Speaking about influences on her career in the wine industry, wine importer Laine Boswell points to the two women who had the strongest effect: a great aunt who lived in Paris and a classmate who hired Boswell to work for her family’s business after graduation. Based in Seattle and Switzerland, Laine Boswell Selections specializes in importing wine from notable but off-the-beaten-track regions around the world to the United States. She works with small, family-owned producers who grow native varieties and make wines utilizing organic or biodynamic practices. A graduate of the master’s degree program in Wine Science and Management through the OIV (Organisation International de la Vigne et du Vin),Boswell has deep connections in Europe and is passionate about telling the story of these family wineries.
Boswell seeks out wineries helmed by second or third generation family members who are looking to the future while remaining committed to the values of their parents and grandparents. She believes in the “slow and steady” method to building strong and long-lasting relationships with all of her partners on both sides of the Atlantic. She has two part time people working with her in the US, one who manages state-side logistics when Boswell is in Europe and another who works as a sales manager and coordinator.
Boswell is currently working with twelve brands from Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, and Oregon, and is looking to add three to four new winery partners and two to three new distribution partners in the coming year. LBS imports approximately 140,000 bottles annually, and the wines are available in eight states, mostly on the coasts.
As we continue to shine a light on women in wine during Women’s Month, we spoke with Laine Boswell about her mentors and her journey into wine, the difficult task of running a small import business during Covid-19, and how she and her husband worked together to create two new wine brands for the American Market.
World Wine Guys: What was your journey towards working in the wine industry and starting your own import company?
Laine Boswell: While studying in France during college and then living and teaching there for a couple of years afterward, I spent most of my free time visiting European wine regions, learning more about wine, and, of course, tasting a lot. I had an influential great aunt who was an expat living in Paris and very involved in the French food scene. She helped me to cultivate an already significant love of the table and all that it represented. Being able to connect with people and learn more about their lives, culture and passions over a long meal with a great glass or multiple glasses of wine became one of my greatest pleasures. I knew after spending this time in Europe during my most formative years that being able to share the stories and traditions of amazing family vignerons through their wines was what I wanted to do. As soon as I returned to the U.S., I set out to find a job in the wine industry. As an eager and passionate young woman in her mid- twenties with little work experience, I was met with quite a few raised eyebrows, but I was eventually able to land a job working at a winery in Washington State as the marketing and communications manager. From there, I met many people in the northwest wine industry and subsequently jumped into a sales position in Seattle with a cool distribution company that worked mainly with European imports. I continued to take wine education classes, read a lot, and, of course, tasted as much as possible. I learned about the master’s degree program in Wine Science and Management through the OIV and immediately applied. I was accepted and became one of twenty students from twelve different countries to enroll that year. We spent the next two years studying at affiliated French universities as well as traveling to over 22 countries around the world to study wine. It is still, to this day, the single most influential career and personal experience of my life, not only because of what I learned, but also because of the remarkable network of people in the wine industry around the world that I met and continue to interact with today.
WWG: How easy or difficult is it to set up your own wine importation company?
LB: The initial process of setting up my import company was more about paperwork than anything else. I had moved to Italy after the O.I.V. master’s program to learn more about Italian wines and identify a few key producers I wanted to represent. I spent about two years primarily building relationships across the country while also working on various wine events, developing my business plan, and submitting all the necessary paperwork to obtain a U.S. import license. The paperwork was tedious, but the process of relationship building and homing in on how I wanted to set my venture apart as a female-owned importing company was pure joy. I loved the crafting of it and likened it to piecing together a patchwork quilt of the best wines that represented colorful people and untold stories. Once I had the framework laid out, the challenge of finding and cultivating customers in the U.S. then began.
WWG: How did you and your husband come up with the idea for your new brands, Avalanche and Alpine Roots?
LB: My husband, Olivier Roten, is the third generation to manage his family’s vineyard land and winery, which is located in the Valais, Switzerland’s largest grape-growing region in the heart of the Alps.
We met through the O.I.V. master’s program, although we completed the degree at different times. We were introduced at a friend’s winery in Oregon while he and his class were visiting the Willamette Valley. As an O.I.V. alumnae and NW native, I helped to meet and greet visiting students and organize certain logistics and presentations for their local classes. It was more or less love at first sight or, rather, first discussion. I was based in my hometown of Seattle at that time and facing some crucial decisions for my business, and he was returning to Switzerland and officially taking over his family’s winery, but we managed to find ways to cross the ocean to see each other.
