It was some 15 years ago that Phil and Phoebe Devenish first visited our office here at T. Edward Wines. “At that point,” said Phil, “TEW was a pretty small operation; it was basically just Tom and Nick, and maybe a couple of other guys, Patrick and Jorge.” Devenish Wines had not yet been established and Phil was looking to Tom to learn about the business of distribution. “I liked the way Tom obviously had long-term connections with people. He was very conservative in that sense,” added Phil. “There was a lot of civility.” Soon thereafter, Phil returned to Hancock, Maine with a book that favored French selections from T. Edward Wines.
“I couldn’t taste customers on the wine, so I had to just say to them, ‘Here’s the book. It’s good wine. Buy a case, and if you open a bottle and don’t like it, I’ll buy the case back from you.’ That was probably illegal,” Phil added and laughed. “At the time, the only real wine distributors in Maine were spin-offs of the big beer and soda companies, so there was Coors, Pepsi, Miller, Bud and Coke.”
Home to mostly supermarket wines, Maine hadn’t ever seen the likes of Old World artisanal producers. In fact, when Phil first applied for a license to distribute wine in Maine, he went for some six to eight months without a response. “So I called the guy,” said Phil. “And he said, ‘Well, I do apologize, for this, but the fact is we haven’t issued a new wine distributorship license in about 20 years, so we don’t really know how to do it.’ It was really new territory,” said Phil. “There were no small distributors at that point. I was the only one.”
With a book of wines that sold itself, Phil worked from mid-state Maine to DownEast. His first stop was a restaurant in Hancock called Le Domaine, which has since becoming Ironbound. “The woman who ran it was French and knew a lot about wine,” he said. I went to her with this book, and at this point, I knew so little that I really didn’t even know how to price the wines. So I gave her the book and said, ‘Here’s what I pay for it, and here’s what I’m expecting to charge you. There’s no way to be more transparent than that.” She bought 15 cases of wine.
Next, Phil went to Blue Hill Wine Shop and did the same thing with David Witter, who then owned the store. “He’s looking over the list like a kid in a candy shop,” said Phil, “so I just shut-up and he bought 15 cases! I went home to Phoebe and said, ‘This is easy!’”
As a one-man operation, Phil worked tirelessly, hand delivering to Mt Desert Island, Rockland, Deer Isle and beyond. Devenish’s one annual tasting was in Bar Harbor, with an after-tasting dinner party at their house on Hancock Point. In 2002, when David sold Blue Hill Wine Shop and moved to Paris, his single employee Ned Swain (not yet 21-years-old) joined Devenish Wines and expanded business southward to Portland.
Ned Swain delivering wines to Maine & Loire
With seven employees currently, Phil said, “It’s a real mom and pop operation. Ned started off with just the book and moving to Portland and cold-calling on people. I don’t think there was much of a reputation that preceded him. I think Ned struggled and by force of personality and hard work, it developed.”
For the first couple of years, Phil said, “I’d be in wine shops, and I could see the reps from the big distributors there, seeing me, who they’d never heard of, and I could see them scratching their heads. They were just working for commission for someone else and I could see them saying, If Phil can do it, why can’t I?” he continued. “So eight or ten years ago, all of these other distributors, So Po, Crush and Wicked, and all these others. And now they’re all independent owner/distributors, and I personally feel responsible…Most of them are bigger than we are now because they’ve been expansive and growing. They’re aggressive in a way I never was. And I think we have quality standards. We don’t sell grocery store wines. We look down on that. And that’s our reputation.”
Up until two years ago, Phil was still working the market, taking orders, stickering bottles and making deliveries. But then they hired Dillon as a sales rep for DownEast and in 2013, after purchasing and renovating an eyesore/derelict building in the middle of Hancock, Maine, Phil relocated his Devenish warehouse to the building, and Phoebe became the sole proprietor of Best Wines, a retail shop on the other side.
A seasonal wine store on Route 1, Best Wines is a reprieve to visitors who want more selections than the local supermarkets can provide, offering wines that one won’t find anywhere else in the vicinity. And because Phil and Phoebe are life-long lovers and supporters of classical music, all profits from the store go to The Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians, a non-profit organization where Phil resides as President of the Board.“It was a part of our idea from the very beginning [to support the school],” said Phil. “We’ve never been in it for the money. It always provided a job for Ned and now it provides jobs for the rest of the reps and it kept us going back and forth to New Zealand [where Phil and Phoebe spend their winters]. I feel that you can view profit as financial profit, but you don’t have to view all these things economically.
“In fact,” Phil continued, “this is interesting. All of the basic words of economics: value, goods, profit, reward, credit, interest, all of those words are moral words or humanistic words with all of the morality extracted from them. So my profit is our reps having decent jobs in Maine, which is not an easy thing to provide.”