David Trone of Potomac, Maryland, is the co-founder of Total Wine & More, the largest private alcohol retail chain in the U.S. In 30 years, the company has grown from a single location in Delaware to 173 stores in 24 states doing billions of dollars in sales.
On a recent trip to Israel, Trone visited Psagot Winery — “The owner, Yaakov Berg, is an awesome guy and he is making a great product,” he said — as well as Castel and Barkan. Trone was accompanied on part of the trip by his friend Nathan Herzog, whose company owns the Herzog brand, Kedem, and imports about 80 percent of all Israeli wine into the U.S.
Israeli wineries “are coming out with some excellent wines that are on the same level as high-end non-kosher wines,” said Trone. “Total Wine will be making a section for Israeli Wines in most of our stores, separate from the kosher section. We need to move beyond the traditional perception of kosher wine. It’s not your dad’s Manischewitz anymore.”
Trone’s support of Israel through his business may soon extend to support of Israel in public office: He is running for Maryland’s 6th district Congressional seat after the primaries in June 2018, following an unsuccessful bid for the 8th district seat in 2016. As co-founders of Total Wine & More, Trone said he and his brother Robert have worked with over 6,000 non-profits and “feel an obligation to help those who are most vulnerable,” but in politics “we can make an even bigger difference.”
Trone took a break from the AIPAC Policy Conference to talk with Kol HaBirah about the family history behind his entrepreneurial bent, Total Wine’s humble beginnings, and how his business takes a stand against BDS.
As Passover approaches, wine is on everyone’s minds in the Jewish community. What prompted you to start Total Wine & More?
I was born in Cheverly, Maryland. My mom was a schoolteacher and my dad served on an aircraft carrier in the Navy. After attending college, he started a chicken farm in Pennsylvania. He was a serial entrepreneur, and I learned about risk-taking from him. I also learned from him that you need to be prepared to do any type of work, from driving a truck or a forklift to working the cash register.
Unfortunately, my dad was also an alcoholic, which led to my parent’s divorce and his farm being foreclosed. I wasn’t left with much and my wife and I had student loans when we first started working.
I started a small business in my second semester at Wharton — a beer and soft drink retail store — to help support my mom and my siblings. I financed it by getting capital from Pepsi and Coca Cola, which enabled me to buy beer for cheap.
Total Wine grew very slowly at first. We self-financed, never took money from anyone else. Our first store was just beer, and then we opened another in 1991 that included wine, a third in 1992, a fourth in 1994, and a fifth in 1996, until we had enough capital to expand at a much higher rate. A lot of the success has been due to understanding the state laws and the local politics, which has helped drive pro-consumer, competitive rates.
Maryland State, and specifically Montgomery County, has strict liquor laws that make it difficult to get a wide variety of kosher wines at various price points. How do you advise our consumers to access a variety of affordable kosher wines?
The wine in the monopoly stores in Montgomery County, including kosher wine, is not good for consumers in terms of price or selection. Total Wine’s headquarters is in Montgomery County but we do not have any stores in the county because of the laws there; the closest Total Wine store is in Laurel, Maryland.
For consumers, it’s the worst of the worst. The system needs to be changed.
Can you talk about your connection to the Jewish community?
I am Lutheran and my wife is Jewish. We met at Wharton, where both received MBAs. We raised our kids Jewish; they all had bar and bat mitzvahs, and we are members of Temple Beth Ami and B’nai Israel Congregation. My wife has been attending minyan twice a week, since her father passed away a few years ago.
We are also very involved with the Anti-Defamation League; we received their annual achievement award in 2016 and are a lead sponsor. With anti-Semitism up 57 percent, we need to support groups like the ADL.
You recently returned from a trip to Israel, where you visited multiple vineyards. What are your thoughts on Israeli wine?
They are making great wines in Israel. Total Wine imports 6,000-7,000 cases of Israeli wine every year but we want to grow it to 10,000. We are bringing in wine from all over – such as from the Golan and Samaria and Judea.
We added those wines to make a statement. We are not going to listen to the BDS movement — we will support these businesses. We are also working on getting Israeli beers, such as Goldstar and Maccabee, into the U.S. Total Wine is a leader in the market and if we carry more Israeli products, other stores will too.
What did people you met think about the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
The reaction from Israelis I met was divided. Moving the U.S. Embassy was a popular move to many, but some were less supportive.
I believe that the Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but I agree with Sen. Ben Cardin that the timing of this was not what it should have been.
Do you have any additional thoughts from your trip to Israel you’d like to share with our readers?
I love that it is truly a startup nation. They do great job on water conservation and water irrigation. For example, they know exactly the amount of water they need to hydrate a vine. If you use too much water, you get a watery grape.
We also saw on the Syrian border and the Gaza border that Israelis are helping people on the other side with medical needs at no cost. People need to see that Israel is leading in so many ways by doing the right thing.