginning?
Anthony Bruno from Anthony’s Runway 84, Brian Johnson from Joe’s Stone Crab, Darryl and Oliver from Café Maxx, Bill Schwarz from Whole Foods Market in Boca Raton, Lee Schrager from Southern Wine & Spirits, also Doris Italian Market & Bakery and Crown Wine & Spirits. The minute that I was able to use those names, other restaurateurs immediately said, "We’d like to try it".
Q. Is your wine more popular for on premise or off premise sales? Why do you think that is?
The key to getting the wine on shelf at an off premise location is to make your wine successful in the on premise location. People taste your wine at a restaurant and then they say, “Hey I had that!” Hopefully they go buy the bottle at Doris, Crown or Publix.
Q. Where and how did your love of wine originate?
Cakebread baby. At Chef Allen’s in the early 1990s. I was a beer and Crown Royal man growing up, but an old radio boss of mine used to take us out with record company dollars (the good old days) and he taught me how to enjoy wine and food together. I was hooked on that Chardonnay, and then one day I read an article that said once you start drinking red wine, you’ll never go back.