Free Run Wine keeps focus on small, family-run wineries
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The days start early at Free Run Wine Merchants in Richmond because the wine must always flow.
By sunrise on most weekdays, a small fleet of vans is parked at the loading dock of the company’s warehouse, tucked away among a conclave of businesses on Rhoadmiller Street near The Diamond.
Inside, the company’s distribution crew goes to work processing orders from various customers in the Mid-Atlantic. They prepare and load the wines, which have come to Free Run from wineries around the world, for shipment to the independent restaurants and boutique retailers that make up all of the company’s customer base.
When the vans are loaded, the drivers often have long days, hauling wine orders as far as the Eastern Shore to Southwest Virginia, along with the Richmond region.
“It is not exactly glamorous,” said John Paul Cheski, the founder of Free Run Wine Merchants.
He pointed out that the company’s 12,000-square-foot warehouse and office is “an old tobacco drying warehouse” that also once housed a locksmith shop. When the company first moved into the space, “I monitored the humidity in here by dumping a bucket of water on the floor,” Cheski said.
Over more than 10 years, the company has slowly transformed the leased space to serve its purposes as a climate-controlled wine storage and distribution site.
“It has been kind of a DIY thing,” Cheski said. “Every time we wanted to grow, we would take down a wall and expand. We have never had big outside funding — no outside investors. That is one of the reasons we are able to do the work the way we want to do it.”
The space is bigger than when Free Run was founded in 2008, with a 1,200-square-foot warehouse and office.
Cheski, whose background includes working at a winery and in the restaurant business, partnered with Greg Wolter, a businessman from Chicago, and Brad Cummings, a Richmond entrepreneur, to create Free Run Wine Merchants.
The partnership was serendipitous, Cummings recalled. He and Wolter met by chance and discussed opening a wine distribution business, and he put an advertisement on Craigslist seeking another partner to manage the business.
“I had never put an ad on Craigslist at that point in my life,” said Cummings, whose other ventures have included the human resources consulting firm Monument Consulting and, most recently, Hatch Kitchen RVA, a business incubator for food companies.
“The first response to the ad was J.P. (John Paul Cheski),” Cummings said. “He thought that the ad might be a joke played by his roommates because it fit him so perfectly.”
Cheski had traveled some in the Pacific Northwest when he was in college and fell in love with the region. So when Free Run was founded, Cheski focused on selling wines produced by small, family-run wineries from the Pacific Northwest. The company started with just 12 wineries in its portfolio.
That portfolio now includes more than 190 wine, sherry and spirit producers.
“The scope of our portfolio has dramatically increased,” Cheski said. “We started out with a niche in the Pacific Northwest. We import wines now from Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and some South American and Australian wines,” among others.
At first, Cheski was the only full-time employee, driving around to win customers among restaurants and wine shops.
The company made its first hires in 2009, and it now employs 31 people, most of them in Richmond. Besides the warehouse staff, the front office houses “one of the most experienced sales teams in the business,” Cheski said. In 2015, it opened a second distribution warehouse in Maryland.
Free Run has recently added to its portfolio and its more than 1,000 wholesale customers with two business deals.
In September, it acquired Exclusive Wine Imports, a French wine importer based in Northern Virginia that added a portfolio of producers from such wine-making regions as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire and Rhone.
In January, the company announced an expanded partnership with De Maison Selections, a wine importer based in North Carolina, to provide exclusive wholesale representation for De Maison in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Free Run does not disclose sales figures, but Cummings said revenue has grown strongly for five straight years. He stressed that while he is a partner in Free Run, he has little involvement in the day-to-day operations, and attributes the company’s growth to the full-time staff.
Wine distribution “is a relationship business, and it is completely a credit to the strong and trusted relationships that John Paul has created and our sales force,” he said.
With the recent deals and the company’s organic growth, “we are starting to look like the company we’ve always imagined we’d become,” Cheski said.
But its philosophy has remained the same. It still sells only to independent restaurants and boutique retailers.
“We’re not going after the chains,” Cheski said.
It also still seeks out winemakers that are small and independent with an emphasis on organic production.
“At the core of it, what you essentially have is an awareness and appreciation for small-scale, minimally processed, responsibly grown, authentic products,” he said, adding that the company also looks for wines that have a story to tell.
“They (Free Run) have done a good job of growing the right way and not overextending themselves,” said Chris Cottrell, a partner in Bedrock Wine Co. of Sonoma, Calif., which has supplied wines for Free Run for more than three years.
“They care about wine — they are not just going for sales,” he said. “They are looking for quality placements in the right stores and restaurants. They know how to sell people on the story of a wine and get them excited about it.”
Part of the reason Free Run has picked up some additional partnerships and an acquisition is that the wine distribution business has been consolidating, Cheski said.
For instance, the second- and third-largest wholesalers in the market — Republic National Distributing Co. and Breakthru Beverage Group — merged in 2018 to create a combined company with sales approaching $14 billion a year. That deal followed the 2016 merger of Glazer’s Inc. and Southern Wine and Spirits of America Inc., which formed Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits LLC as the largest wine and spirits distributor in the country.
The Winebow Group, a national importer and distributor of fine wine and craft spirits based in Henrico County, also has expanded since the company was founded in 2014 with the merger of Henrico-based The Vintner Group Inc. and New York-based Winebow Inc.
Importers like De Maison no longer fit in the portfolios owned by the largest alcohol distributors, Cheski said. That has given Free Run an opportunity to pick up some market share.
“Because the big companies keep getting bigger, there are opportunities for companies like Free Run,” Cheski said. “There is this growing thirst in the market, especially among independent retailers and restaurants, for more independent, smaller scale and authentic products.”
“Bigger does not mean better in food and beverage culture,” he said. “Small producers create and preserve the vast majority of cultural value in the world of wine.”
EAT Restaurant Partners, a Richmond-based owner of 11 restaurants including Beijing on Grove, Red Salt Chophouse & Sushi, Fat Dragon and Wild Ginger, has been sourcing wines from Free Run since shortly after the distributor was founded.
“Their commitment to customer service and having a unique list of wines has driven them to success,” said Ren Mefford, vice president at EAT Restaurant Partners. “We are looking for the high-quality, low-production producers to set us apart from the crowd.”
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com