In 2013, a team of scientists performing an underwater survey off the coast of a tiny Greek island in the Ionian Sea discovered a shipwreck that dated to the first century B.C. The ancient Roman ship’s cargo included more than 6,000 amphorae of wine. The Romans were absolutely crazy for wine, which they produced in great abundance, but, like all cultures that discover wine, they weren’t satisfied just to drink the local stuff. The Roman elite craved wines from the far-flung corners of their empire, and beyond, and they were willing to pay a premium to have it shipped in.
Americans are no different. Ask for the wine list at your favorite eatery and you will have the opportunity to order something from almost anywhere in the world – France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Lebanon, Turkey, California, Oregon – whatever you think will go nicely with that seafood salad you just ordered. But have you ever thought about how it gets there? How can a farmer toiling in a tiny vineyard half a world away press his grapes, bottle up the wine and get it to a restaurant in Purcellville, all so that my Mother can guzzle a glass of it with her flounder on her birthday?
Ask Christina Shah. She knows. She is an expert in wine, and not the “I can taste hints of peat, dark cherry and coffee” kind of expert in wine (though she is a level two sommelier), but more to the point, she is the “how to get wine to the customer” kind of expert. If asked, she humbly insists that she isn’t an “expert” at all because, “you can never know enough about wine. The landscape is always changing.” Still, she and the Loudoun-based company that she works for, International Cellars, are the reason that you have the luxury of perusing a globally diverse and compelling wine list.
Christina’s wine journey began in 2018 during a friendly tennis match. She casually mentioned to her opponent that she was considering getting a part-time job. Her opponent worked for a wine distributer in Sterling, Virginia and they were looking for a sales rep. She applied, but the interview wasn’t very encouraging. “When I went in, they told me that the pay was commission only and that it was really hard work, and I probably wouldn’t see any money for six months.” Christina took the job anyway. Within a year, she had so many accounts that she had to ask her boss to stop giving her more. “I didn’t know anything about wine, and here I was making sales calls where I was meeting with sommeliers and top chefs. At first, it was very intimidating.”
Since then, Christina has continued to move up the ladder at International Cellars, and to do so, she’s had to learn the logistics of how wine moves around the globe. In the United States, there are three levels and the law requires that they all remain separate. There are producers, distributors, and retailers. The distributors, like IC, search the world to find wines to import, trying to guess in advance what their retailer customers will be interested in buying. The importer takes the risk and pays up front for the product in hopes that they can sell it back home. Then, they arrange the shipping, warehousing and distribution of those products. “You get to know your accounts,” says Christina. “You can taste a new product and immediately know which of your customers is going to be interested in it.”
Christina’s personal journey is very similar to that of her employer. A dozen years ago or so, International Cellar’s founder was on vacation with his wife when he came across a wonderful wine, but when he got home, he realized that it wasn’t available for sale in America. He loved the wine so much, that he started importing it himself as a side hobby. It’s a side hobby that has outgrown one Sterling warehouse and spilled over into a new one that is much larger, holding nearly 700,000 bottles. In addition to their own distribution business, IC offers a host of shipping, warehouse and logistics services to other, smaller importers and distributors.
Christina now works with IC’s importer clients as well as handling her own distribution clients, like Steven Plant of Plant Wines, who specializes in small estate wines grown organically and fermented without additives (https://plantwines.com/). Plant and others are a constant source of inspiration, along with restaurant patrons. While our average readers won’t interact with Christina personally, all they need do to offer input is request a wine they like from a given restauranteur. These requests are passed up the chain until they catch her eye.
I asked Christina what she thought of the wine culture in Loudoun County and how it has changed over the time that she has been in the business. “Loudoun is a wine destination” she said, “But there’s this huge competition between the wineries and the breweries and it seems like there are more of both every year. One thing that I’ve noticed is that Loudoun wine drinkers are getting more sophisticated and more demanding than they used to be.” She told me that Washington, D.C. used to be the premier market for higher-end wines, but there has been a shift, especially since the COVID crisis. Northern Virginia is the premier market now and Loudoun is a big part of that.
Note that readers can avail themselves of her signature Christina's Hot Sauce! In seeming disregard of her distinguishing palate, Christina also makes an artisanal hot sauce with 100% habanero pepper, no preservatives added. "It has just the right amount of thickness and the carrots gives it just a hint of sweetness," she says. You can find t at Ciao Osteria (Centreville), Piero's Corner (Franklin Farm), and Lebanese Taverna Market or you can buy directly from her by dropping her a line at email@example.com.