The legendary Isiah Thomas is no stranger to success, dedication, commitment, and being a powerhouse. He is the epitome of a thought leader and visionary and thrives in the face of adversity. Born and raised on Chicago’s Westside, Isiah Lord Thomas, III, professional career spans more than three decades in business, sports, and entertainment. Thomas garnered worldwide attention for his contributions in all levels of professional basketball, including induction into the NBA Hall of Fame, and for his distinctive business start-ups and philanthropic endeavors. As a player, Thomas built a reputation as a tireless worker and formidable competitor. As a businessman, his leadership and sharp business sense continue to serve him well in his post-playing days.
While continuing to explore his business interest, Isiah was introduced to Thomas Cheurlin, owner of Cheurlin Champagne, who is now at the helm of his family’s spirits dynasty. Attracted to the Cheurlin family’s hands-on tradition, coupled with their commitment to providing a healthy, great tasting champagne without the added sugar, Thomas became captivated by this opportunity, and a partnership was born. Thomas is quite to point out that although it took years, he “wanted a product that was both reasonably priced, and accessible to all consumers.”
We had an amazing time chatting with Thomas on his journey with entrepreneurship and lessons learned and challenges faced, discussing millennials, and his newest venture Cheurlin Champagne.
Millennials, now we sip Cheurlin Champagne when we’re thirsty…
MillBuzz: What are some lessons that you have learned from being an entrepreneur?
Thomas: That’s a great question. You always have to be willing to take risks and you always have to be willing to fail. The first thing that you must do is understand your vision, and your vision is totally different from your dream. Your vision is backed up by values and action, and your dream is something that really just happens in your imagination. Like we all wish we could go to Disney World, but your vision on the business side has to be backed up by your values and also has to be backed up by a solid business plan.
MillBuzz: What challenges have you faced as an African American in the business world?
Thomas: Being the only African American in the boardroom every day, and still I find myself there today. I started in 1992. I was on the cover of Forbes magazine. I would say since 1992 to where we are at today, a lot of the road that I have travelled, whether it be in sports or entertainment, real estate, champagne, or e-commerce, most of the time I’ve been the only African American that’s been in the room, so speaking from that point of view of poverty, and also disenfranchisement, you find yourself speaking from a voice that really is a minority voice in the room, and you have to have the courage not only to speak out but to really back up your point of view with hard data that supports your point of view. However, even with that data and even with your solid viewpoint, you’re speaking to the majority of the room that has no experience of the things that you’re discussing, or how they would impact the larger community. So that’s been a difficult road for me, and quite frankly a lonely road.
MillBuzz: Why the champagne industry?
Thomas: So, when I looked at the champagne space, I saw a unique opportunity for myself from a business point of view to not only enter into this space, I could enter into this space with the relationships that I had from sports and entertainment in the hospitality industry. Also, I could enter into this space being the only African American that’s in this space, and I thought that would give me a unique perspective and advantage in this space in terms of the customers that I was trying to reach. When you look at the champagne space, there’s a new vodka that comes out every month, there’s a new tequila, wine, or now craft beer that are coming out. But when you look at the champagne space, there’s only so much land, there is not a lot of champagnes that come out. Most people can’t name the top five bestselling champagnes in America. It’s was very similar to popcorn, a company called Popcorn Indiana. So, when you walk through the airport. You see that red bag of kettle corn, that was one of the companies that I co-founded, and when people think of popcorn still today, one of the first companies they think about is Orville Redenbacher, but when you talk about free popped popcorn, there still is no brand leader in that space. When I look at the champagne space, and I see there is three names that come to mind when you think of champagne, and I said if I can be the fourth, if Cheurlin can be the fourth or fifth champagne at this early stage that comes to mind, then I’ve done a great job because if I crack the top, which we already have, then I’m the largest African American importer of champagne in the world. So, I can say that today, but as a competitor, you always want to get to number one, that is why you and I are talking about millennials.
MillBuzz: Cheurlin seems affordable. How does Cheurlin appeal to millennials?
Thomas: We are a high-end brand, we have zero sugar and with our Brut and our Rose, we are the lowest in sugar and low in sulfites. Now how does that speak to millennials? Millennials are the generation that first started asking questions about what it is that we are eating and because they started asking about what is the nutritional value, where does this tomato really come from, where is this beef made? The food industry had to totally change the way they gave us information about the food that we were eating. What we are doing in this champagne space in terms of speaking to the millennials, we are answering the questions that the millennials are asking about the champagne that they are drinking, and the first question that they ask is why do I get a headache when I drink champagne? Our answer is because the champagne that you’re drinking is high in sugar and high in sulfites. So, we have the lowest sugar and the lowest sulfites on the market, and that’s why our champagne, Cheurlin Champagne is speaking to the millennials, and speaking to every age group.
MillBuzz: How did you get involved in Cheurlin Champagne?
