"I want my brand to be fun, but in addition to that, I want it to be approachable. I want to show people that you can make it in an industry that doesn’t look like you and you can have fun with it.” Credit: Christian De’Mar

Chrishon Lampley says she was a terrible writer when she started the blog Love Cork Screw in 2013: the Love section was about being a single woman who formerly owned an art bar, Cork had Lampley’s varietal wine selections, and Screw was her take on current pop culture. 

The year before, the highly successful art lounge that had included a bar of wines and drinks Lampley curated was forced to close, and she was devastated.

“I lost everything due to a bad flood that our insurance did not cover, and it was a really dark place in my life. But people would always come to me and say, ‘Chrishon, you always know great restaurant picks.’ ‘You always know the coolest nightclub to go to.’ Or, ‘You always know what bottle of wine to bring to someone’s house,’” she says. “So people kept bugging me after my gallery was closed, and calling me, and texting me, and I said, ‘OK, I know how to get out to the masses, to the people that I’ve met here in Chicago by owning the gallery. How do I keep doing that?’”

The blog eventually turned into a radio show, and all the while was birthing Lampley’s dream business: a wine company. 

The following year the pieces started coming together, and her calling became clearer. Lampley already had years of experience in liquor and wine sales, and marketing for a local distribution company, not to mention her art lounge had won a best wine list award. She also realized she had a knack for tasting profiles and finding the perfect wine based on people’s tasting palates.

“I was often [selling] on golf courses, at restaurants and nightclubs, and people would always tell me the same thing: they were tired of supporting the large-scale brands because you can get those wines everywhere. They wanted to really support small batches. They wanted to support local [liquor brands]. There are some great wineries that people didn’t know existed in Illinois and in the midwest in general,” she says. “I decided to do what everyone told me I could not do. Some people said, ‘You don’t have a vineyard. How in the world can you do that?’ ‘You didn’t grow up in Napa [Valley]. How could you do that?’ And I said, ‘Watch me.’”

Today, Love Cork Screw carries a solid wine selection that’s sold in 12 states and ships nationally. The brand attracted the attention of Target, and the wines are now distributed there as well as Whole Foods, Walmart, and other retailers across the country. It even got the cosign of DJ Jazzy Jeff during the campaign for Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network’s Dream Tech contest, for which it recently won first place. The lifestyle brand also sells candles that smell like merlot and body butters that carry the scent of chardonnay, two varieties Love Cork Screw does not have in its wine selection. 

Still, $40,000 worth of Dell technology, an upcoming HSN appearance, accolades, and wide distribution seven years later don’t tell the full story of how Lampley, as a négociant, or wine merchant, built her company into what it is today. Even her 11 years in the wine industry weren’t enough to convince many vineyards to believe in her vision.

“This is a very scary industry, for many reasons. One, it’s a lot more technical and complicated than people think. We may make it look fun and sexy. People assume we’re just going around drinking wine all day, but there are so many technical parts to it; there’s so many legalities to it. Getting licensed is not the easiest thing to do,” Lampley says. “The number one thing I would say is financially is the hardest part. Minorities getting in business and not being able to get financial backing is one of our largest problems. This industry is extremely expensive with a very low return on your investment.” 

At the start, Lampley was able to secure three vineyards to source her grapes and wine from, one in Oswego, Illinois, another in Michigan, and the last in California, by building on relationships she’d developed as an art gallery owner. She started with three basics: Head Over Heels Riesling, Good Times Good Friends Pinot Grigio, and We’re Movin’ On Up Cabernet Sauvignon, which were then only sold in Illinois and Ohio. Now Love Cork Screw sources from more vineyards nationally and internationally due to high demand. There’s a Chilean sauvignon blanc on the way, and she’ll soon be honoring her lineage with a new upscale reserve collection bearing her family’s last name. 

“I’m going to be sourcing around the world and I’m super, super excited to get that out to the masses. It means so much to me. Even the bottles and the advertisement are going to have my family on it: my grandparents, my mother, and father,” she says. “It means the world to me to be able to carry on my last name and to honor them. I look for the ‘Lampley’ to make huge, huge strides in the wine industry.”

More than the reserve wine, the entrepreneur herself has already created a legacy. 

“As an African American woman, I’m less than 0.0009 percent of this entire industry. Out of négociants, winery owners, and vineyard owners, there’s literally I think 60 of us documented out of over 111,000 in the world, that are African American women,” she says. “I am the first African American woman in the entire midwest to ever go national with a wine brand. So to do that and show other minorities and other business owners that you can do it has been an amazing thing. Love Cork Screw is bigger than me, way bigger than me.”

“It takes time. You’re not going to be successful overnight. It’s impossible. A lot of people are scared off by this industry. Yes, it definitely has a stigma to it. Yes, it has an old world feel almost like a fraternity, like if you’re not in this sector, you can’t get in without being asked to get in. There are definitely a lot of parts of the industry that are difficult to get in, that are passed on from generation to generation. So to be an outsider coming into this industry is very difficult. It’s very difficult being taken seriously, and definitely as an African American woman being taken seriously. There’s plenty of obstacles that I think have deterred people for so long, but I’m hoping I’m one that can show that it takes time.”

From finding the perfect sweet wines that midwesterners love to giving each wine a special touch with its name, Lampley has made Love Cork Screw wines stand out. Yes, wine is a competitive industry and yes, it’s a risky one, but in making each varietal her own, Lampley has made her wines a success by showing that wine can be for everybody.

“Not everyone knows how to pronounce Bordeaux. Not everyone knows how to pronounce sauvignon blanc, Deonte, or care less to, but it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy wine,” Lampley says. “I want it to be fun. I want it to be whimsical. There are billions of dollars in this industry, and there’s a place for everyone. I want my brand to be fun, but in addition to that, I want it to be approachable. I want to show people that you can make it in an industry that doesn’t look like you and you can have fun with it.”

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