The recession has taken a bite out of the Washington, D.C., wine community with the recent demise of Billington Wines, the Springfield, Va.-based company that helped put South American wines on U.S. dinner tables.
Billington closed its doors May 15, citing the loss of some of its primary clients to other importers, depressed demand for wines because of the economy, and declining sales at Havens winery in Napa, which the company purchased in 2006.
The company’s Web site still had no news of this development as of May 26, but it was confirmed to me by Alfredo Bartholomaus, the company’s founder.
Details are still to be worked out, but most of the wineries in Billington's portfolio will now be represented by Winebow, the New Jersey-based company that grew from an Italian specialty importer into a major import and distribution powerhouse. Many of Billington's sales force, including Bartholomaus and his son, Alex, who has run Billington the past several years, will also work for Winebow.
Alfredo Bartholomaus, who emigrated to the United States from Chile in the early 1960s, started Billington in 1985. His main client then was Cousiño-Macul, Chile's oldest family-owned winery. Working primarily “out of the trunk of my car,” Bartholomaus introduced American retailers and restaurants to the value that Chile produces with inexpensive wines that outperform their competition. His company was one of the first quality importers to spring up in the Washington area – a market that thrives today.
In recent years, the company developed the Big Tattoo line of wines from Chile and Germany, which not only provided tremendous value at $8, but also donated proceeds from each sale to local charities.
“I came to this country with one hand tied behind my back, and I have been fighting ever since,” a defiant Bartholomaus said Tuesday. “I will keep fighting. I will still be around.”
(Some disclosure is in order. Like most wine writers in the Washington, D.C., area, I count Alfredo Bartholomaus as a friend and mentor. He has been a gregarious and effective missionary on behalf of the wines from Chile and Argentina, always with a keen eye, rapier wit and precise palate for the value these wines represent for consumers.)
I will have more on the demise of Billington Wines, both here and on The Washington Post’s Food section blog, “All We Can Eat,” at washingtonpost.com.