Michael Crete: cooler king.

He is an American success story.


Michael Crete


In 1979, Michael Crete had the idea of the California cooler.
In 1981, he and Stuart Bewley started a company.
In 1985, they sold the company for $146 millions.
Michael Crete was then only 32.


Michael's father

Michael Crete comes from a line of people who have traditionally operated their own farms and businesses.

He was born in Lodi CA in 1953, from Richard "Dick" Crete and Betty Maley. For a better comprehension of Michael Crete, let's say some words about his father.

When a young man, Dick Crete joined the military and became an elite night fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy Air Corps.

After his military career, he opened Crete's Camera Center in Lodi with his brother Charles in 1953. His one camera center grew to four portrait studios in Northern California. Crete Studios became a household logo for thousands of senior high school students who were photographed by Dick and his employees.

Dick was also an inventor with numerous patents under his name.

After retiring from the photography business, Dick and his brother-in-law, Joe Maley, bottled and produced one of the Lodi/Woodbridge area's first award winning wines under the label Woodbridge West.


An American success story

Now let's talk about Michael Crete.

After studying history and political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Michael Crete began advanced studies at San Jose State University, loosely planning to be a teacher.

But a summer stint helping his father design marketing materials for his photo operation, made Crete reconsider his future. As he helped write and design the marketing brochures, something clicked. “It may sound odd now, but I knew then that I had a God-given gift for marketing” he said.

Crete took a job selling and delivering beer in the Lodi area. A quick study, he analyzed distribution systems, marketing approaches and product lines.

His future really got started in 1979. Michael Crete was acting as bartender at a weekend barbecue with friends. He blended a concoction he had been making for years for his friends and relatives, a drink that was more thirst-quenching than cold beer. Crete mixed citrus juice and chablis in plastic tubs. Thirsty friends returning from a volleyball game drain the tubs.

"They all told me the stuff was great, so I thought why not sell it in a pre-mixed package." That early experience at a California beach led to creation of the wine cooler industry.

Crete associated with Stuart Bewley--who like him was from the same small California farm town of Lodi. Putting up $5,000 each, the two entrepreneurs established offices in an abandoned migratory farm laborer's camp called "Hog Hollow." It was in 1979.

"Neither of us had ever done anything like this before. We had to learn about glass, carbonation, suppliers, everything."

Moving out of "Hog Hollow" after receiving their alcoholic beverage license in August, 1981, Crete and Bewley established operations in a vacant warehouse at Roma Winery in Lodi.

The blend was quite simple: a mix of white wine, carbonated water, fruit juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit, pineapple), sweeteners, flavorings and citric acid.

Their first bottling facility was a 15-gallon beer keg and a plastic garden hose. The partners did all the work themselves - buying juices in local supermarkets, mixing the beverage, bottling their product in beer bottles soaked in water-filled tubs to remove the original labels, hand-labeling bottles, going out and promoting the product to retailers, and finally distributing their cooler out of the back of Bewley's 1953 pickup truck.

Their California Cooler, Inc., grew from such a shoestring operation that produced 1,575 gallons of homemade cooler worth about $12,000 in 1981, to a high-powered company that sold 22 million gallons--worth more than $72 million wholesale—in 1984.

In 1983, Crete and Bewley moved operations to a 60,000-square-foot warehouse in a Stockton business park. Some 200 people were employed at the company's highly automated plant there. The firm was among the 10 largest wineries in the state of California.

The product created a whole new segment in the wine industry and many of the nation's major wine and beer manufacturers - including Seagram's, E&J Gallo, Adolph Coors Co. and Stroh Brewery - have rushed out cooler products of their own.

In 1985, Brown-Forman Corporation, a Kentucky distiller (Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Southern Comfort) bought the company for as much as $146 million ($63 million cash plus payments tied to sales, which could add $83 million over the next three years). Brown-Forman, which reported 1984 sales of $885 million, was one of the nation's largest distillers.

