As Americans, most of the wine we drink comes from Californian or Italian vineyards. If you ask the average wine drinker where the best wine in the world is made, they might say Italy, France or California. Armenia is given little attention, if any. But unknown to most consumers, Armenia has a long and rich history in winemaking dating back over 6,000 years. In fact, the oldest winemaking artifacts ever discovered were found in Armenia, making it known as the birthplace of wine.
Zack Armen, an Armenian businessman and cofounder of Storica Wines, is bringing the Armenian wine story to life in the U.S. Part of what makes Armenian wine so unique is Armenia’s “terroir,” the combination of climate, soil and elevation, which give Armenia’s unique indigenous grape varieties a flavor and aroma profile that is pleasant, top notch and reminiscent of other fine wines from around the world. Armen is on a mission to convince Americans of Armenia’s superior wine offering and to create a new category of Armenian wine that will sit alongside traditionally recognized wines at the highest level. His company, Storica Wines, is off to a strong start, with its portfolio offered in over 150 stores and restaurants and available for sale in 40 states through state-level distribution channels and the company’s online store.
Armen sat down with Worth to discuss what it takes to build a new category of wine in the U.S. and what makes Armenian wines so good.
Q: What is your vision for Storica Wines?
A: We’re focusing on building a new category of Armenian wine in the United States. In this effort, there is a really interesting tension between taking a disruptive, digital-centric approach like many other products and services do today, yet needing to participate in a heavily regulated, multi-tier trade system. We try to be highly respectful of working within the bounds of, and with the parlance of, the industry value chain, but at the same time realize that there is some out-of-the-box thinking and doing we have to do to be successful in gaining U.S. consumers’ attention. We are learning as we go and finding that ultimately having a great story and a high-quality product will win the day.
Our big overarching goal is to bring these beautiful ancient wines, now being produced with a very high degree of quality and sophistication, to the U.S. in such a way that speaks to and recognizes that history in ancient tradition but also has a modern methodology in which we’re engaging with consumers.
What makes Armenian wines so good?
The quality of Armenian wine is a function of a few key factors. The first is the terroir: the combination of climate, soil type and elevation. Armenia gets 300 days of sunlight per year, which is significantly more than most countries in Europe. This high concentration of sunlight, when combined with high elevation vineyards, causes an intensity of climate that stresses the grape vines. Moreover, at high elevations there are more rapid changes in temperature, precipitation and wind. When you combine all these factors, this delivers a highly complex flavor and aroma profile that gives Armenian wines their unique attributes. Armenia’s vineyards are mostly volcanic soil, which are best suited for good drainage and water retention. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Armenia’s leading grapes themselves are old, indigenous varieties which are high quality from a viticulture perspective and have an optimal combination of similarity to more commonly found quality grapes, such as Pinot Noir for the Areni red grape and Chenin Blanc for the Voskehat white grape.
With all of these raw agronomic or viticulture positive attributes, the winemaking, or everything that happens after the grapes are harvested, is also key to the quality of the wines. Armenia is now blessed with several top notch and world-renowned winemakers, who have built large scale winemaking infrastructure across the country’s multiple winemaking regions. We are fortunate to work with one of the pioneers of the Armenian winemaking movement, Vahe Keushguerian, who has decades of winemaking experience in the U.S., Italy and France. We will begin to work with additional winemakers later this year who have also had significant experience in winemaking and are producing globally recognized wines today.
The future is bright for continued top quality wines coming out of Armenia at greater and greater scale, and we hope to work with many of these winemakers as we grow Storica’s business in the U.S.
How is Storica achieving its goals as becoming a national brand ambassador?
We’ve focused on building a multi-faceted digital presence that tells the story of Armenian wine in a compelling, celebratory way. Overall, what we’re seeking to do is to be the category creator and leader of Armenian wine in the United States. The way in which we’re doing that is we’re working with the best wineries in Armenia and bringing high-quality wines to the U.S. in such a way that is nationally scalable, including people and processes across marketing, sales, operations, finance and logistics. To our knowledge, there are no other companies building such a scaled, multi-winery effort in the U.S. in support of the Armenian wine category. Individual wineries are selling their wines in the U.S. in certain states, but our understanding is these are all on a single-brand or single-winery basis.
What type of consumers are you targeting?
We want to have a portfolio of wines that are attractive to a wide variety of American consumer profiles, from the casual wine drinker to the master somms of the world. We also want to ensure our portfolio spans various price points and that each of our products have a strong price to quality ratio. Most of the wines in our portfolio today are in the $20-30 per bottle range, but we will have wine that’s priced lower and higher in the future. Ultimately, it is that breadth of consumer that we’re really going after, since we see a home for Armenian wine in virtually every wine use case given how many wonderful and diverse wines there are from Armenia.
What are your marketing strategies?
Storica has a strong digital marketing strategy focused on targeting three main consumer archetypes: Armenian communities, oenophiles and wine writers and curious millennials. Armenia and the history of this emerging wine region is a topic that many audiences are excited to learn about and be among the first to share within their communities. Through social media, PR, digital advertising, virtual events, brand and influencer partnerships, Storica has the unique opportunity to educate consumers about Armenian wine. We are proud to see strong interest and positive reception from the likes of Karen MacNeil, Forbes, Haute Living, Armenian communities, wine clubs and more as a result.
What gave you the idea to start a wine company?
I grew up in the world of finance and then most recently in life sciences and biotech. My day job is business development for a biotech company. The inspiration behind Storica came out of one of my trips to Armenia in 2017, when I noticed that the wine was getting better very quickly. I started asking people why, and was introduced to Vahe and Aimee Keushguerian, two winemakers who are very active in this renaissance of Armenian wine, and they filled me in on what was going on. From their perspective, penetrating the U.S. market was going to be key to the long-term success or failure of Armenian wine as a global wine region. I saw that as an opportunity to impact my homeland in a way that is multigenerational and hugely scalable when you think about the benefit of having a product like wine being a contributor to tourism, GDP growth and job creation. I also saw it as a great opportunity to build a U.S.-based business that had significant upside, and I am humbled every day to see this come to fruition, and by the progress we’ve made as a company, and the support we’ve received from our investors, partners and consumers.
What is your strategy for marketing to restaurants and stores?
For new wine and spirits brands, it’s critical to have a presence in stores and restaurants, as opposed to simply selling online like many other products and services do. Successful wines have followed the playbook of getting top-tier restaurant placements early on and to then build their brand off of that cachet and credibility—because of COVID, we’ve not been able to start there, of course, but as re-openings increase, we are highly focused on the restaurant channel. Growing up as a company during COVID has had its pluses and minuses, obviously lack of restaurant business being a minus. However, starting with a heavy focus on digital, on driving foot traffic into stores and investing in beautiful content creation and social media engagement will hopefully begin to pay dividends and allow us to seize the current opportunity to quickly ramp our on-premises sales. A goal for us is to get as many of our wines listed BTG (“by-the-glass”) on menus, because that is where you see the best velocity of sales movement and often see consumers more willing to try new brands from less common regions. This is a big priority for us over the coming weeks and months, alongside securing distribution partnerships with top-tier distributors who share in our passion for this new wine category and see its potential the way we do at Storica.