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Robert Berning; wine buyer transformed Trader Joe's

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / July 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Robert Berning, who as the principal wine buyer for Trader Joe's beginning in the 1970s helped introduce consumers to bargain-priced wines from around the globe, has died. He was 73.

Mr. Berning died of bone cancer Saturday at his home in Fallbrook, Calif., said his daughter, Christina Coulourides.

Mr. Berning was an experienced grocer in 1965 when he was hired as a store manager for Pronto Markets, a chain of convenience stores in the Los Angeles area that began being transformed into the specialty grocery store chain Trader Joe's in 1967.

"After we converted Pronto Market into Trader Joe's, wine merchandising became paramount, and so about 1970 we brought Bob into the office as wine buyer because he had expressed a great interest in the subject," said Joe Coulombe, founder and former owner of Trader Joe's.

Coulombe said 1970 marked the beginning of Trader's Joe's "aggressive wine merchandising," offering wines at "lower prices than had been common in the trade."

"Basically," he said, "this state had fair trade on alcoholic beverages, so it was against the law to break price on Gallo or any other branded wine, and under Bob's leadership, we learned to get around fair trade."

As head wine buyer, Mr. Berning built Trader Joe's private label wine program, in which various wines from around the world were sold under Trader Joe's own labels at lower prices.

Coulombe said Mr. Berning "innovated not just the buying of the wines, but the logistics, our ability to distribute the wines to our stores because conventional wholesalers were not going to do that for us."

Trader Joe's, he said, was "one of the reasons that wine took off" in popularity.

Mr. Berning was born Jan. 25, 1935, in Avalon, Calif., on Catalina Island.

Mr. Berning launched his career in 1951 at age 16 when he began working in Whittier, Calif., for King Cole Markets. After becoming a store supervisor a few years later, he began developing an interest in selling imported wines from Europe.

In the mid-'90s Mr. Berning retired from Trader Joe's and moved to Fallbrook, near San Diego, where he had purchased a ranch that produced avocados and limes. But he soon returned to the wine industry as a consultant to Plume Ridge, a wine import company owned by his daughter, Christina.

Besides his daughter Christina, he leaves a son, Craig; two other daughters, Nanette Berning-Pate and Julia Berning-Escamilla; his sisters, Evie Vesper and Laurie; and 13 grandchildren.

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