Scaling Up

Championing Organic Wines in Chicago

How Cream Wine Company built a profitable business on sustainability and quality

Photo courtesy of Cream.

There’s a certain freedom that comes with limitations. When Andy Pates and Mark Payne came together at Cream Wine Company, they never tried to be all things to all people. The Chicago-based importer and distributor is devoted entirely to organic and biodynamic producers who focus on quality without making “pricing, marketing, or environmental concessions for the sake of obligatory growth,” Pates says. “We want them to be sustainable in every sense.”

The company operates selectively in Illinois, bringing to market an eclectic collection of wines, spirits, and sake. Pates, a founding partner in Cream and its director of sales and marketing, and Payne, a current partner and the company’s director of operations, sell primarily to restaurants and wine shops that share their passion for quality over quantity. “A majority of our relationships are with restaurants and fine-wine stores,” Pates says, acknowledging that “big box and chain grocery is not necessarily our strength.”

Starting Out Small

The concept for Cream—a small, urban, restaurant-focused distribution company carrying cutting-edge winemakers—originated with Dennis Styck, a sales executive at the  Mid-America Wine Company, based in Des Plaines, Illinois, which later became Vintage Wines. He tapped Pates, a former colleague, in 2001. The company was initially backed financially by Terlato Wine Group, but both Styck and Terlato soon exited. By 2003, Pates and Payne had become Cream’s owners.

Pates and Payne spent the next five years slowly developing their portfolio, which when they became independent was made up of about 30 suppliers with 150 wines. The economic crash in 2008 prompted the company to add spirits as a complementary revenue source. Since then, Cream has grown steadily, reporting sales growth of 15 percent to 20 percent per year. Today, the company represents 390 suppliers, 24 of which are spirits, 16 of which are sake, and 53 of which are imported directly.

In the early days, Pates and Payne both focused on sales. But as the company grew, Pates led sales while Payne specialized in finance and operations. Cream’s early portfolio comprised small, family-owned wine producers in the Pacific Northwest and California. The company expanded slowly but steadily, adding estates from Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Portugal over the years, along with established domestic labels.

Through the aughts, Cream acquired classic wine brands, as well as modern and experimental labels. Says Pates, “Having a stable of new countries, brands, and categories—like Spain and South America—that overdelivered in terms of price set us up well for the 2008 economic crash.”

Cream distributes the products of its import partners, including Rare Wine Co.Zev Rovine SelectionsRosenthal Wine Merchant, and Ole Imports, and it began importing directly in 2008, with the goal of enhancing its overall portfolio of estates with select growers from Italy, France, and Spain. Currently, 80 percent of the imported wines in Cream’s portfolio come from national importers who are seeking to enter the Chicago market. While the direct-import business is growing, Pates says that “we will always need our national importer partners” and adds that “our direct importing was created to be a complementary piece of the puzzle, both in selection and logistics.”

Growth, while steady and consistent, isn’t forced. “We are not independently wealthy or owned by a larger liquor company or venture capital company,” Payne says. “As such, we prefer organic growth so as not to lose our identity as a purveyor of quality and taste and to operate within our means.”

That mind-set is one of the reasons producers say they value Cream. “They emulate philosophies that are very important to me,” says Janie Brooks Heuck, the managing director of Brooks Winery, which in 2001 became the first Oregonian winery in Cream’s portfolio. “They’re passionate, and it translates to sales.” Because of Cream, Heuck says, in 2017, Illinois was “my top market out of 35.”

Developing a Sustainable Organization

Cream’s dedication to sustainable practices in the vineyard informs its approach to business growth. The professional growth of its employees is tracked as a metric of company success. “We believe in finding and developing talent,” Pates says. “Many of our leaders and managers started in entry-level positions.” Currently, the company has 29 employees, with Pates running a 15-person sales and marketing team and Payne managing a 14-person operations team.

Growing and promoting talent within Cream’s controlled environment in-house is one thing. But the company learned the hard way to carefully vet a producer’s goals before investing in a partnership. “Over our 16 years we have launched or built up many a brand that has moved up the distribution chain in pursuit of selling to a national or global marketing company,” Pates notes, citing BansheeSusana BalboCharles Smith, and Cycles Gladiator as examples. Cream now tries to ensure a “mutual long-term fit,” Pates says, before making a commitment.

That may sound a lot like dating—and it is. Pates and Payne recount one relationship that has been fraught with plenty of drama, passion, and intrigue. “Koerner Rombauer actually approached us when we first got started in 2001,” Pates recalls, referring to the patriarch of Rombauer Winery in Napa, California, “because the family winery was significantly underperforming in Chicago.

