FREDERICK S. WILDMAN, SR., occupied a unique position in the history and development of the American fine wine and spirits market. His is a remarkable story of entrepreneurial vision matched with an unrelenting quest for quality, a mission that animates Frederick Wildman and Sons, Ltd. to this day.
When Wildman founded his import company in 1934 he was already one of America’s rare authorities of fine French and European wines and spirits, experience that was directly attributable to his WW I service in France. For a Danbury, Connecticut-born member of one of the city’s most prominent families (there’s a Wildman Street named after an early settler there), Wildman’s service in France during WW I would prove to be crucial to his transformation into a great wine and spirits connoisseur, a far-sighted importer beginning with Repeal and, ultimately, a highly respected wine and spirits industry leader in both America and Europe.
A decorated veteran in critical World War I battles at Château-Thierry and MeuseArgonne—where he attained the rank of first lieutenant in the Second Division of the U.S. Army—Wildman soon developed a thirst to learn as much as he could about fine French wines and spirits. His grandson, Tarik Wildman, remembered that the Colonel told him that as he was so close on the front lines to Reims (and its surrounding Champagne vineyards) in June 1918 during the Château-Thierry battle, Wildman learned to appreciate France’s wines and Champagnes. So much so, as he recounted to his grandson, General Pershing—head of American Expeditionary Forces—on learning of Wildman’s connoisseurial skills, tasked the then First Lieutenant to organize elaborate menus and accompanying wines for Pershing’s post-war officer’s mess following Armistice Day on November 11, 1918. On Pershing’s orders, Wildman stayed on in France and then Germany for a period of six months, scouting out fine wines to serve to Pershing’s top brass before his discharge in 1919.
Wildman returned home and entered the family insurance and banking business in the 1920s. But sensing the end Prohibition and an opportunity to turn his avocation into a business, in 1933 Wildman bought the century-old Bellows and Co., a wine importer and fine-food purveyor. That same year Wildman traveled to Europe’s finest vineyards to pursue suppliers and to grow his importing business. Within a short time, Wildman signed on some of France’s leading wine producers, many still in Frederick Wildman’s portfolio today.
With Wildman in charge, his import company grew and prospered. Wildman himself wrote the newsletters and wine notes, always reflecting his personal commitment to the highest quality products for his discriminating clientele. The Colonel, as he was called, continued to travel to Europe to develop contacts and establish partnerships. When National Distillers, which had acquired Wildman’s company after WW II, decided to leave the premium wine business in 1952, the Colonel was able to create his own company, Frederick Wildman and Sons, Ltd. From the start, Champagne Pol Roger, Domaine Armand Rousseau, Christian Moreau, Olivier Leflaive, and Château Fuissé were mainstays of the portfolio then and remained when Colonel Wildman retired in 1971, and his company became a subsidiary of Hiram Walker. In the next two decades Frederick Wildman and Sons continued to grow.
1989 was a boom year for the company. Frederick Wildman and Sons added the very popular and influential wines of Italian producer, Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV), to its range including Melini, Santi, and Folonari. In 1990, this was followed by the arrival of Hugel et Fils from Alsace and Chartreuse, a famed botanical elixir, into Wildman’s portfolio. These Italian additions added large volume of popular wines and propelled Wildman into the ranks of one of the leading importers in the United States. At that time, Richard Cacciato had just become president of the company and he began to restructure the company to allow the new growth.
In 1993, Cacciato, along with an investment group headed by GIV (Gruppo Italiano Vini) and including five of the company’s French suppliers—Champagne Pol Roger, Famille Hugel, Domaine Olivier Leflaive, Jean-Jacques Vincent/Château Fuissé and Domaine Pascal Jolivet—purchased Wildman from Hiram Walker. This was a strong vote of confidence on the part of the suppliers in Frederick Wildman’s stability and promise for the years to come.
Growth continues as the Wildman portfolio now includes more than 50 brands under its umbrella, each one unique and each one prominent in its region of production. Along with the growth, the familiar Wildman Oval — created by the Colonel and present on every bottle that the company imports — has remained constant and is still consistently recognized worldwide as a symbol of quality.
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