Shopping at Acme Fine Wines is like buying art. Rather than case displays and aisles of products, this innovative retailer in St. Helena, Napa County, showcases a wall of wines. Around 350 individual bottles populate the centerpiece at any given time. Most are smaller brands, the best new labels: producers with as few as four barrels or 25 cases.
Opened in 2003, Acme operates a showroom that’s only 1,000 square feet. (Onsite storage facilities contain the unseen stacks of wine cases.) When customers first enter this cozy, artistic space — known in Napa as a trendsetter for discovering new wines — guests often think they’ve arrived in the wrong spot.
“Most of the time, they’ll have a confused look on their faces. And I’ll say, ‘Yes, you’re in the right place’,” laughs Karen Williams, Acme founder. “This is not a traditional wine shop.”
The Road to Innovation
Arriving at the idea of Acme was a long journey of passion for Williams.
She first became interested in wine at a young age, while touring Missouri with her parents. Visiting a rural winery, Williams was taken by the ambiance and the people. She connected with the atmosphere in a way that kept her gravitating to the wine world forever forwards.
After some post-college years in Colorado, Williams could ignore her wine itch no longer. She moved to Napa and dove into winemaking. As her interests grew beyond production, Williams began working at the legendary St. Helena wine bar Tra Vigne. Managing the wine program, Williams placed great emphasis on featuring new, exciting brands — a theme that has carried into Acme.
While employed at Tra Vigne (which later closed in 2015), Williams helped develop the concept for a small shop next door. This location became an incubation launch pad for new local wines, exposing curious consumers to the latest brands from around the area.
Tra Vigne’s expansion proved popular. Williams found her time stretched between running the shop and also the restaurant’s wine program. She began wondering why she was doing all this when she could be “putting more time selling smaller brands directly to consumers,” she recalls. Helping launch new brands became her favorite focus.
Again, she followed her passion as it evolved.
Williams founded the first Acme location in 300 square feet of office space in downtown St. Helena. Whatever wines featured that week were displayed in four square boxes from West Elm. This setup was the precursor to the bigger wall, which took form when Acme outgrew its original space and moved into its current spot on Fulton Lane, off Rt. 128.
“We call it ‘The Wall’,” Williams says. “Customers can point at it, interact with it. It’s touchable liquid art.”
Working The Wall
In building the showpiece at the heart of Acme, Williams commissioned her friend, Designer Michael Roche. He created the long stack of boxes, as though displaying a gallery of vinicultural masterpieces.
About three-quarters of these wines are smaller, artisan, “undiscovered” brands. The remainder is blue-chippers, easily recognizable, and often on allocated status. While obviously for sale, these better-known brands also serve as a reference point for customers — a sense of comfort before exploration into vineyards unknown.
When customers first enter Acme, Williams and her staff of nine offer a wine pour. From there, Acme employees ask about preferences for varietals or price points. “We’ll figure out that, oh, you like Chateau Montelena,” Williams says. “Well, the winemaker who was there has a new label. Here is what he makes today.”
“We’ll pull for customers what they already like, and then send them in the direction of an artisan brand that they wouldn’t have found at home,” she adds.
The operative word there is “home.” With an exceptional collection of rare and artisan brands, Acme has become a must-visit for oenophiles touring the area.
During her time at Tra Vigne, Williams built valuable connections with winemakers. She helped establish Tra Vigne and its adjacent shop as places to be seen for any new local brand. This prized reputation has carried over into Acme. Other winemakers tell their peers that Acme is where they must be for the best exposure.
“Some of the artisan brands we’ve helped, they didn’t have any audience at all beforehand,” Williams says. “It’s such a tight-knit community in Napa Valley, and these producers know that we can fit their new brands into our wine clubs, or showcase them.”
“Our customers trust us to deliver them something delicious,” she adds. “Everything that we do sell here we have all tasted on our panel and have decided is delicious.”
Surviving the 2020 Wildfires
As though 2020 weren’t challenging enough with Covid-19, a recession, cultural unrest and the bitter presidential election, Acme and the surrounding area faced another large challenge. Wildfires ravaged their part of California.
“What was different this year than with the fires of 2017 was that in 2020, most grapes were still on the vine,” Williams explains. “We had been worried about the potential for more fires since 2017, but nobody expected them to arrive in August.”
Naturally, this posed greater risk for the exposed fruit. Scarier still, the fires pressed upon the populace of St. Helena.
“Everybody saw those videos where people evacuated in the middle of the night,” Williams says. “You just never knew when you would have to hose your house down, or when you would have to decide in an instant what items inside your house to take with you. It all happened so quickly.”
At Acme these decisions included how to handle their stock. Facilities contained the shop’s wines, plus collections belonging to customers who stored bottles at Acme over the summer.
“Should we take those wines out of our location and take them down south?” Williams remembers wondering. “Do we even have the time?”
