The story of Aluel Cellars is a love story. A queer love story.
It all started 11 years ago.
“Alex and I met almost 11 years ago. When we first met, a big part of our first date was that we each brought a really special bottle of wine with a fun story to tell behind it,” Aluel Cellars co-owner Samuel Hilbert said. “He showed up with a white wine and really wanted to talk about the region. I showed up with a red wine and I love to talk about the neat varietal on it. It was such a big part of our first date, and from there on out I mean really, wine was always a big part of our life.”
As their relationship grew, Samuel and his partner, Alex Oh, dove headfirst into the world of wine. They tasted many different wines before they were ready to bottle their first vintages in 2012 and 2013. Since the beginning, they’ve been inspired by traditional, French-style winemaking — which is mostly what they produce to this day.
In 2016, Aluel Cellars was officially born on Capitol Hill. Their location in the historically gay neighborhood of Seattle is no coincidence, and the two are proud to reside in and do business in such a vibrant neighborhood.
“Capitol Hill, where diversity is some of the highest in the city, especially for the gay community, Samuel said. “We live in the neighborhood, we own the business in the neighborhood. We’re trying to do everything we can in this neighborhood.”
Despite their overwhelming success, Samuel notes that opening a tasting room and launching a winery was a daunting feat, but that’s just the territory that comes with the industry.
“A big part of wine, and kind of a scary part of it, is that you have to plan years and years in advance,” he said. “It’s not just something where you can produce a product and make a sale a week later. It’s very inventory heavy and it’s really hard to know what the demand is going to be … Making wine is one thing and selling it is another.”
But the demand at their urban tasting room and their online sales have been steady. Samuel attributes much of their success to their phenomenal product, the unique story of their business, and the vibrant community they’ve cultivated.
“We try to create an experience where you can get to know us,” Samuel said. “We try to personalize that experience in the tasting room. My goal with the employees is that they can tell the story as well as me and Alex can. So if we’re not there, hopefully they can tell you about us, they can tell you why we made a certain blend, why we made a certain varietal. They can tell you about what our logo and name means. Hopefully, they could tell you everything I’m going to tell you during this interview.”
Often though, you’ll find Samuel at the tasting room, ready to tell the story himself. He spends so much time there that their wine rotation is usually based on what he’s in the mood for during that particular week.
“We rotate our menu a lot,” he said. “If I haven’t had something open for awhile or the weather seems to be calling to me, that’s probably what I’m going to put on the menu that week. So my relationship with our wines is sometimes I drink a lot of my wine and sometimes I’m just craving something I haven’t had open for a while. Frankly, we have a decent list of wines so I’m able to keep the menu rotating so I don’t ever get too personally tired of it.”
And that’s actually their exact winemaking philosophy. Alex and Samuel live by the standard that they only make wines that they love to drink. Which, again, is why you’ll find a long list of traditional French wines on their tasting room menu. They’re all about classic flavors and honoring tradition. You won’t find Aluel Cellars venturing into anything too outright ‘hip’ or ‘experimental.’
“There’s a reason that the French have been making some of the best wines in the world for centuries,” Samuel said.
However, there’s one exception to their French catalog — one singular Port-style wine. It’s won many awards and continues to be a stunning complement to the rest of their menu.
But Alex and Samuel aren’t exclusive wine-drinkers, in fact, Samuel said it’s important not to be.
“We don’t just drink wine,” he said. “There’s a big saying in winemaking that it takes a lot of beer to make wine. A lot of winemakers love beer, and I am definitely one. Alex is more of a cider drinker himself, and sometimes you just want that really refreshing beverage, as well. Alex loves sparkling wines, too.”
It’s all about balance and enjoyment. And the customers who have grown to love Aluel’s wines as much as Samuel and Alex do have quickly become their fast friends.
