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Crisp and Mejia: Crafting Success With Craft Wine & Spirits

Craft Wine & Spirits opened last year with a mission to provide high-quality, full-service distribution of fine wine, specialty beverages, handcrafted spirits and beverage-related supplies to restaurants and retailers throughout Washington, D.C. The company is the brainchild of principal owners Shannon Crisp and Raul Mejia, who together have more than 25 years of brand development experience across the Mid-Atlantic region. Both men found that they have a shared passion for seeking out wines and spirits with unique character. Consequently, their product offerings have grown in just over ayear and a half to include such interesting labels as the Alaska Distillery’s Purgatory Vodka, which is the first spirit in the United States to be made from hemp seed; the intriguingly named Fat and Juicy Bloody Mary Mix; the Hawaiian rums of the Koloa Rum Company; and Black Elk’s line of Moscato, chardonnay, and Shiraz wines. Crisp and Mejia now have their sights set on the Maryland market. The Beverage Journal recently sat down with the dynamic duo. What follows is our chat:

BEVERAGE JOURNAL: So, how did you two hook up?

SHANNON CRISP: Raul and I have worked together in some form or another for many years. Raul was with Republic National Distributing in Washington, D.C., and I was one of his suppliers with Remy Cointreau. We always joked, “Hey, what if we did this on our own one day?” Five years later, here we are! Before, we were sitting on opposite sides of the desk. Now, we are going at this together.

BJ: So, what are your individual strengths? And how do you divvy up the responsibilities?

RAUL MEJIA: We’re co-presidents of the company. With me being with Republic National for 14 years, I had the knowledge of being able to run a distributorship and to be able to get people out there and get product into the stores. And Shannon with his knowledge of running the brands over at Remy Cointreau, he knew all about marketing strategy. So, when we went about starting Craft Wine & Spirits and representing small distilleries, we needed both of those strengths. None of these guys have any marketing strategy to go out into the marketplace.

SC: I think when we boil it down, where we have really taken off is the fact that we realize this is a relationship business. That’s what it was years ago, and that’s what it still is today. If people like you, they will buy from you. They will work with you.

BJ: You mentioned the small distilleries. Could you talk about your product line?

SC: These are American and European craft distillers. That’s who they are, and that’s who we represent. We’ve gone out with our business model to give these very creative and talented and small, independent business owners a voice in the D.C. and Maryland markets, and it’s been successful. The trade has really responded to the message.

BJ: You are indeed representing people and brands from outside the market … in some cases, from far outside the market. Do they have some preconceived notions, possibly even some misconceptions, about the Maryland and D.C. beverage markets that you have to clear up? If so, what are they?

RM: The one good thing with us is because we are dealing with a lot of small, brand-new distilleries that have been around for, maybe, eight years at the most, they really do NOT have any knowledge of the market. All they really know is that D.C. and Maryland and this whole area are booming, especially with regards to the restaurant industry. So, they want to get into this marketplace, and we’re able to help them out and educate them on what’s going on.

SC: We work in strong partnership in tandem with our distillers to let them know what the opportunities are within our market and how to make an impact with regards to quality and craftsmanship versus pricing and promotion.

BJ: Here’s a question for both of you. At the very beginning of this whole odyssey, was there some advice that was given to you that has really stuck? Was there someone’s counsel you sought that proved to be especially helpful?

SC: [laughing] We were looking for that person, but he or she did not poke their heads out! I really have to hand it to Raul. He has been “ear to the wall” and “shoulder to the grindstone” in making things happen for us.

RM: I think the advice that we seek is our own. Shannon and I have the years of experience in this industry to draw on. There are, of course, bumps in the road whenever you open any new business. But we knew what we wanted to build, and that’s been able to get us to where we are.

BJ: What has been the most rewarding part of this whole process?

SC: The creativity, and the ability to be flexible. There’s no, “Well, this is how WE do it, and this is how IT works.” We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel in regards to distribution in the market. But we’re putting rims on it. We’re going out there with a different approach to brands, warehousing, and customer interaction.

RM: For me, it’s been getting in touch with the marketplace. When I was with Republic, I was sitting behind a desk many, many days doing reports and talking to suppliers. Now, I’m able to actually get out and talk to the retailers and restaurateurs and really find out what is needed out there. That’s greatly helped us in terms of being able to figure out which direction we want to go with certain products that we are bringing in. And one thing that we decided early on? We do NOT have desks! We don’t want to be stuck behind a desk anymore.

BJ: So, what is coming up in the fourth quarter this year for your business that has you excited?

RM: We’ve been very lucky in the past year and a half-plus. We’ve been able to educate a lot of people here in the D.C. markets. Now, what we want to do in this fourth quarter is go out and educate the Maryland markets and show what some of these great, little distillers are able to produce. It’s not just Diageo or Pernod Ricard. Those are the guys I represented for many years. They do a great job. But at the same time, there are other products out there.

BJ: For someone reading this who might want to get out from under the desk, too, what advice would you have for them?

SC: It’s important to do what you love. If you’re tired of working a 40-hour-a-week job and are overwhelmed with e-mail, you open up your own shop … and you’ll work 80 hours a week now! But if you go this route, be flexible and don’t overwhelm the consumer. Everything in our portfolio, we love dearly and are really proud of. We bring in a very few select suppliers. You never want to have a book that’s the size of “War and Peace.” Offer quality products at a quality price.

BJ: If we were to chat two years from now, what are your metrics? Where do you want to be in order to feel like you are successful?

RM: Our biggest goals for one year and two years down the road is really to be able to say, “We’ve been able to get some brands out there that would never have had that exposure.” Right now, there is a great boom in the craft brewery segment. We want to be that distributor that can do the same thing for craft distillers in this market area.

Publication: Beverage Journal
Author: Edward "Teddy" Durgin

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