"With billion-dollar beverage companies moving into the wine cooler category, the $15 million a year advertising campaign was draining our company. We needed Brown and Forman to help out," Crete said.


The secrets of that success

There was nothing particularly new about Crete's creation. For decades, people have been mixing wine and fruit juices to create a cool summer drink.

In fact, Crete and Bewley weren't even the first to come out with a commercial product; the Fresno-area Bianchi Winery began selling two wine-juice mixes - Red Lite and White Lite - in the mid-1970s.

But the boyhood pals from Lodi have been the first to find success with the formula.

1. The product was originally going to be called Island Wine Cooler, but that did not seem right. Somehow, wine and tropics did not go together. So Crete, driving through the vineyards near Lodi, struck on the idea of “California Cooler.”

2. Previous attempts to market popwine drinks had always preserved the traditional wine appearance. Crete found that inappropriate. To avoid the somewhat stuffy aura of wines, the cooler was bottled in an upscale beer bottle and sold in four-packs. “The idea was to sell it right along with beer,” Crete said.

And sell it did. From 850 cases the first year, sales rose to 12.5 million cases within four years. A company rose and expanded that employed 500 employees in 1984.

"We were creating something that people wearing T-shirts would drink at a baseball game on a hot afternoon, not something to be swirled and sipped over lobster in some elegant restaurant."

3. To project a livelier image, Crete chose emerald green, 12.7 ounce bottles, wrapped them at the neck in gold foil, and labeled them with an attractive gold, green and white logo.

4. To make their cooler more competitive with beer and pop, they sold the bottles in four-packs rather than the usual six-pack arrangement, which held the price per pack under $4.

5. "It was happenstance, Crete says of the timing of his venture. It turned out to be a product suited for the people of the '80s and '90s; it was low in alcohol and it was all natural."

Crete’s gifts for marketing and merchandising were put to good use. At its peak, California Cooler was the second largest winery in the world, behind Gallo.


His life after 1985

Crete, by now a very wealthy man, did not slow down. By his own acknowledgment, he has had misses along with hits.

He started a Chinese fast food business (China King Express) that folded after four years. He and partners created a sports drink (Isotek) that fizzled.

In 2000, Crete was a partner in a Lodi Internet company. He owned substantial real estate holdings. He was a partner in three marinas. He was also executive publisher of a travel and adventure magazine, “Escape”.

He has given to Hutchins Street Square (Crete Hall in Hutchins Street Square, 125 N. Hutchins St., Lodi) and to other community interests.

He has shared his business savvy as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of the Pacific.

In recognition of both his business and community contributions, Crete was honored in 2000 as an inductee into the Lodi Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Lodi Boys and Girls Club.


Our sources:

1984-08-06_Sacramento Bee, page C.
1984-11-05_Newsweek
1985-02-28_Sacramento Bee, page D-13
1985-07-03_Sacramento Bee, page B-5
1985-07-14_Sacramento Bee, page AA-3
1985-07-19_Sacramento Bee, page E-1
1985-10-00_Nation's Business.
2000-07-24_Lodi News Sentinel
 

Michael Crete's links to Jehan Creste


First generation
Jehan Creste married Marguerite Gaulin on September 13, 1654 in Beauport.

Second generation
Pierre Creste married Marie Drouin on October 29, 1709 in Château-Richer (Montmorency County).

Third generation
Louis Creste married Marie-Joseph Maheu on June 5, 1841 in Beauport.

Fourth generation
Charles Crête married Catherine Primeau on November 6, 1775 in Chateauguay.

Fifth generation
Michel Crête married Véronique Lefebvre on November 11, 1811 in Chateauguay.

Sixth generation
Etienne Crête married Rose Laberge on September 13, 1841 in Ste-Martine (Chateauguay County).

Seventh generation
Michel Crête married Eulalie Thibault c 1885.

Eight generation
Michael Etienne Crete married Leta O. Rogers in 1911-2.

Ninth generation
Richard "Dick" Crete married Betty Maley in 1948.

Tenth generation
Michael Crete, California Cooler creator.


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