Prophet of Pour

Adam Strum ’74 parlayed his love of wine—and knack for salesmanship—into a multimillion-dollar success story.

Adam Strum, a 2016 Alumni Achievement Award Winner, is the founder and chairman of Wine Enthusiast Companies. Adam Strum, a 2016 Alumni Achievement Award Winner, is the founder and chairman of Wine Enthusiast Companies. When you talk to Adam Strum ’74, you can’t help but smile. He has a habit of prefacing stories with “you’re gonna love this,” and by the time he’s finished talking, you really do. He’s a happy guy—contagiously so. And why shouldn’t he be? As the founder and chairman of Wine Enthusiast Companies, he’s sitting at the helm of a $100-million business that deals in one of life’s great indulgences.

“I’m lucky,” he says with a chuckle. “I could be in the tire or the toilet paper business.”

Wine Enthusiast Companies comprises three entities—a magazine with more than 800,000 readers, a catalog of wine accessories, and a website, wineexpress.com, which sells wines from all over the world direct to consumers.

“Back when we started, we never dreamed we could do 3, 4 million in sales,” Strum says. “I can’t say that I’m a business genius, but I can say that wine is a fabulous business to be in because it is a growth industry.”

But Strum, a 2016 Alumni Achievement Award Winner, may be underselling his acumen. He’s a born people person. “A superstar salesperson,” to use his own words, and his charm is such that it doesn’t even sound like bragging when he says it. “You have to sell yourself,” he says.

In fact, the whole enterprise started when he and his wife, Sybil, decided to sell corkscrews out of their attic back in 1980. After graduating from Rollins with a major in psychology, Strum had gone to work as a wine salesman for his father’s business. Back then, the idea of “fine wine” was a fringe interest. 

“If you did find a bottle of wine, it was usually a ‘jug wine’ which generally had a screw cap, so no corkscrew was needed,” he remembers.

Still Strum had a hunch that he and his wife weren’t the only people looking for accessories like corkscrews and specialty wine glasses. And with that, Wine Enthusiast Companies’ first enterprise, a direct mail catalog, was born. It was a bit bare bones compared to today’s techy startups (“We weren’t even computerized in the very beginning,” he marvels. “We used memory typewriters, if you can believe it.”) But the first catalog sold 100 orders, and the business took off from there. The catalog now accounts for 70 percent of Wine Enthusiast’s business. “It’s the economic engine of our company,” Strum says. 

Soon after the catalog became profitable, Strum and his wife quit their day jobs to work for Wine Enthusiast full time, and it wasn’t long before Strum knew he had identified a niche. In 1988, he launched his next venture, the magazine Wine Enthusiast. It was a somewhat risky decision that could have meant the end for another business. But Strum turned the potential misstep into an opportunity to build his profile.

“Because I was in the catalog business, I really didn’t understand the media business,” Strum admits. “I really didn’t understand how to sell advertising. But it’s a people business, and I realized I had to get to know the people in the wine industry, convince them that our format was a great place to promote their products. So I got to know people. I went to Napa. I went to Italy. They liked me and they advertised.”

Today, Wine Enthusiast is one of the world’s largest publications devoted to wine and spirits, and it uses the platform ever so shrewdly to spread the love of wine. In addition to a variety of lifestyle features—about travel, food, and accessories—every issue (that’s 14 a year) also features hundreds of wines, beers, spirits, and ciders reviewed on a 100-point scale. The goal is to make the culture more accessible to the average person.

“Our journalists never make unwarranted assumptions about what people may or may not know about wine,” he explains. “While wine writing has become more sophisticated over the years, we still try to explain the process in a more understandable fashion so everyone can relate.”

In 1996, Strum and company added another layer to the business: wineexpress.com. The direct-to-consumer online retailer was at the time of its launch the first transactional website on AOL.com. The site plays further into Strum’s for-the-love-of-wine ethos with virtual tastings hosted by a renowned cellar-master, Josh Farrell, as well as pairing suggestions and exclusive winery offerings.

It’s just the latest success in Strum’s portfolio—an assortment that seems like it could stress out even the most efficient businessperson. But not Strum. After all, he is the original wine enthusiast.

His typical day in the office ranges from a casual business meeting with his wife (who still runs the company with him) and leadership training with his adult daughters (who work alongside him) to a black-tie dinner at the Wine Star Awards, an industry event sponsored by Wine Enthusiast, hosted by Strum, and attended last year by John Legend.

“I just have such a delicious life,” he says. And as usual, it’s hard to argue.