Adrienne Smith, '98, pursues her dream in Napa Valley

February 2, 2021
The general manager of a California winery gets creative in turning unexpected challenges into success

First came the coronavirus pandemic. Then the economic fallout. Then raging fires that turned the sky orange. When faced with such adversity, many would admit defeat. Adrienne (Capps) Smith, ’98, got creative.

In June 2018, Smith joined Parallel Wines as director of hospitality and marketing. Six months later she was promoted to general manager of the boutique 600-case winery located in California’s Napa Valley.

Known for its three high-end wines – a chardonnay and two cabernets produced by notable winemaker Philippe Melka, Parallel Wines has long offered wine tastings and events. The coronavirus pandemic threatened to change that.

“When we started getting cancellations for tastings last March, I decided to offer online tastings,” Smith said. “I shipped wines and food pairings to guests in advance and then led their guided tastings via Zoom. Because we were one of the first wineries to offer online tastings, the media kept picking up our story. I was busier than I normally would be at that time of year.”

Parallel Wines re-opened for in-person wine tastings in June. Then August brought the first round of wildfires. The smoke damaged many grape varietals at a critical point in their development. More wildfires followed in late September.

“The fire went up mountains and back down,” Smith said. “Several wineries burned to the ground. The financial toll on the restaurant, hotel, and wine industries was devastating – particularly as we continue to recover from the 2017 fires.”

She got creative again when invited to join an online offer with five other wineries in June and when she led a similar effort in November. Together the wineries sold nearly 300 six packs and 12 packs of wine, generating critical revenue when tasting rooms were closed and travel for wine events was not possible.

Her University of Richmond undergraduate degrees in leadership studies and marketing served her well as she responded to 2020’s ongoing challenges, Smith said. In appreciation of her education, the alumna founded the Fredric M. Jablin Undergraduate Research Fellowship at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in 2005 in memory of her favorite professor.

“Leadership studies gave me a foundation in critical thinking and the confidence to act, and my business education gave me practical sales and marketing knowledge,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and wait for a global pandemic to run its course. So I worked with the winery owners on lots of new ideas. Some flopped, but others paid off. We had a very successful year – increasing sales revenue by 17 percent year over year.”

Smith also benefitted from more than 20 years of experience as a nonprofit fundraiser, holding increasingly prominent leadership roles. But in January 2014, she took the first step to turn her longtime food and wine hobbies into a career when she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Greystone in Napa Valley.

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “On the first day I was in a wine studies class, the fireworks went off.”

While a student at CIA, Smith started a culinary and wine consulting business. In 2015, she graduated with an associate’s degree in culinary arts, having received CIA’s Culinary Graduation Award and Management Graduation Award as well as several prominent scholarships.

Fast forward several years and Smith, who married in 2020, is enjoying life in Napa Valley, including the day-to-day variety in her general manager role: “I do everything from maintaining the website, putting in orders, managing inventory, hosting private tastings, coordinating wine clubs, posting on social media, travelling around the country – whatever it takes to keep the winery growing and thriving. I don’t think I could ever go back to a 9-5 desk job.”