“The women I’ve met through [the winery] and the charity have made the biggest impression in my life. Words can’t do justice to the friendship, support and enthusiasm … These women are mighty.”
~ Alison Smith Story
As the force behind Smith Story Wine Cellars, Alison Smith Story puts a heap of stock in the power of community. Launched with her husband Eric in 2013, Smith Story is the first winery to be fully crowdfunded. “I’m still humbled that so many people believed in us well before we made a single drop of wine,” she says. It seems to have paid off for all involved: the venture has rocketed to success, with a strong local fan base and tasting rooms in both Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Smith Story Wine Cellars has been named “Where the Cool Kids Go” by Sonoma Magazine and listed in “The Ultimate Anderson Valley Bucket List” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The winery’s second label, Lord Sandwich, funds the nonprofit Socks for Sandwich, which has delivered tens of thousands of socks to people in need. (Both are named for a certain smashingly handsome and Instagram-famous Goldendoodle.) The network of comrades and “found family” these efforts have woven has been a strong one indeed. For her work, Alison has been named one of Sonoma Magazine‘s “5 Inspiring Wine Women”.
What was your “a-ha” moment with wine? How did you find your path to the business?
Living in Dallas after college was such a transition in adult drinking for me. I began to fall in love with wine for its history, geography and taste. 1999 was the year that the 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages was the Wine Spectator “Wine of the Year” and my love for Sonoma County truly flourished. It was the first of many “a-ha” moments.
To go from that to representing the most incredible winemakers in Burgundy, Loire, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, and California to starting my own winery has made for a continuous “pinch-me” life.
I made the jump after feeling pushed into my passion. I left the corporate world in 2002 to work for a winery and local wine shop. It wasn’t until I began working at K&L Wine Merchants in 2003 that all the dots finally connected, and I found my career in wine. I often refer to my year at K&L as my “Ivy League” time in wine business. Oh, those were the days!
Smith Story is the first known crowdfunded winery. When you began, you and Eric were working “regular” jobs at K& L Wine Merchants with no outstanding source of capital. Can you talk about what it was like to launch that effort when no colleagues in this field had done it before?
We knew this business, and so we never had much doubt. One of my favorite quotes is from Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx: “the biggest risk in life is not risking”. We knew what we had to do to become a successful winery. It started with simply telling the truth about who we were and what we wanted to do.
I was at the helm of our Kickstarter campaign “Farmers First”, and it was like running a small business for 30 days only. We thought we had nothing to loose if it didn’t hit the goal. At minimum it would allow us to create our narrative and tell our story.
You did promotional consulting for wine brands for a decade before launching your own brand. What lessons did you glean from that work?
So many. I learned that with all the ugly side of this business (mainly based on bad wholesalers and egomaniac wine buyers) that the good side prevails.
The entire time I ran TexaCali Wine Co. I never had in mind that I’d own a winery one day. Still, I made thousands of mental notes of things I would or would not do. My biggest lesson: trust my gut.
The times I made decisions based on financial gains were always the ones that caused the most grief. Stick to loving the wines and the people behind the wines, and trust that they will love you back too.
Smith Story’s companion brand, Lord Sandwich, builds funds to donate socks to the needy. On a practical level, how do you balance the charity brand with your main company?
Great question! The balance is really hard. Socks for Sandwich. org is 100% run by me and has suffered from growing because I’ve had to put things on the back burner while keeping the fire lit for Smith Story Wine Cellars.
The awesome thing about the charity is that Sandwich’s fans do the hard work. They keep sending socks, creating sock drives and telling others about his wonderful persona and wine.
In May 2019 I’m doing a sort of relaunch, complete with a board to lean on and fundraising effort that will hopefully allow employing a manger for us. It’s truly a global non-profit and I’m just amazed at the kindness of others.
What advice would you give women just launching a wine brand?
Probably no different that what I would tell a man: Have your business plan together, and reach out to a few others in areas of expertise that you don’t have. I couldn’t imagine taking on compliance, big-picture financing, and the daily needs in the cellar without insight and advice from my circle. Don’t be afraid to ask! Oh and money… it will cost more that you think it will!
You have named Michelle Obama as a prime inspiration. Can you talk about why? What other women do you consider as role models?
Michelle just completely spoke to my heart by her kindness and my brain with her intelligence over the years. She conducted herself with serious grace, and in my lifetime, I have never had a female political figure make such an impression on me. “They go low, we go high” is simply the best advice while tackling challenges that starting and running a winery can bring.
I think Laura Catena made the biggest impression on my early wine career. I’m in awe of her; however, we come from such different backgrounds. Her life is so tied to her incredible father and his encouragement to be curious and succeed. She is a superwoman!
Last week my favorite poet Mary Oliver passed away. I’ve often opened her books to calm my anxiety, turn my mind off and learn a new way of seeing the world over the years. She’s probably the woman I’ve turned to most since starting Smith Story.
But I tell you what… the women I’ve met through Lord Sandwich and the charity have made the biggest impression in my life, words can’t do justice to the friendship, support and enthusiasm they have for me and the winery. I don’t think I would have made it five years now without them. These women are mighty, giving, and located all over the world. I can just about visit any country, state, city and visit with one of these kind and wicked smart ladies. It is so wonderful.
Sauvignon Blanc is your favorite of the Smith Story lineup. What else do you drink for fun?
I’m pretty much a sucker for anything from the Savoie, Loire, and Beaujolais. I seem to pull a Chardonnay when I carve out time alone. Some of my favorites are not only from here in California but from Oregon and Burgundy (older of course). And I can’t get enough delicious Chardonnay from Langhe.
Anything else you’d like to add?
So much! I’m currently working on a new podcast, “Coffee with TexaCali Ali” to chat about all things coffee and wine. I’m super focused on getting back to more creative projects this year and less office soul-sucking work. A girl can dream!