Expat sells California wines from Swiss vineyard mecca

by Malcolm Curtis
Swisster.ch | October 16, 2009 | 09.30

The spouse of an American professor at the IMD business school in Lausanne rather cheekily starts selling California wines from her home in the midst of Lavaux, the Unesco-designated Swiss vineyard region. Kathryn Billington tells Swisster her online venture began after she realized that apart from super-expensive varieties, good quality vintages from her home state were simply unavailable in Switzerland.

It seems like a classic case of shipping coal to Newcastle. Kathryn Billington, a 45-year-old American expat, is selling California wines from her home in the middle of one of Switzerland’s most famous vineyards.

Not that Billington has anything against the vintages produced in Lutry, in the heart of the Unesco-designated Lavaux world heritage site, it’s just that she began missing the Zinfandels and Chardonnays she was used to in her native California.

“What’s interesting is that we’ve enjoyed discovering the wines made in Lutry and elsewhere in Switzerland,” she told Swisster from her home in Vaud, overlooking Lake Geneva and surrounded by grape vines.

“At the same time there are certain tastes that you cannot find here,” said Billington, explaining why she decided to launch Winecarte, selling California wine online. “A Chasselas (Switzerland’s most common grape variety) is not a Chardonnay.”

The former Hewlett Packard manager arrived in Switzerland four years ago from Silicon Valley when her husband Corey, also an HP manager, landed a job as professor at IMD, the Lausanne business school. The couple found a house amid the terraced vineyards in Lutry, east of the Vaud capital, which Billington said she initially loved for the view, while her spouse liked the extensive wine cellar that came with it.

With a gravel floor, and equipped with proper temperature and humidity controls, the “cave” was a perfect place for the couple to store their collection of around 600 wine bottles, which they shipped from California. It was only when they ran out of bottles of Chardonnay, a few years ago, that Kathryn discovered how difficult it was to replace them in Switzerland.

Apart from undistinguished low-end plonk sold at supermakets like Coop and Denner and high-end labels “costing more than 85 dollars in the US, there wasn’t anything representative of good California wine.” Billington decide to fill the gap with WineCarte.

She and her husband developed an extensive knowledge of California vintages when they lived in San Jose, a 20-minute drive from vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains. Her experience at Hewlett Packard, where she specialized in distribution and supply chain, gave her some background on how to run a retailing business.

“And looking out the windows every day at vineyards inspired me, as well.” By launching WineCarte earlier this year, she benefited from a stroke of good timing.

Prior to 2009, as the spouse of an American admitted into Switzerland with a job, she could not legally own a business without having a work permit. That Catch-22 situation changed when a new law came into effect allowing spouses in such situations, as well as children of parents with a B permit, to start an enterprise.

Billington grappled with the Vaud bureaucracy, registering the business through the filing of French-language forms. She got help from another expat American woman entrepreneur in Vaud on how to design her website.

Now she has found customers who include Americans longing for wine they’re used to, as well as other expats who have visited the US and been exposed to California brands. WineCarte sells wine ranging in price from 16 francs a bottle up to more than 200 dollars for vintages aimed at collectors.

Billington has a wide selection of reds and whites, including Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet varietals, as well as Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc, among others. She also sells organic and dessert wines, such as orange muscat, which have proved popular.

Billington is promising to expand her selection and is touting a group of new products to be introduced next month, including Zinfandel  (under 40 francs) and Cabernet Sauvignon (under 50 francs) from the Rafanelli Winery, which has never before been distributed outside the US.

Located in the Santa Cruz mountains, Rafanelli supplies some of the top restaurants in the US but does not sell to retail stores. WineCarte is also bringing in products to Switzerland from Varner Wines, which has received praise from critic Robert Parker, and Hatcher Winery, based in Calaveras County.

Hatcher is offering a Viognier dessert wine, which Billington expects will be popular for the Christmas season. Winecarte has received a mixed reception from some of Billington’s neighbours, who are busy sell their own wines.

“There’s some skepticism, of course,” she acknowledged. But she has exchanged California wine with one of the local producers, she said, and “he commented on how different it was from Swiss wines.”

Orders placed with WineCarte can be picked up at Billington’s home. She delivers cases of wine for no charge in the Lake Geneva region.

Otherwise, shipments can be made, with a minimum 20-franc order, via Vinolog, a delivery service operated by Swiss Post.

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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