Fred Cooper - NABI Board Member and Industry Executive

Fred Cooper - NABI Board Member and Industry Executive

Chicago Sun Times remembrance of  Fred Cooper

Fred Cooper wore custom-made suits from the same tailoring house that outfitted real estate magnate Arthur Rubloff, former New York mayor John Lindsay and composer Stephen Sondheim. His ties were from London’s Turnbull & Asser. He ate out every night at Chicago’s finest restaurants.
But he wasn’t making the scene to be seen.
In a sense, it was his job.
Mr. Cooper was vice chair of the liquor distributor Wirtz Beverage Group of Illinois. He was the man in the middle of a complex network of business relationships between restaurants, retail stores, winemakers and distillers. He made sure it all worked, said his boss W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz.
“He was going out there as a goodwill ambassador,” said Wirtz, a Chicago Sun-Times investor and chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Mr. Cooper’s death was mentioned during the Sunday evening telecast of the Blackhawks playoff game. He died Saturday at age 74 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from amyloidosis, abnormal protein build-ups in the body.
He was tireless and tenacious at his job. He watched the wine lists at area eateries to see if Wirtz Beverage Group was their distributor. If it wasn’t, he’d ask restaurateurs what his company needed to do to get their business. And if a client ran out of liquor, Mr. Cooper would handle it personally. He built unshakeable customer loyalty on his attention to detail.
Mr. Cooper would often drop by Lino’s, a now-shuttered Phil Stefani dining establishment. If Lino’s was out of the wine supplied by the Wirtz group, “He would call his salesman,” Stefani said. “The next day we would have it back.”
Often, Mr. Cooper would put the cases in his car and make the deliveries personally.
He visited vineyards and distillers, introducing himself to the artisans who crafted the wines and spirits. He convinced them to provide their products to his company, and then saw to it that Wirtz was also the choice of area restaurants and retailers for keeping their wine cellars and store shelves filled.
“Fred was very persistent. He didn’t understand the terminology ‘no,’ ” Stefani said.
He often spirited copies of wine lists out of restaurants so he could study them and figure out who was doing business with whom. “If there was a change to any wine list at any restaurant that did not favor his company, he was the first to know about it, and the first to do something about it,” said Michael Binstein, owner of Binny’s Beverage Depot.
He was born into the business. “His parents started selling wine or whiskey the day Prohibition was repealed,” said Bart O’Toole, his life partner of 28 years. The Coopers started Continental Distributing Company, which was acquired in 1996 by the Wirtz family distributorship.
Mr. Cooper grew up in Rogers Park. He was educated at Culver Military Academy and Carleton College in Minnesota before he joined the family business in 1959.
“There wasn’t a leader of a liquor or wine company that he didn’t know, or hadn’t done business with,” said Michael Binstein. “Sometimes he knew two and tree generations of people on the retail end of this business, or the retail suppliers’ side.”
He was instrumental in the success of Chicago Gourmet, Millennium Park’s upscale food fest, said John Colletti, managing partner of Gibsons Restaurant Group. The Illinois Restaurant Association wanted to create a celebration of Chicago food and wine, and “Freddie was the go-to guy,” Colletti said. “When I was inquiring about wineries and where to go, he set me up with a list in Napa — he set up a list of who to go to, and say hello to.”
Mr. Cooper “liked Italian wines, Amarones, Malbecs, Shiraz, Pinots, “whatever they were selling,” said Bart O’Toole, “because when you’re selling wine, you’ve got to be politic to your producers.”
Ironically, health problems meant he had to watch what he ate when he visited some of Chicago’s most exquisite restaurants. He usually dined on grilled chicken breast, a slice of raw white onion, a plain vegetable and a salad with lemons.
Mr. Cooper liked to buy his clothing in New York. He and O’Toole took memorable cruises on Cunard, “back when the Sea Goddess was the Sea Goddess,” his partner said. The ship was outfitted like a posh private yacht. On one trip to Vietnam, they dodged pirates and 18- foot swells.
He started shaving his head about a decade ago when he began to lose his hair, O’Toole said. “He was comfortable with himself,” including his sexual orientation, O’Toole said. “I was at all the suppliers’ daughters’ and sons’ weddings.”
He also wasn’t afraid to tell someone if he felt they weren’t doing their job. “He was blunt,” O’Toole said, “but he wasn’t rude, and he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”Mr. Cooper was also a director of the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of America; the National Association of Beverage Importers, and the Chicago chapter of the World Association of the Alcohol Beverage Industries.

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