Wild Geese: ‘The US is a huge and complicated country’
Howth native Rhys Davies found his niche in the wine import business in Virginia, USA
Rhys Davies: “Irish people, with their adventurous spirit, great work ethic, adaptability and social intelligence, are well-positioned to be successful here.”
Halfway through college, Rhys Davies decided that studying marketing wasn’t for him.
“I’d been working in the Bloody Stream pub part-time, since I was a teenager,” says the Howth man, “and decided after my college attempt to work in the industry full-time. Bartending was already something I loved, especially because of the people I worked with.”
Davies left Ireland in 2005 for the city of Alexandria, in Virginia south of Washington DC. Motivated by stories of the lucrative bar industry in America, he worked in a newly-built Irish bar, owned by Tipperary man Mark Kirwan.
In 2013, Davies and his wife’s family started Parallel43, a wine import business that now supplies more than 200 clients in Virginia and the DC area. He manages all wine sales for Parallel43, which takes its name from the lines of latitude running through Bulgaria.
“This is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world,” Davies says.
“It fell behind [rivals] due to many historical, political, and cultural circumstances. But it has been making a major comeback in recent years, in part thanks to European funding. It’s been exciting to witness its return to the international market.”
At Parallel43, the former St Andrew’s College schoolboy sources many different wines, including unique gems that are indigenous to the region.
“One of my favourites is the unique Bulgarian grape called Bouquet (a genetic crossing of Bulgarian Mavrud and Pinot Noir) which was rated by the top US critics and received a 90 points rating three years in a row. One of our partners – Borovitza in northwest Bulgaria, was referrred to as the place where God sends messages in bottles by Hugh Johnson in his Pocket Wine Guide.”
According to Davies, Washington DC and the northern Virginia area is one of the biggest wine-consuming regions in the US. It was not as badly affected by the economic downturns and fluctuations of the recent past as other parts of the US.
“Our success here has been slow and steady, which is normal in the wine world. It’s a very saturated market, so the past few years have been about trust-building with customers and learning how to tap into the curiosity of the American wine drinker.”
One of the biggest differences between working in hospitality in Ireland and America, Davies found, is the work ethic of people.
“In my experience, the camaraderie and teamwork that happens naturally in Ireland is something lacking in America. Back home, everything was everyone’s job. In America, responsibilities tend to be more distinct.
“For instance, a work volume that could be easily handled in Ireland by one bartender and one server would have two bartenders, four servers, two food runners, a barback and a manager in the US,” he says.
“Also, in America, the service industry is very transient, with a lot of young people coming through temporarily – so it’s not always taken with the same level of maturity and professionalism as it is in Ireland.”
The warehouse and offices for Parallel43 are located in Alexandria, the same Virginia city Davies first went to on his arrival in the US. Initially Davies found the process of starting a business in the US tedious.
“There is a mountain of paperwork to go through and then you have to have everything approved by the federal government only to go through the same process for each state. Federal and state authorities do not work together.
“We had a wine label approved federally but rejected by the state and making changes to pass state can then fail federal authorities. The process requires a lot of patience.”
He sees tremendous opportunity for Irish people to find work in Virginia and the DC area. Although it is a strange time politically and many young people in Europe are reluctant to imagine life in America, he would encourage them to keep an open mind.
“This is a huge and complicated country, but so is the potential for employment. Irish people, with their adventurous spirit, great work ethic, adaptability and social intelligence, are well-positioned to be successful here, and not just financially.”
His impression is that it’s a great time for the travelling worker, with a lot of young Americans being very selective but not driven professionally.
Pan Atlantic helped Davies secure visas and connected him with people looking to hire from Ireland.
“Almost every Irish bar has a familiar accent and at least one person who can pour a proper pint! There are a lot of Irish communities here, including a GAA and hurling league.
“The climate in Alexandria is much hotter than Ireland, and it’s more diverse too. Our neighbourhood has many Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Easterns communities, restaurants and stores.”
Davies has plans to continue expanding Parallel43, but would like to introduce some Bulgarian wines to the Irish market, which has also been growing and developing in recent years. Parallel43 is also exploring several opportunities in the US, creating custom labels for restaurant groups and chains.