When Oklahoma’s liquor laws changed, longtime wine industry veteran Tracia Forrest knew she was uniquely poised to take on a new challenge. In 2016, she opened Artisan Fine Wine & Spirits, a Tulsa-based wine and spirits wholesaler and distributor, focusing on small and midsize wine brands. Here she explains what led her down this path, the challenges she faces, and the secrets to her success.
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Q: How did you get your start?
A: I started in the industry about 16 years ago as a wine sales representative. I had no plans of doing this and had no desire to have my own business; however, I started growing frustrated with the liquor industry structure in Oklahoma. At the same time, I thought there was a lot of opportunity here. I felt that I had an eye for brands that I thought may work in Oklahoma.
Q: What makes you uniquely qualified to found a company like Artisan?
A: I have a deep wine industry knowledge and experience. I am one of the few people in this industry who has worked in every tier. I’ve been a buyer, a wholesale rep, a broker and a brand representative. I was working for a Napa winery and dealing with distributors in other states, when the idea sparked for opening my own distribution company. Experiencing how things were being done in other states made me feel like it could work in Oklahoma. Once it was clear Oklahoma’s liquor laws would be changing and modernizing, I felt it was time to start a company of my own.
Q: When was the moment you knew it would work?
A: There are days where I feel like “what the heck have I gotten myself into?” This year, now that the laws have changed and things are settling down, fewer people are calling me crazy.
Q: Can you expand on that a little and explain the law change and the opportunity?
A: Previously, we could only facilitate a customer purchase. They had to buy from a state-appointed wholesaler. Once our state enacted legislation to sell wine in grocery stores, it opened the door for change. Consequently, the wholesaler can now represent a brand directly. I understood that the changes may also represent an opportunity. A lot of small brands were never able to get into our market through the old system, but now that it has been dismantled, those smaller brands need distributor representation.
Q: So you work with mostly smaller brands?
A: We work with small and medium brands. We find new and unique brands and then market and sell the brands to licensed buyers, like restaurants and liquor stores. We are a home for smaller-production craft wine and spirits brands who needed dedicated distribution.
Q: Can you explain dedicated distribution?
A: We hire more experienced, accredited sales reps. We look for sales reps that can serve as a resource to the buyer and we are there to partner with them. Our Western Division Manager, Clayton Bahr, is a good example. He is there to service his accounts by working with the restaurant or bar to build a wine or cocktail program and train their staff. You have to be very hands-on with the brands we represent, since they are not household names yet. Many of our reps are sommeliers, and 80% of our reps are accredited with either a somm level or a CSW.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge?
A: Honestly, securing capital is very challenging. It is very expensive to be in this business. Finding the best capital partners can be difficult but I am lucky that I have a great partner who supports my vision.
Q: Several accounts have come out recently, pointing to the wine and spirits industry being a bit of an old-boys’ club. What’s your take on that?
A: Yes, it traditionally has been, but that doesn’t intimidate me. I find that being a woman in this industry is a huge advantage, and I always felt that I could do anything that the boys could do. I felt that someone should do this; I just happen to be the only woman doing this in Oklahoma at this time. People who have been doing things a certain way for a long time can discount you, and I’m fine with that. I think it creates an opportunity when someone underestimates you. It certainly helps to have confidence and thick skin in this industry.
Q: What were some of your biggest challenges to getting this going?
A: I never would have been able to do it when my kids were young. Being a working-mom is hard; being a mom in the liquor industry is hard because you’re in the office all day and a wine dinner at night. The kids are old enough now to see I really was actually working – they go to events and see me giving a presentation. My oldest daughter works with us now and sees all that goes into it. Being a single, working mom is the hardest thing that I have ever done.
Q: How do you keep going when the waters get rough?
A: I have a 24-hour timeframe. I get kicked hard sometimes and I need 24 hours to get myself back together and get back into it. I have a background playing competitive sports. This business has so many similarities to sports because it is so competitive. So, if I lose at something, I crawl in the hole and allow myself 24 hours to recover, and then I come back out fighting. I love to work hard, fight for the business and win.
Q: What is the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received?
A: Absolutely the best is ‘not everyone needs to like you’. There will always be people who are negative, so surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive. I talk to my former boss – he hired me 16 years ago – every day. Having great girlfriends who are also professional women and working-moms makes a huge difference.
Q: What is your advice for others who want to start a small business?
A: It is never too late. You have to redirect all the time in life. I’m 52, and I’m proud to be 52. I have battle wounds from life, divorce, and losses; which have made me stronger. I don’t think I could have done this even ten years ago. It takes time and experience to be ready.
Q: If you could send a message to your younger self, what would it be?
A: I wish I would have cut myself some slack. I was so hard on myself with the mom guilt and the work guilt, but I look back on it now and I don’t know how I did it. You feel selfish because you are following your dreams and you’re missing out on so much. When I would miss my children’s events, they would tell the other parents, “my mom is at a wine dinner.” The other moms would think I was missing my children in the school play to be at a leisurely dinner. No one understood I was working. I’m glad I trusted myself to keep going, and my daughters have turned out to be amazing young women.
To find Artisan Fine Wine & Spirits products in Oklahoma City, you can head to local liquor stores Freeman’s Liquor Mart or Sean’s Wines & Spirits. To check out some of top wine lists and cocktail programs featuring these products, visit Stitch, Ludivine, Red Rooster, and Ponyboy. Save this collection to keep this list handy, and be sure to follow Yelp OKC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
To find Artisan Fine Wine & Spirits products in Tulsa, list Parkhill’s Warehouse and Ranch Acres Wine & Spirits. To try cocktails and wine lists featuring Artisan products, visit Four.Seven.Three, Hodges Bend, Doc’s Wine & Food and Ameila’s. Follow this collection to keep this list at the ready, and follow Yelp Tulsa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Finally, join Yelp OKC and Artisan Fine Wine & Spirits for Booze School, Mondays in September starting Monday, September 9. Presented by Black Walnut, each event will focus on a different spirit and will feature two different cocktails, recipes to take home and more. View all details here.