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Ray Herrmann, Drinks Industry Icon, Dies at 100

August 23, 2021

Legendary drinks industry executive Ray Herrmann has passed away at the age of 100. One of the leading lights of the wine and spirits business with a career spanning more than half a century, Herrmann played a key role in the formation of the U.S. distribution landscape as it stands today, led by giants like Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, Republic National Distributing Co., and Breakthru Beverage—a $6.1 billion behemoth of which he remained chairman emeritus up to his death.

“Anyone who knew Ray understood that he was one of the classiest members of our entire industry,” said Marvin R. Shanken, chairman of M. Shanken Communications, Inc. “His bright star will be greatly missed.”

Herrmann died early Saturday morning, August 21, at his home in New York City with his wife Mariana at his side. He would have turned 101 on September 11.

Few people in the drinks industry had careers as long and storied Herrmann’s. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1920, he graduated from Princeton in 1942, afterward serving in the U.S. Army and seeing action in the Pacific theatre during World War II. After returning home, he got a job as a liquor salesman, working for two wholesalers (Seggerman-Nixon and then Francfort Dodge) and rising to become sales manager. He moved to the supplier tier in 1952, joining National Distillers Products Co., where he spent 18 years culminating as general manager of wine and spirits operations. Dealmaking was among his special talents, as he negotiated various acquisitions for National, including one for Almaden Vineyards. Then came a three-year stint at Schieffelin & Co., where Herrmann served as executive vice president, general manager and director, overseeing sales and marketing for Hennessy, Moët & Chandon, Ruffino and Teacher’s.

In 1973, Herrmann was recruited by McKesson Corp. to become president of its wine and spirits group, which comprised four operating companies: McKesson Wholesale Houses, McKesson Import Co., “21” Brands, and Mohawk Liqueur Co. While at McKesson Herrmann again displayed his entrepreneurial side, founding Carlton Importing Co., which imported the St. Pauli Girl beer brand, as well as wine importer Mosswood Wine Co.

After becoming vice chairman at McKesson in 1984, Herrmann announced his retirement and became a consultant. But he didn’t stay away for long. By 1988, he was holding talks with his old employer about acquiring their spirits and wine division. At the time, McKesson was looking to exit the drinks industry to focus on its pharmaceuticals business. With the support of investment company Weiss, Peck & Greer, Herrmann got the deal done in April of that year.

After the acquisition, Herrmann transformed McKesson’s spirits and wine operation, streamlining it into a distribution company called Sunbelt Beverage Corp., doing business in Maryland, Florida, South Carolina, and Arizona. By 1992, Sunbelt was a thriving operation, ranked by Shanken’s Impact Newsletter as the nation’s fifth-largest spirits and wine distributor with $575 million in sales.

In 1994, Herrmann was again on the move, striking a deal to join forces with fellow spirits and wine distributor Charmer Industries. Charmer initially took a minority stake in Sunbelt, and in the spring of 1996 it increased its interest to a majority shareholding. Combined, Charmer and Sunbelt leapfrogged the competition to become the industry’s No. 2 wholesaler with revenues of $1.43 billion.

The merger deal with Charmer launched Herrmann’s long and successful partnership with Charmer’s owner, the late Herman Merinoff. The two men served as co-chairmen of Charmer Sunbelt Group, overseeing further expansion of the business, until Merinoff’s death in 2006. In 2015, Charmer Sunbelt merged with Wirtz Beverage to form Breakthru Beverage, today the third-largest spirits and wine wholesaler in the U.S. with more than $6 billion in revenues and a footprint of 13 U.S. states as well as operations in Canada.

Across his illustrious career, Herrmann was known for forming lasting connections and bringing people together. One of his proudest personal milestones was his introduction of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, laying the foundation for the creation of the famous Opus One wine brand, and being named Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Mérite (Knight of the National Order of Merit) by French President Francois Mitterand.

A devoted philanthropist, Herrmann served as a Life Fellow on The Weill Cornell Medicine Board of Fellows, was named B’nai B’rith Youth Services Man of the Year in 1982, and was inducted to the Hall of Fame of Sky Ranch.

Herrmann is survived by his wife, Mariana; his daughter, Laura Nicholson; his grandson, Christian Kai-Nielsen and his dog Pancho II. He was predeceded in death by his sons, Mark and Michael Herrmann.—David Fleming and Daniel Marsteller

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