Love Cork Screw CEO Chrishon Lampley is a wine entrepreneur and négociant with a growing business. She sold 50,000 bottles of wine within the first five years of starting her own business, and has since quadrupled those sales. Still, an unavoidable part of her job is “not being taken seriously” and “people not understanding what a négociant is or taking that seriously,” she says.
(For the record: Lampley does not own a vineyard, make wine in her bathtub, or create custom wine labels for weddings. She owns her formulas and works with vineyards to make custom crushes, thankyouverymuch.)
Before launching Love Cork Screw in 2013, the 45-year-old entrepreneur worked in sales for high-end retailers like Christian Dior and Escada, and Midwestern liquor distributor Breakthru Beverage. Seven years since becoming her own boss, Lampley has sold over 200,000 bottles of wine. “It’s huge!” she says, adding, “I don’t have a company behind me with several employees or a big backer. It’s all me.”
Lampley’s roller coaster career has helped her navigate the strange ride that is 2020. Love Cork Screw is based in Chicago, where the coronavirus pandemic and increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement have affected her business directly. When Chicagoland businesses briefly closed amid riots and protests, all but three of her regional accounts paused. Then, things changed. “To be straightforward about it, right when the thought process of Blackout Tuesday and allyship happened, my web sales were up 271 percent,” Lampley says, “but of course, it started slowing down.”
She hasn’t lost sight of her goal: taking Love Cork Screw national. “When money does come from those backers and supporters, it’ll come, but right now, I’m making it and surviving with a close-knit team,” she says. VinePair caught up with Lampley to learn more about her new path forward online, and what’s next in her quest to make Love Cork Screw a wine brand for everyone.
1. What is the best part of your job?
For some people, every day being different is not necessarily a good thing. I get “no’s” all the time. I get turned down left and right. But I love the fact that I wake up to something different and special, and that’s what keeps me going. That is part of “my gift” of loving being an entrepreneur — you can’t control what’s going to happen next, and I like that. [Love Cork Screw] gives me an opportunity to experiment every day with different types of people.
2. What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do in your job?
Getting the opportunity to have two billboards in Times Square! It was last Mother’s Day. I got picked by a company who wanted to feature women-owned businesses. I was so honored. My creative director and myself flew in for one day. We had our backpacks on and we went to one [billboard] and did a video and photos, and then ran to the other. We were next to CoverGirl! It was the launch of our We Go High Rosé, so to see that big huge bottle was the coolest thing ever in existence. I was pointing at the billboard and jumping up and down, and all these strangers around me started looking up and clapping for me.
3. How do you handle the challenges and setbacks that come with being in the minority as a Black female in the wine industry?
I grew up as one of the only minorities in my area, in an all-white neighborhood, so those types of challenges I faced as a young kid. From my parents having the largest house in the cul-de-sac and getting rocks thrown through our windows with the “n” word on [them], so much happened that I had to grow up quickly to know that I’m just as good if not better than anyone that’s any other color of the rainbow. When it came to this industry, and being a minority and a little teeny guppy in this huge ocean, for me it was like, let’s go! Let’s do it. When I get those inquisitive looks or people are asking [me] 10 more questions than they would ask the white guy who is [also] a négociant? It’s one of the things that I grew up with, so I’m very resilient that way.
4. There has been a much-needed spotlight on Black-owned businesses this summer. Have you seen the support continue since Blackout Tuesday?
A lot of people are coining the term, “It’s not a moment, it’s a movement.” I say that by taking advantage of the moment right now, you can change your life and business, and not worry about what people are doing later to turn it into a movement. In this moment that I’ve taken, I got a large amount of sales. Whether it’s [because of] people feeling guilty or that now their eyes are open, great. Those sales might have started diminishing, but the awesome thing is now the bigger-scale corporations are jumping on the bandwagon. Now I’m getting the calls from the big-box stores that always said “no” to me.
The best analogy I’ve used with people that I mentor is it’s very much like boxing. The boxer gets hit in the eyes several times, to the point where their eyelid shuts. When they go back into the corner, what does the trainer do? They take a razor to open up the eyelid. That’s what happened. George Floyd was that razor that opened up the eyelid.
Now you see me, so let’s roll.
5. Do you see your business changing in the long term because of how you’ve had to pivot due to Covid-19?
I definitely see Love Cork Screw getting an opportunity to go national a lot quicker. I got those “no’s” before, but now I’m getting the eyes open, I’m getting the conversations. I always say, if you give me an opportunity to talk to you, I’m going to win you over; but if you don’t give me the opportunity to talk, I can’t win. I’m too small. Give me one shot. I’ve been a salesperson for 25 years! I wouldn’t be doing this for the past seven years if I didn’t think it would happen. I’m going to take full advantage of that situation, and I look forward to it.
6. What has been the biggest challenge for Love Cork Screw in relation to the pandemic?
It’s the constant person-to-person exposure I need to do as a small company. [I usually] physically have ambassadors go into stores and boutique wine shops to taste the products, for people to spread the word. With wine, you’ve got to taste it, you’ve got to smell it, so that was the biggest challenge. I know people are overusing the word “pivot,” but I was able to pivot and go into the virtual space. I’ve always done virtual events, but obviously, not to this extent. Being able to be on Zoom and Facebook Live and to try my best to explain the wine as we taste together, that definitely has helped me to be able to get back. But it’s hard to gain that exposure. I can’t explain, “If you don’t like my Concord that doesn’t mean you’re not going to like my Niagara, so here, taste this.” That type of interaction is obviously lost.
7. Have you seen any good come out of all of this for the wine industry as a whole?
As a whole: awareness. People are taking more chances now on other varietals and brands. People love to order my 5-pack because it has five of my seven wines in it. You’re able to explore, to experiment, to have some fun.
What I’ve watched happen, especially in my virtual events, is people enjoying wine with their special someone. Whether it be same-sex couples, people that are married, roommates, girlfriend-boyfriend, whatever it is, I love seeing the interactions of people enjoying my tastings and enjoying wine and learning one-on-one. I think the best part that we’re bringing back to the wine industry now is how fun and interesting and connected you can be. I always say some of the best moments are amongst friends drinking wine. People are coming back together, and I love that.
8. Is there anything you’ve seen happen since the pandemic started that you never expected to be possible?
I never thought that brands would support other brands so much. It’s almost like your competitors sharing your information. Even being shared on Dwyane Wade’s Instagram, that was cool, seeing all our names together. That’s something I never saw coming, and I’m loving it. [Ed. note: The McBride Sisters published a list of 67 Black-owned wineries that included Love Cork Screw. Wade later shared this list on his Instagram account.]
9. What opportunities do you see for up-and-coming talent, in both the négociant space and the wine industry as a whole?
What I’m preaching is that there are so many other parts of the industry. I don’t think it’s the perfect time to launch a new brand, but there’s so much room open in distribution … and liquor law, boy, that’s lacking. Take your WSET courses, explore other options, talk to other people who are in the industry. Get educated first. The opportunities are at your fingertips!
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.