When Eric Story and Alison Smith-Story started their winery in 2014, they didn’t follow any conventional path. An old saw advises that to make a small fortune in the wine industry, you should start with a large one. That was not an option, so they went the modern way.
“We didn’t have an inheritance, and we hadn’t started and sold a software company,” Alison explains.
So they turned to Kickstarter to create Smith Story Wine Cellars, which now operates out of a custom crush winery in Sonoma County. “We are the first winery we know of to be crowdfunded.”
They raised $25,000 in 30 days with the theme “farmers first,” pledging to pay a fair price to those who grow the grapes they buy. But as the donations came in, they noticed an interesting trend. A lot of their supporters were followers of an Instagram account they had established for their dog, an improbably large and immeasurably adorable goldendoodle named Lord Sandwich.
“We started getting notes asking, ‘When is Sandwich getting his own wine?’ ” Alison says. “We weren’t going to put a dog on the label. No critter wines for us!” But Lord Sandwich, who is “tall as doorknobs” and weighs about 80 pounds, has nearly 65,000 followers on Instagram. A market like that is not to be ignored.
So in 2016, the Storys produced 600 cases of Lord Sandwich Red, a blend of zinfandel, syrah, pinot noir, carignan, grenache and petite sirah. The dog was prominent on the label, and there was a philanthropic twist. It’s a nonvintage blend, with each release noted by a paw print on the back label. (The current release of 1,200 cases has two.) For each bottle of Lord Sandwich Red sold, they would donate a pair of socks to a charity. They dubbed the campaign Socks for Sandwich.
Why socks? “All doodles are sock thieves,” Alison explained. They thought initially of women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, as well as older foster children, but they also contributed to relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey in Texas and fire recovery efforts in Northern California. They are thinking about starting an emergency fund for animals as an outlet for the Socks for Sandwich campaign.
Alison, 46, grew up in the Dallas area and graduated from Baylor University, where “anytime the lights went on, we had to go to church,” she says. And the tradition of tithing “taught me the importance of giving back.”
So in a few years, the Storys built a brand by combining crowdfunding, the national obsession with cute pets on social media and a tradition of philanthropy. In addition to the Lord Sandwich wine, they produce a delicious sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County, an elegant pinot noir from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County and a superb cabernet sauvignon from Pickberry Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. This spring, they will release a Lord Sandwich white wine based on sauvignon blanc. About 70 percent of their wines are sold through their website. The rest are distributed in 12 states, primarily to restaurants.
Eric and Alison met while working in retail at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, California, in 2003. They started dating in 2011, and eloped in 2013 in Hawaii – formerly known as the Sandwich Islands. Of such things a brand is born.
Eric was a buyer of European wines for K&L, and he developed contacts in Germany, France and Austria. So Smith Story wines is not just a California label. They produce two wines from Germany’s Rheingau region: a delicious slightly off-dry Riesling and a rosé of pinot noir. The latter sells for $20, “but it would probably be $40 if we made it here in California,” Alison says. They are planning wines from Austria and the Loire Valley in France.
With the European wines, Smith Story Wine Cellars joins other labels that transcend place to become global brands, focusing on value. Their California bottlings maintain a more traditional focus on place and terroir.
Eric does the winemaking, leaving Alison to handle the marketing, the dog’s Instagram account and well, the talking. In the notes of our meeting, I only have him describing the Pickberry cabernet sauvignon as a “late ’70s, early ’80s version of cabernet” in the style of Ridge Montebello, Mount Eden or Chateau Montelena. And when I mentioned that the wines had a certain energy, he said, “That comes from our relationship with our farmers.”
I met the Storys in a gleaming, minimalist multimedia tasting room at Grand Cru Custom Crush, a new facility in Windsor, California, north of Santa Rosa. G3C, as it’s called, is already home to 12 wineries. We sat at a high-top bar as photos of Alison, Eric and Lord Sandwich flashed on the screens on the wall. The room could be transformed in an instant to feature any of the other wineries. It had an air of flexibility and agility, if not permanence or tradition, in keeping with this new way of making and marketing wine.
Yet, in the lobby of G3C is a battered old red tractor, a reminder that wine is, after all, an old agricultural tradition. And off to the side I noticed something installed that day: a shiny new water bowl for Lord Sandwich.
Eric Story and Alison Smith-Story, with their goldendoodle, Lord Sandwich.