Four years ago, I had the opportunity to visit my friend Ali Smith Story, the co-owner of Smith Story Wine Cellars. It was an untraditional story about how she and her husband, Eric, went from working at K&L Wine Merchants to crowd-sourcing a winery from the ground up. They mastered the skill of building a powerful community that has continued to make them successful. Now we talked about the next chapter in the Smith Story story.
It all began in San Francisco when Eric Story and Ali Smith Story met while working at K&L Wine Merchants. The friendship began while discovering wines, leading to a relationship and marriage.
They eloped to Hawaii, named their future winery Smith Story Wine Cellars, and began combining their love of California and European wines into a business.
Before her time in San Francisco, Ali ran a boutique sales and marketing firm for wineries and importers in Austin, Texas, where she represented more than 300 wineries and “took notes along the way.” She had experience in hospitality, wine buying, consumer marketing, and sales.
Eric was a long-time buyer for K&L Wine Merchants and worked part-time at his winery until December 2016. Eric had 12 years of wine buying and retail management experience. To gain more knowledge about winemaking, he took harvest positions with a good friend who makes wine in Germany. Today this same winery makes the label’s Riesling and Rosé imported under Eric Story Selections.
And you can’t tell a story without mentioning Lord Sandwich the Goldendoodle, the winery wonder dog who is so much more than a winery dog – he’s the brand ambassador with his own Instagram (@sandwichthedoodle with 71,500 followers), his own charity and his own label.
In 2014, the fairy tale began when they launched Smith-Story “Farmers First” on KICKSTARTER with 150 backers and were fully funded in 30 days. Farmers First was about pledging to pay a fair price to their grape growers.
Smith Story Wine Cellars is based in the Russian River Valley AVA and operates out of a custom crush facility. It just moved its tasting room from Anderson Valley to Healdsburg, but has the same cozy feeling and features sundries and antiques that Ali has picked up during her travels.
The story is about the land, the farmers, and ensuring the wines show the integrity of the grape and terroir. The winemaking philosophy is to utilize classic, old-world techniques and let the grapes and sense of place where they are grown speak for themselves. Back then, I got to tell this story.
I got to visit with Ali again on a recent trip to Dallas to talk about “how nothing has changed, but everything has changed” since we last connected.
She was in Dallas to launch her new 2021 Smith Story, BRAVE, Carbonic Red Syrah at Central Market stores. Her connection to Central Market was she used to run the Plano store earlier in her career. She launched this wine in response to her year of fighting (and overcoming) breast cancer. The “BRAVE” Artist Series label represents her journey as well as anyone else’s who needs the inspiration to be brave. “I hope to lead, inspire and help others who are facing the same situation,” she said.
We talked about the challenges all wineries, especially the small ones, faced after the pandemic. One of the top ones is distribution and Ali is realizing she needs to think bigger with using some of her wines that can be produced in a higher volume – like the Lord Sandwich line and the soon-to-be debuted Bless Your Heart Wine. The new brand will feature a red blend and a white blend and will retail for around $20.
In the past, it was more hand selling and using online channels to connect with customers. Currently, Smith Story sells under 5,000 cases of wine. The aspiration is not to be in all 50 states, but to “pitch one truckload at a time” so more people can find Smith Story and the winery can continue to grow.
It’s also time to decide on a strategic partner to raise more capital to reach those dreams. Ali aspires that Smith Story could grow to a 100,000-case winery. The story is still the same – real people making real wines.
And my favorite update is that Lord Sandwich has a new brother. Sir Royal Soup (get it? Sandwich and Soup?) has joined the family as an ambassador.
The story of community continues to build for the winery – through the connection to people who are vested in making the winery a success and showing integrity to the land and farmers who help make the wines special. May these good guys prevail.