Fortunately, the fires never reached Acme to force this difficult choice. Williams still faced a great deal of angst, however, for her industry colleagues.
“My concern was what happened to everybody around us,” she says. “We’re all friends. St. Helena is a population of only 6,000. We’re a tight-knit community.”
That community included winemakers with grapes affected by the fire and smoke.
“When the fires devastated people whose wines we sell, we did what we could do to help,” Williams says. “That includes offering older vintages. Or if that winery was no longer producing a 2020 vintage, we understood.”
Williams also believes that part of the solution against the damaging wildfires is a better understanding of how exactly the conflagration touches different viticulture regions.
“The blanket statement of the wildfire affecting wine is not the case,” she explains. “The fires affected wineries differently, microclimate by microclimate.”
California weather in recent years would imply that additional wildfires are more than likely in the years ahead. Considering this unfortunate reality, Williams suggests, “We might change the term ‘smoke taint’ and its negative connotation to something more like ‘smoke essence’.”
After all, smokiness is a common, positive flavor and aroma descriptor for Scotch, mezcal and other popular alcohol products. Perhaps “smoke essence,” or an “ashy smokiness,” could become part of the terroir for wineries located near the typical wildfire zones.
Regardless of what happens moving forwards, Williams knows she has the right people to propel Acme through trying times.
“Our staff acted head and shoulders above anything I could have expected,” she says. “I’m so thankful for our team.”
Wine Trends in 2021
As a retailer positioned on the cutting edge of wine, Williams has a good vision of what to expect in the years ahead.
Although Acme does not carry such products, Williams sees continued growth for canned wine and wine-based RTDs. From a fine-wine perspective, she predicts more producers will plant small, esoteric varietals.
“Cabernet is always going to be key in Napa Valley, but now you’re seeing brands choose to focus on cab franc, or noble varietals,” Williams says. “They want something they can plant in small plots, like vermentino.”
Part of this trend in varietal diversification is giving consumers additional options.
“Winemakers feel like they need something outside of the box,” Williams says. “They want to give people something new, a new reason for people to be drinking their brand. With so many brands on the market, they’re trying to get people to drink something different than what they normally do.”
Williams also anticipates more releases with single-vineyard designations. On one hand, this allows producers to differentiate within the broader category of common styles, like cabernet sauvignon. On the other, “these appeal to people who are not new to the brand, and who like to taste through every single wine made by that brand,” she adds.
The nature of allocated wines may change in 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues and then (hopefully) subsides. Acme received more allotments than usual of these limited releases in 2020; sadly, restaurants and bars did not buy as many of these products as usual.
“We got offered additional amounts of allocated products,” Williams says. “It was great for the wineries, because they were missing out on sales at the restaurant tier. We were able to find new customers for these products.”
Ecommerce also played a role in this shift in business.
“More people shopped online this year, so more people found wines by Napa Valley retailers,” Williams says. “That got more new customers to us.”
Wine Clubs and Ecommerce
Acme runs a number of popular wine clubs. True to form, these include the Under The Radar club. Wines in this package — two per month — are so new that some of these brands have not yet launched officially.
“We taste these wines first, club members, second,” Williams explains. “We think of this club as like an audition for wine sellers. These are wines for our members to try quickly, rather than stow away and try in a few years.”
The Pulse club is popular among wine professionals. These three monthly wines represent experimental brands, styles and varietals — from all over the world.
“Winemakers benefit from this club because they’re likely not going out as much,” says Williams. “The Pulse club exposes industry members to wines they might not encounter otherwise, like the wines of Croatia, or those made using different trellising systems.”
“This club is also open to the consumer,” she adds.
The Kahuna club is the luxury option. Typically this features the top three wines that Acme staff have tasted in the past month. Many members use this club as an audition for their wine cellars. An opportunity to try top-shelf bottles young, right away, before deciding on the bigger investment of more bottles to sock away for aging. This is particularly relevant because many Kahuna bottles are rare, allocated products.
Off The Wall is a club that’s literal to its name. Customers who purchase this option receive monthly shipments taken right from Acme’s famous wall of wine. These can include customers’ favorite selections — or something new to try.
Incredibly, despite offering all these very different clubs, Acme never repeats a wine, Williams says. For the past 17 and a half years, the business has maintained a fresh selection for all of its options.
Acme ships to many states. The business also delivers to storage facilities.
What it’s Like
Acme’s continued success comes at a time when the industry — like much of America — is undergoing another round of improving equality and inclusion. While obviously not lost on Williams, it’s hardly a theme through which she measures her professional accomplishments.
“I don’t walk about thinking about being a woman in this business,” she says. “I walk around thinking about being right. I just happen to be a woman.”
Williams participates in organizations and events that recognize women in wine. She enjoys helping women in the earlier stages of their careers, providing mentorship opportunities.
Asked what it’s like to be a woman in the industry, Williams replies, “I know what it’s like to kick ass, to have a phenomenal business and to support other local businesses. And it feels great.”