Breaking Through the Bottle - A Chat with Danny Wirtz
Grown right here in Chicago in 1946, the Wirtz family has had a huge impact on not only shaping the Second City's hockey rebirth, but more likely than not, the cocktail that you last had probably contained a spirit sold by the Wirtz family. In 2015, the family merged their eponymous company with Charmer Sunbelt to create Breakthru Beverage Group.
Since then, Breakthru has become a national powerhouse in the world of alcohol distribution. Here in Illinois, their reputation first and foremost was to liquor - holding brands like Buffalo Trace, Tito's and Tanqueray. With the new acquisition of Treasury Wine Estates massive portfolio of wines and even more merger rumors out there, we wanted to go right to the source to see what the future of Breakthru Beverage would be in the Second City and how their increased focus on wine would affect our city's wine culture. Here is our chat with Vice Chairman of Breakthru Beverage Group - Danny Wirtz.
Second City Soil - It’s been a busy 24 months for the Wirtz Family and your beverage company. What were some of the driving factors behind the recent merger plans?
Danny Wirtz - We have always had a growth mindset and have to be looking ahead. As the supplier and customer tiers were consolidating the opportunity to grow, expand and build a stronger and more effective model became a core aspect of our vision. That focus hasn’t changed and the latest proposed transaction with RNDC continues a quest to support our vision and goals.
SCS - What led to the decision to partner and merge with Charmer Sunbelt and RNDC?
DW - As you know, the proposed transaction with RNDC is in process, targeting to close Q4 of 2018. From our perspective, we seek like-minded partners where the people and culture are at the heart, and a key aspect of any proposed partnership. We consolidated Sunbelt and Wirtz just about 2 ½ yrs ago to form Breakthru Beverage where that philosophy was very much the case. Both Sunbelt and Wirtz Beverage shared similar heritage, a vision to grow and core values, establishing a strong foundation of which something new and successful was formed. These factors bound us during our first round of meetings and negotiations, forging a great partnership, which ultimately led to the formation of Breakthru with a new, stronger and more effective business model across our U.S. markets and Canada.
SCS - Picking up Treasury Wine Estates has to be an exciting addition to your company? How do you think this will help buyers perception of your company when it comes to wine?
DW - Alongside our other valued wine suppliers, Treasury is an exciting addition to Breakthru’s wine portfolio, where we are now representing their tremendous range of brands in 12 Breakthru markets. We see great opportunity with their growing premium portfolio with both legendary and new/emerging brands from different categories and many great regions around the world. We are serious about wine and will continue to partner with leading wine companies to bring great wine to our customers. Treasury is a great example of that.
SCS - Buyers and sommeliers are starting to take notice that Breakthru has been investing in wine personnel here in Chicago. What prompted this change?
DW - We feel that buyers saw us as a spirit company, when in fact, we actually have had and continue to build a solid wine book. We have invested heavily into finding and hiring the right people to evolve and advance our image as a leading wholesaler of wine, furthering our relationship and wine leadership with accounts across the marketplace. It started by hiring Fine Wine Specialists about 3 years ago, adding to our Trade Development team, and now, creating wine dedication for our top wine focused customers. It’s been a nice cultural shift. Currently in IL we have over 250 individuals with certifications from the Society of Wine Educators, WSET, and Court of Master Sommeliers. We also have over 25 people dedicated to luxury wine, and look forward to continuing our growth when it comes to supporting luxury wine in the marketplace.
SCS - Now that you have a new route-to-market for luxury wine, what are the plans for growing the portfolio?
DW - Well, first of all it’s been exciting to see our current suppliers continue to grow their luxury books. Gallo, Jackson Family, Kobrand, and Folio for example have all had significant acquisitions in the past year or so. This is a great benefit to Breakthru because these suppliers represent a long standing partnership that will allow us both to provide value to our customers. With that, our supplier partnerships are a core value for us, so we try our best to not have too much overlap, rather a good balance across price points, varietal and regional or country specific wine offerings.
SCS - The Wirtz family has been hugely involved in the Chicago community for generations. How do you see these next few years of growth affecting that involvement?
DW - I think we are just getting started. I’m lucky to work along-side my dad, Rocky, 3 cousins (Arthur Wirtz, James Wirtz and Will Fix) and my sister Hillary. Chicago is our hometown and we aren’t going anywhere. We want to earn the trust and partnership with the great wine trade here in Chicago and personally do all we can to help support those efforts every day. As the company grows, we have a broader responsibility across North America but our heart and home is always going to be here in Chicago.
SCS - So, it’s a Friday night and you finally make your way home to the family after a long week of travel. I know you're really into music - what bottle are you popping and what's on the record player?
DW - Always a tough question, so I will refer to some recent music and beverage pairings. A good Provence Rosé and the new record from Against All Logic (aka Nicolas Jaar). Alternately, a Vermentino also goes well on the porch while streaming some weird beats on NTS Radio. That all sounds pretentious….many nights my kids make us listen to Weird Al Yankovich while I sip a beer.