Buy a $5 bottle of wine in a village in France, and odds are it tastes better than anything we can purchase in the States at double the price. I envy that superb wine can be so common, and I rage that the price of good wine stays high enough in this country to keep it so damn bourgeois. That's where guys like Tim Shannon make a difference. His company, First Crush, a one-man operation headquartered in a small Fishermen's Terminal office, directly imports wine from small vintners in southern France.
So many small-scale grape growers and vintners in Europe have no access to the U.S. market because they don't make enough wine for a large importer to make a profit with it. That's why First Crush's wines are great for budget consumers. As a consumer and a buyer, the phrase "direct import" is sweet music to my ears. It means the bottle of wine passes through the fewest hands to get to market, and fewer hands mean fewer markups. Shannon's goal is to "get wine in the hands of the customer that is a tremendous value for their earned income."
Last week I tasted my way through First Crush's new releases, and it was hard to play favorites. My heart pounded for a silken, plummy old-vine carignan from Chateau Haut-Musiel (in the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation), which had the character of a mini-Chateauneuf du Pape. It retails for around $15, same as First Crush's Chateau de Valflaunès Pic-St.-Loup, whose heady spice and intensity just about made me blush. Wines that taste like this usually hit the shelves marked at least $10 higher.
The "I could drink this every day" syrah blend from Mas Basile (from the Costières de Nîmes appellation) is a juicy red with a slight dusty, herbal quality. I would be more than happy to drink it at $8 or $10 a glass, but I'll stay home, be greedy, and get the whole bottle for the same price. If I were Shannon, I'd be charging you at least $5 more.
In addition to importing wines, Shannon also plays the role of négociant, creating the Chanteuse label with a winegrowing cooperative from south-central France. A négociant gathers the grapes and or wines of many small vintners, then packages and sells the wine under his or her own label. George DeBoeuf (of the ubiquitous Beaujolais Nouveau) and most of the big-name champagne houses are examples of large French négociants.
Shannon's background in the outdoor gear industry, which outsources heavily to countries like China and Vietnam, has made him acutely aware of fair trade issues and the need for sustainable business relationships. A small négociant like Shannon can offer a better price to a co-op for its wares. In addition, he returns 5 percent of his net profits to the cooperative to spend on scholarships and training. Retailing for around $9, the zingy, forward Chanteuse rosé reminds me of the kiss of tart rhubarb; it's perfect for the backyard. The Chanteuse red blend tasted more like a light, tangy cherry, a grenache that spent a day at the beach and is ready for some lamb off the grill.
Major U.S. importers like Kermit Lynch and Jorge Ordonez all started out as little guys like Tim Shannon. They put their names on the back labels of their wines and gained respect based on the quality of their choices. Next time you're in the market for a delicious red wine at an even tastier price, look on the label for First Crush's stamp of approval. Try looking in Central Markets and Thriftways for his bottles, or ask your local wine shop to direct you to the direct imports.