Vice Wine Company founder goes from Moroccan street vendor to luxury winemaker
Few wine company founders have the varied career or winemaking background that Malek Amrani boasts of.
Before the age of 17, Amrani was: a record taekwondo black belt, a freshman medical student, and a hash and marijuana dealer.
Amrani, 33, founded The Vice Wine Company in 2016. His journey from hash dealer to medical student to winemaker began with his childhood in Morocco. “My father was a pilot, he traveled a lot and brought back wines,” says Amrani.
Amrani’s mother died when he was 11 years old. “I sort of raised myself from 11 to 16,” he says. “I was the youngest African to get a black belt in taekwondo at the age of 12, but I was also selling hash on the side. I was a bit of a troublemaker, but I was a good student, so I walked out.
At 16, he graduated from high school early and his father pushed him into medical school, which he attended in Senegal. “I did really well, but it wasn’t for me,” Amrani says. “So I came up with a plan to go to the United States.”
At 17, Amrani managed to obtain a visa. “Most of my friends laughed at me, and they said, ‘You’re going to have a fun summer, and then you’re going to come back so you can be one of the youngest doctors ever at 24.'” Amrani says. “I moved to New York with $150 in my pocket. I was homeless for six months.
With fake documents indicating he was older, Amrani began to rise through the ranks in the hospitality industry. He went from bartender to bartender to waiter to sommelier. “Before I was 21, I was already buying for an upscale Franco-Japanese restaurant on Park Avenue,” he says.
This position as a salesman and sommelier eventually led him to work as a sales representative in the liquor industry, and by the time he was 30, he had built a $35,000 sales territory in a territory in which ” I paid over a million dollars in taxes before I turned 30,” he says.
Around the same time, he started a small wine import business. In 2012 he decided that instead of importing wine he wanted to make it himself, but the best place to make wine in the United States, Napa Valley, was across the country from New York. So he started doing three-day weekends in Napa, 20 weekends a year. “I was flying out at 7 a.m. on Friday and arriving in Napa at 11 a.m.,” he says. “Most weekends I had no idea what I was going to do. I’m a street guy so I just hang out where the winemakers hang out. Every time I was talking, talking, talking to people and networking.
The people he worked for and with whom he worked never had a clue that Amrani spent almost every weekend in California. “They would ask me how my weekend was, and I would say ‘Netflicks and chill’,” Amrani says. “What I did isn’t an exact science, but a lot of it was just faith and steps into the unknown.”
In 2013, he produced his first vintage, a Chardonnay, which he released in 2016, while still based in New York. “I actually made 20 different batches of wine when I was in New York,” he says.
In the first year, Vice Wines made 500 cases of wine. This year to date, Vice Wines has made over 20,000 cases, producing over 16 different types of wine. “One hundred percent the things that make me happy are my vices,” he says, of how he chose the name.
“I’ve always thought that, for example, if I want to take up golf as a new hobby, I’m going to go to someone whose vice is golf, because they know where to find the best deals at the best value. value for money, because that’s where they spend their time,” he continues. “Vice, as a brand, is luxurious. It is a high quality wine, but it comes at an everyday price. Our business model is focused on everyday luxury.
Vice Wines starts at around $20 a bottle for ‘The House’ line of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and rosé Pinot Noir, and they go up to Paradox Cabernet Sauvignon, which sells for around $105. “In the 90s, the French paradox was about how the French ate so much saturated fat and drank more than two glasses of wine, and they were so healthy,” he says. “I call mine the American paradox, because I almost drink a bottle of wine every day, and right now I’m training with the American team for the triatholon.”
Today, Amrani is based in Los Angeles, but he’s on the road, traveling, promoting Vice Wines, only traveling to Napa to work with winemakers to bottle or hand-wax bottles of his premium wines. . Although 35% of his business came from restaurants, he pivoted and now a lot of new business is online. “We had planned to relaunch our direct-to-consumer approach (in April), but we didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “In April, we did the exact same sales that we did all of last year. We had a lot of organic influencer actions, and they posted about us. Next thing you know, it was 69 orders in 30 minutes.
Vice Wines continues to grow and eventually the winery will open its own tasting room, and Amrani intends to export to the Dominican Republic and South Korea. In the meantime, the winery is promoting its combos of three house wines with free delivery. “We’re also preparing for what will be the best holiday season ever,” he says. “Between Labor Day and the election, we’re going to have a crazy seven weeks, and no matter which side you’re on, after the election, I feel like this holiday season people are going to drink more.”