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One of the most influential people in the wine business was recently in Napa to visit with clients and friends as he retires after 35 years in the business.

Leonardo LoCascio, the founder of Winebow, a national importer and distributor of fine wine and craft spirits from around the world, retires June 30.

A native of Palermo in Sicily, LoCascio came from an entrepreneurial family that produced essential oils, but received his MBA from the University of Chicago, and worked in corporate finance and banking for CitiBank, McKinsey and Rockefeller before staring Winebow in 1980.

He chose the name Winebow with an homage to “rainbow” because he intended to import a wide spectrum of wine.

“I wanted to combine my lifestyle with my profession,” he said, and his business was in his home until the third or fourth year when the 13 employees forced him to find a regular office.

The first wines he imported were from Sicily, but he soon expanded to other regions under the name Leonardo LoCascio Selections. “I wanted family-owned and -operated wineries that exhibited regional character and over-delivered for the price,” he said.

LoCascio was one of the first importers to introduce the wines from lesser-known regions, especially southern Italy, to the United States.

In the process, he developed deep relationships with the families, and many stayed with him for decades, often to the second or even third generation. “The relationship shielded and buffeted us from external shocks like currency changes and the economy.”

Originally just an importer, he later branched out into distribution, first in New York and New Jersey. He distributed many Napa Valley wines like Duckhorn, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Frogs’ Leap and Trefethen.

Unlike many importers and distributors, however, LoCascio originally represented only fine wines — no spirits or beer — so he could really focus on their brands.

With a need for capital to expand distribution, LoCascio took in investors, and Winebow merged with The Vintner Group in 2004 to create The Winebow Group. Over time, the company expanded its import portfolio to include spirits and sake from more than 15 countries.

It also acquired other distributors and entered new states and bought Billington Imports. It now distributes in 16 states, plus Washington, D.C.

David Townsend is president and CEO of the combined Winebow Group. The expanded company sells about $650 million per year.

Though he’s retiring, LoCascio said he feels sure that wine, and especially Italian wine, will continue to grow in the United States. “Americans love Italy and Italian food and wine,” he said. “Every city has popular Italian restaurants. Several million Americans a year visit Italy and even rent villas to enjoy the Italian lifestyle. On top of that, Italian wine keeps getting better.”

In his retirement, LoCascio is involved in charity work, including sponsoring two business students in Italy, and is creating a charitable foundation.

He plans to continue educating people about the Italian lifestyle, notably its food. “Americans drink 13 bottles of wine per year on average compared to 40 or 450 in Western Europe and Latin America. We have the potential to triple the market.”

LoCascio is also a big fan of Napa Valley. “I appreciate the changes in quality that have occurred here, not just wine but food and lifestyle. It’s very pleasant to be here,” he says.

Perhaps LoCascio will eventually decide to pursue his passion for life here. He would be a welcome addition to the valley.

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