20 Questions with CEO Bill Terlato - Terlato International

20 Questions with CEO Bill Terlato - Terlato International

Bill Terlato has my job! Oh, you don’t know Bill? The Terlato family is one of the largest wine marketers, importers & winery owners in the country and it all began here in Chicago. Started over 50 years ago by Bill’s father, Anthony, he worked with his father and father-in-law to start bringing fine wine to the Chicago market. Fast forward to today and the umbrella of the company is rather impressive – 1 out of every 10 bottles of wine sold over $15 in America is a Terlato brand, more 90+ rated wines in 2009-2011 than any other distributor in America.

Up until recently, I knew very little of the Terlato family other than they were key supporters of Chicago Gourmet and if you want to run a restaurant and buy wine, you’re going to hear and know the name besides buying some of their offerings. Bill reminds me of a few CEOs I’ve met – smart, funny and commanding of the room. You’ll never EVER have a better story than Bill. You can try the Sisyphus exercise but he’s so well traveled you’ll just lose. Yet, he doesn’t lord it over you, don’t get me wrong, the man is all class and humility. He also dresses very well.

I had a lot of fun doing these 20 questions. I was very curious to see what made him tick and where his passions were outside of the business. I quickly realized Bill is a family man who loves to play golf aside from eating and drinking. I hope you enjoy the questions and insight in to a Chicago success story.

Name                                                  Bill Terlato
Terlato Int’l Title                              President and CEO
Married                                              Debbie
Kids                                                     Josephine, Tony, Elyse
Age                                                      52
From                                                   Chicago, IL
UIniversity                                        Loyola University
Knife                                                  Right Hand
Twitter Handle                                @billterlato

1. What did you have for dinner last night?
I have to think where I had dinner last night. We were at home. Debbie made chicken on the grill marinated in lemon and olive oil.

2. Place you eat out most often?
Bill: We have 68,000 accounts in the country (laughs)
CFS: That’s a lot of eating out.
Bill: Let me give you the last two weeks – Mirko’s in the Hamptons, Paris Club, Boka, La Scarolla, and Gibsons.

3. Favorite wine to drink not in your portfolio?
Bill: Um, we taste everything. A few nights ago we had ‘78 Petrus.
CFS: That was pretty good?
Bill: Ya (laughs)

4. If you got $5,000, how would you spend it?
I’d do something for my kids. I’d give each of the kids a $1,000 and the rest to charity.

5. First word that comes to mind when I say Michelin?

6. Favorite Charity Event that you work with?
Bill: We’re doing an event next week for the First Tee with Luke Donald and Jack Nicklaus. So right now that’s my favorite.
CFS: Saying Jack Nicklaus doesn’t suck!
Bill: Now that’s not too bad – he’s been a help selling tickets (laughter)

7. Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in?
Bill: My mom’s house. I’d make her cook like 50 things.
CFS: No one has said that yet.
Bill: We all cook but she’s unbelievable.

8. If you weren’t working within the wine industry, what would you do for a living?
I’d like to think I’d be on the Champions Tour playing golf.

9. Most exotic vacation destination?
A year ago we did South Africa with the family. But for my parents 50th anniversary the whole family went to Sardinia. We were all together and it was remarkable. (Points out a photo in his office of the family on that vacation.)

10. Most embarrassing moment around wine/beer distribution?
Bill: There can be so many of them. Probably spilling a glass of wine on a white shirt, I’m a pretty impeccable dresser.
CFS: Has that happened?
Bill: In a restaurant here in Chicago, the server spilled a tray on me and she was mortified - I told her not to worry – she looked like she was going to have a heart attack. So I took a glass of wine and poured it on my shirt and said, “See now we both did it.”

11. Person you would most like to open a bottle of wine with?
Bill: Julius Caesar
CFS: What’s the wine?
Bill: Open a bottle of Gaia since we’re in Italy.

12. What are you most excited about right now?
The trend that is happening with Millennials and their discovery of wine. That portends well.

13. Do you have any pet peeves?
Many but definitely overcooked pasta. (Bill and I had a side chat after a previous question. He likes and expects his pasta to be al dente or as we Italians say cooked correctly.)

14. Karaoke song?
Oh God, I just sang Karaoke in China because they forced us to. I told the guy I’m the only Italian who can’t sing, but I sang My Way.