Thomas: I get about fifteen to twenty deals that come across my desk monthly, and most of them are bad, however when this champagne deal came across my desk, one I was interested and curious in it because it was champagne, and who doesn’t want to drink a glass of champagne to say they are testing the product and working on it? But once I started looking into how I could really get into the business, as you know the spirit space and particularly the champagne space is a hard space to enter. The Cheurlin family has been making champagne since 1788, and it’s a family that is committed to having the world taste their product. They are a very rebellious family and consequently the union of values in terms of what we wanted people to experience and the price point that we wanted them to experience it at, all those things met. So, when we talk about price point and being affordable, you know champagne forever has been thought to be $900 to get a good bottle of champagne. The Cheurlin family, which is a family of growers, they are a family of farmers, they understand the soil, they understand the grapes, the temperature of the weather. and the only thing that’s in their champagne is really sun, soil, and grapes. So, they wanted the world to experience the best of the best of champagne. No added sugars, not very high in sulfites, so that appeals to me, and the reason why it appeals to me is because coming from a family of nine, six brothers and two sisters, we grew up – there is a poverty line and there’s a line below poverty. But growing up, you always want to taste and feel, and be with the finest and the best, that’s your dream, and sometimes those things are out of your price point. But what the family and I wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to taste the best of the best, you don’t have to blow your rent money to taste the best of the best, so that everyday feeling that you want to celebrate, you may have just had a good day at work, and you want to celebrate yourself. Okay, well I can spend a little money on myself without blowing my rent money, and celebrate my daily accomplishments, without getting a headache. It’s a very exciting time for me because I knew very little about the champagne space and I’m still learning the champagne space, but the more I find out about it every day, the more I want to tell the story of champagne and the Cheurlin family and nature’s way of making champagne as oppose to the manmade way of making champagne.
MillBuzz: Where do you see Cheurlin Champagne in five years?
Thomas: Five years, my vision is to not only have a bottle of champagne being toasted and tasted by every champagne drinker in America, but to also expand internationally, and have the product in Africa, China, Australia, etc., and make this a worldwide popular brand. Not because of some great marketing, but only because this is truly nature’s drink, it’s the drink of the gods, this is what champagne should taste like, and this is how you should feel when you drink it.
MillBuzz: How involved are you in the wine making process? Are you hands-on?
Thomas: I am very hands-on. The reason why we have zero sugar in all Cheurlin Thomas Champagne, and the reason why we are the lowest in sugar and the lowest in sulfites on the market is because of my insistence that we want zero sugar. Now, the champagne industry and spirits industry has always said that the American pallet crazes sugar, and most of the drinks that you’re drinking now are so heavily loaded with sugar, and again you think you’re getting a headache from the alcohol, but you’re getting a headache from the sugar and the sulfites, and that’s across the board. So, my insistence was that I believe that America and the world from an athletic point of view, is moving more towards fitness, and is moving more towards healthier choices, and my bet is that this healthier choice of champagne will be the choice of the world. I learned in my econ class, in my junior year in high school, remember my econ teacher saying these words, good products and affordable products normally sell themselves through word of mouth, but if you have to gimmick up your product through fancy marketing ads, which we will have that to support the product, but our product is in the U.S. and doing so well here truly through word of mouth.
MillBuzz: What advice do you have for millennials who are interested in getting involved in the wine space?
Thomas: First, I would keep encouraging millennials to vote and keep changing the world through your voice and through your vote, and keep asking questions, keep asking questions about what’s in your wine, what’s in your champagne, and whose making it. The things you know about Cheurlin Champagne, you know whose making it, we have real people who are stomping the grapes. I am one of those people stomping the grapes. You have real people behind the products, not machines and not big corporations. We are human beings that want to answer all of your questions and give you the products that you are asking for. I would encourage the millennials to keep asking questions and keep demanding that we give you the best and healthiest choice for your consumption.
MillBuzz: How is Cheurlin Champagne targeting millennials?
Thomas: We are targeting millennials with this thought, a lot of us grew up choosing our mom’s or dad’s favorite drinks, and they are still around. What we are saying to the millennials and the next generation is, this your champagne, this is the champagne that you birthed, this the champagne that you asked for because this is the generation that has changed the way we eat and now it’s going to change the way we drink.
MillBuzz: Where can a millennial find Cheurlin Champagne?
Thomas: For those who still like to go to the liquor store, you can go to Cheurlin.com and see the eleven states that we are in, and places that you can purchase. For the states that we aren’t in, just keep asking your local liquor store to load up on the best and hottest champagne that’s in the space right now, and the healthiest champagne in this space right now. I thank everyone for their support. We have grown so fast in such a short period of time and that’s only because everyone has supported us, but they have also enjoyed the product that we are delivering, so I thank everyone.
Follow Cheurlin Champagne on social media @Cheurlin1788.