Not long after we decided to marry, we began to dream up ways we could work together, while still keeping focused on our respective businesses. We decided to create a label that honored both our love story as well as the roots and heart of Swiss wine from the Alps.
We started with two of our favorite Swiss varieties; Pinot Noir and Fendant, which is also called Chasselas. They both are particularly celebrated in my husband’s native Valais region, which also boasts the Matterhorn peak and Edelweiss, the Swiss national flower. We based the label on an old Swiss postage stamp and had it hand-drawn and re-crafted by my talented designer cousin (@castandcompany). The Avalanche wines represent the style of wines that we like to drink on a regular basis as well as the essence of my husband’s Alpine roots and what we love together in life. It says it all on our back label: Travel, Climb Mountains, Be Inspired, Drink Good Wine, Drink Swiss Wine. Fall in Love.
We also wanted people to identify with those most important, classic elements of Swiss culture and tradition, which include wine, perhaps more than anything else. Most recently we have also created an exclusive retail line of my husband’s wines called Alpine Roots. These wines include a few of our absolute favorite indigenous Swiss varieties, such as Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge. On this label we chose a hand-drawn sketch of the Alpine valley where my husband’s vineyard lands are located. Look for those in the U.S. market now.
WWG: Can you tell us about a female mentor who had an impact on your career?
LB: Without a doubt, the most influential woman along my journey and career path is Raquel Perez Cuevas, who is a fourth-generation owner of Bodegas Ontañon based in Rioja, Spain. Alongside her sisters and brother she manages the family winery and the extensive vineyard lands they own on the high-elevation slopes of the Rioja Oriental region. Raquel trusted me to bring her family’s wines to the American market for the first time over 11 years ago and then to manage their U.S. presence. Not only did she believe in me and my abilities in the very early stages of creating my company, but she taught me by example important qualities that have helped me to meet the challenges of a sometimes ruthless, male-dominated professional world and to maintain my focus on the importance of personal relationships. She manages her team and varied business clients around the world with integrity, empathy and respect, and most importantly with an authentic, direct, fair and incredibly intelligent professional manner. She has earned respect in return and has helped her family to build the largest single holding of vineyard land in Spain. The care, passion and effort she puts into everything she does is immediately recognizable in the quality of wines the family produces.
WWG: What were the effects of Covid-19 and wine tariffs on your brand-new business?
LB: Both have had substantial effects. The wine tariffs have made it extremely difficult for companies (especially small- to medium-sized ones) to import wines from France, Spain and Germany in any quantity that makes shipping costs reasonable, as we are responsible for paying the 25% increase in cost (that the tariffs have added) up front, before the wine lands at port. This cost increase is crippling for a sector of the industry that already works on slim margins, and the money is taken out of the company many, many months before there is any return. The tariffs are detrimental to our industry and especially to smaller importing businesses like mine trying to bring hidden gems from less well-known European wine-growing regions to the U.S. for reasonable and fair prices. This is the basis of my business, and it feels as though an arm has been cut off when Covid also continues to threaten our existence on so many levels, especially with the near absence of restaurant sales for more than a year. We have faith that the new United States Trade Representative will soon be officially appointed and will swiftly reverse these tariffs that have nothing to do with the wine industry.
WWG: What would you like to tell wine drinkers about Swiss wine?
LB: Go try Swiss wines! The Swiss have a history of grape growing for wine production that dates back to Roman times. Swiss wines are beautiful, refined and diverse. At the moment less than two percent of Swiss wine is exported, but that is slowly changing as the new generation of vignerons are more curious and motivated to explore the export market. Most of the vineyard land in Switzerland is planted on steep slopes, whether above Lake Geneva or in the foothills of the Alps, which means that all vineyard work, including harvest, is done by hand. Given its vast span of mountainous terrain, Switzerland boasts the highest altitude vineyard (1150 meters) in all of Europe and in certain of its wine-growing regions, like the Valais where I spend a fair amount of time, the Alpine influence is notable in the character of the wines. They are fresh, pure, delineated, elegant and tend to have a notable backbone of acidity.
The Swiss, like the French, classify their wines by AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée),which defines wines by their geographical area, characterized by particular growing conditions called terroir.While the Swiss cultivate over 200 different grape varieties, the most popular wines are made from Pinot Noir and Chasselas) and together represent approximately 60% of their production. Wine is a major part of Swiss culture and is widely celebrated, particularly in the main wine-growing regions like Valais, Vaud, Grison and Ticino. Many families still take great pride in tending their own small parcels of vineyard land which have been handed down and split up between family members over the generations.