15. Is there a Holy Grail of wines that you would want to taste?
Bill: You know there are so many great wines in the world. Between my dad, brother and I we’ve been to over 1,500 vineyards and tasted 15,000 wines and we haven’t made a dent.
CFS: So there isn’t one?
Bill: No, we love classified Bordeaux. But the price is high because of China. Every table had 82 Lafite and they’re paying $5000-6000 a bottle. They made 30,000 cases and China sold probably 80,000. We never drink the same wine week after week. We put together a calendar with our selections to try not to drink the same bottle twice.

16. Do you have a preferred style or varietal of wine?
I think ever wine has its moment to shine. Some it’s at a great meal and some it’s on a nice summer day by the pool. I like them all but I’m more partial to reds. Only because I think in general there is more depth, complexity and finish but you can find that in some whites as well.

17. Thing about wine most novices get wrong?
They don’t experiment enough. This is a pet peeve – people say they don’t like Chardonnay. First it’s the number one selling varietal and you can’t possibly drink all the great Chardonnay’s. If you drink $7 Chardonnay, you haven’t even begun to realize what Chardonnay is. If you began in Burgundy and drank all the great Chardonnay you’d find such a variety. When you say you’re tired of Chardonnay, you don’t know anything about wine because you wouldn’t make that statement.

18. Is there a current region you don’t work with that is on your radar?
Washington State and we’re talking to some people in Chile

19. Your father built the business. You and your brother worked your way up to the positions having nothing handed to you. Will you continue that with the next generation?
Hopefully, several more generations! My daughter graduated college and did Teach for America for two years. We’ve told the kids they need to work out of the business for a few years. She’s now working in wine sales and making her own way. My son just graduated and he’s going to work for an Open Table competitor in San Francisco. My kids have worked during summers at vineyards but we’ve never pushed them. But I’m hopeful they’d want to join the business.

20. How is it you and your brother became CEO at 35 of the family companies? Is that the magic number?
No, we had a great legacy to build on and we can’t take anything for granted and we have to continue to make our own mark. We get up each morning running.

21. This year you’ve decided not to participate in Chicago Gourmet. Why?
We jumped in right at the beginning. Mayor Daley called us and we supported it in a big way. We were the first ones and convinced others to participate. We stepped up and took the highest level of sponsorship. As they’ve made the festival bigger and bigger, they’ve done other things and included spirits companies it’s become less of a wine event. Some chef’s participate and others don’t. One thing we liked early on we had a marquee position - in the earliest year they had 500 wines and we had 125. We served our best wine and our highest end wines – Bollinger, Gaia, Chapoutier. As the festival gets bigger the cost of the marquee position gets bigger and bigger, when I look at the cost it begins to get extravagant and I have to look at the cost benefit. I’m not saying I won’t go back. We’re taking a break for a year and we’ll see what happens.

22. Favorite Chef that you’ve worked with at events or promotions?
We’ve worked with so many. I have to say that Charlie Trotter, he’s a quintessential pro. He put Chicago on the map. Jean Joho is great and a close friend. He probably knows more about pairing wine with food then anyone.

23. Is Santa Margherita a victim of its own success?
To a certain extent, it has a large consumer following. There’s a reason for that because I think the wine is great. How many categories can you get the best of something slightly more then something that is mediocre. If you stay in a hotel and the penthouse suite is $20,000 a night but another room in the hotel might be $175. I think Santa Margherita represents the top of the class and how often can you get the best for slightly more.

24. Screw caps or cork?
Cork. Everything we do is to produce the best possible wine and in the best possible condition. Cork can be imperfect but all of the closures can be. If you drink a wine bottled within 6 months you can put saran wrap and it’ll be the same. We like to age and cellar our wine….What’s protecting my wine? You can get cork taint but our experience is less than 1%. With a screw cap you have a manmade material that is so thin protecting the wine and the seal could dry out. If the wine is laying down, I’d rather it touch cork rather than metal or plastic. I’ll take the 1% loss.

25. This last question is purely personal and selfish: Can you introduce me to Gaia Gaja and is she single?
Bill: (laughs) She is still single and I’d be happy to introduce you.
CFS: Excellent!
Bill: She’s a great person.

Bill thank you again for the excellent wine tasting and playing my game of 20 questions. I look forward to meeting Gaia and possibly being a fourth in that loop in Georgia!

If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKennaChris Pandel , Michael MuserCurtis Duffy , Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm, Michael Taus, Chris Curren and Patricio Sandoval answered.

Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner.

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