“I met with Koerner at Gibson’s [Steakhouse, in Chicago] in late 2001 and arrogantly and stupidly told him his brand was a dinosaur and we were going to pass on representing him,” Pates remembers ruefully. “You could see the steam coming out of his ears. He slammed his fist on the table, which surprised me and half the restaurant.” After Rombauer unloaded a series of expletives, he relaxed and proceeded to convince Pates that he was wrong.

Cream acquiesced, a decision that ended up being a coup for its bottom line. Rombauer “opened the door to relationships with other top domestic producers,” Pates says, “as well as landmark Chicago restaurants.”

Cream now adds about 20 to 30 new producers a year and invests significant time and energy in building buyers’ relationships with its brands—through unique events like pig roasts, sake bus tours, paella festivals, and warehouse BBQs that bring producers and buyers together, and through social media campaigns.

“They provide organized education and compelling events that boost knowledge and friendship within the wine industry, which helps all of us,” says Matty Colston, the beverage director at Parachute Restaurant, a modern Korean eatery in Chicago. “Andy personally calls on me and is never unavailable to help, which also sets the bar very high.”

In addition, Cream has helped develop Chicago’s sake market over the past decade and a half. Pates was inspired to study sake after representing the products of an early importer client, Vine Connections. “I dove in, got certified, and traveled to Japan to absorb the culture and learn about the brewing process,” Pates says. Although the company no longer works with Vine Connections, Cream remains committed to sake—it now partners with Wine of Japan, one of the oldest sake importers in the United States.

Using one relationship as a springboard to another is part of Cream’s modus operandi. The search for terroir-driven wines has always been embedded in Cream’s DNA, it wasn’t until Pates and Payne met Zev Rovine of the Brooklyn-based natural-wine importer Zev Rovine Selections in 2010 that they fully immersed themselves in the world of natural wine. “Through Zev Rovine Selections, we forged relationships with other niche importers,” says Pates, “like the New York–based Selections de la Viña and Vom Boden, as well as alternative domestic producers like Les Lunes of Orinda, California; Martha Stoumen of Northern California; and Ruth Lewandowski of Utah.” That strong natural-wine portfolio then led them to Sonoma County’s Bedrock Wine Co. and Scribe Winery

Zev Rovine was delighted to help them get the ball rolling. “They were one of the first distributors in Chicago to delve into natural wine, and they have been supportive of other wholesalers doing the same,” Rovine notes. “They seem to prefer to build a community, which I find really inspiring.”

But no matter how deeply strategic the company’s long-term planning may be, or how close knit its network, Cream could never fully prepare for the Murphy’s Law that crashes down on every small business from time to time. “We had a few inbound trucks from California that caught on fire and were stolen in separate incidents,” Pates recalls. “And of course it wasn’t the slower-selling wines … it was the rare, irreplaceable, grower-producer wines.”

Expanding Organically

As Cream opened its portfolio to more natural wines, it also slowly began introducing a few artisanally produced spirits. Its first product, naturally, arrived in 2008 through a connection.

“Jimi Brooks and Tad Seested [of what was then Ransom Wine] were some of the first producers in our portfolio, and we’re still with them today,” Pates says. He met Seestedt through Brooks, of Brooks Winery in Oregon.

Seestedt debuted Old Tom Gin right after the economic crash and rebranded Ransom Wine as Ransom Wine & Spirits. “His timing was perfect,” Pates says, “given the economic crisis. Restaurants were reconceptualizing and becoming more tavern-like, and cocktail programs were elevated.” Pates says Ransom Old Tom Gin put the importer-distributor on the “craft spirits map” in Chicago. Cream’s spirits program, run by Christophe Bakunas, now makes up about 20 percent of the company’s sales.

Like direct imports, spirits were added to complement the existing portfolio, not redefine it. Still, the spirits offerings, especially Cream’s agave products, continue to grow. More than ever, though, Pates and Payne see their sustainable, restaurant-focused business model as their primary asset. “Off-premise will continue to be dominated by big box, chains, and grocery stores that offer a more industrial-branded set of products,” Pates says. “But well-traveled and educated consumers will demand more singular, sustainably made wines and spirits made by real producers with real stories attached to real places.”

Cream forecasts growth between 10 and 15 percent this year. But the company has learned from experience that long-term thinking is most effective when space is built in for new relationships, opportunities, and of course, Murphy. 

Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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