“I’ve made so many friends from customers that have come into our tasting room that I wouldn’t have met before, Samuel said. “It seems like we get some of the best people in Seattle that come to our tasting room … It’s great that we’re starting to get back [to normal], and I’m in the tasting room seeing a lot of my favorite customers again. We’ve been to some of their weddings, that’s the kind of friendships we’ve built with these people.“
The pandemic definitely changed things at Aluel, Samuel said, but they’re eager to get back to normal. They’re especially excited to continue to market their new The Scholar wine, from which a portion of the proceeds go to the GSBA Scholarship Fund which awards scholarships to LGBTQ students who exhibit leadership skills and strong academic ability.
“A big part of our business is giving back and we were able to give $5,000 to the GSBA Scholarship Fund in just 6 months thanks to The Scholar wine,” Samuel said. “When you ‘Spend Like It Matters,’ when you purchase from small businesses like mine, you can come in and buy even just our The Scholar wine and know that you’re not just giving back to a small business, who maybe can help with diversity in the industry, but you’re also giving back to future leaders with the GSBA Scholarship Fund. Better bang for your buck, two-for-one.”
The pandemic has also increased Aluel Cellars’ national shipping efforts, and you can now order a bottle from almost anywhere in the country.
Despite enduring a turbulent year, Samuel says that his and Alex’s relationship is stronger than ever. In fact, he says, owning the business together has overwhelmingly strengthened their relationship.
“I think a lot of times it’s very risky, it could be very stressful on a lot of couples,” Samuel said. “Weirdly, it’s forced us to have to communicate and prioritize time and figure out how to separate our personal lives from business — or else it would just be constantly business. And that’s probably actually been good for our relationship to make us just have to think a little bit more about how we communicate with each other … We had to learn to trust our employees to do work, to step away and turn off our phones for the night, not look at cameras for the tasting room, not look at sales. Those things don’t matter when we’re on date night.”
Together, they’ve built a robust business that continues to grow and expand. Samuel hinted at a possible new location in another Seattle neighborhood and revealed plans for a new destination facility outside of Gig Harbor.
“We’re in the process of building a production facility on this side of the mountains about an hour and 15 minutes from Seattle,” he said. “It’s where pretty much nobody else is except for some state parks and a little local tourism outside of Gig Harbor. It won’t be ready for another year, most likely … It’s 15 acres and it’s just an absolutely green, gorgeous property. We’ll have a couple of acres of vineyards on it and it’s surrounded by old growth trees, forests, and moss. It’s just beautiful.”
As they continue to dream up new realities, Samuel is proud of the name they’ve built for themselves in the wine industry, and the impact that their diverse-owned business has had in a space that historically lacks representation.
“Representation matters,” Samuel said. “In the wine world, there actually is not representation of the queer community or the Asian community, either. Alex is Asian and we’re both obviously part of the queer community … You go to these wine conferences and there’s a lot of fantastic allies, but there’s just not the queer or even the minority presence, at these events.”
While he hopes that he and Alex can open more doors for diverse contributions to the wine industry, Samuel stressed that he wants Aluel Cellars to be known for its quality product first, and their identity second.
“It’s important, though, that we’re not just another minority face,” he said. “We also are very well respected and we produce a fantastic product. I don’t want to be known for being queer in this community, I don’t want us to be known for being Asian in this community, I want to be known for making fantastic wine, that maybe happens to be queer. I hope by making a fantastic product and by building success that we can hopefully open the doors to more people.”
And the two continue to be recognized and awarded all around for their wine, identity, and community engagement. Most recently, Alex was recognized as one of Puget Sound Business Journal’s 2021 Outstanding Voices of Pride.
And they’ve both accomplished all of this while maintaining their day jobs. Samuel is a realtor with Windermere Real Estate and Alex is a patent attorney, currently working at Visus Therapeutics as the Vice President of Intellectual Property.
Thus, their scope of community engagement deepens.
Ultimately, the two hope that the city of Seattle and the Capitol Hill neighborhood sees them just as they see themselves: an ultra-local urban winery that engages with the community on a truly intentional level.
“Wine doesn’t get any more local than this,” Samuel said.
And, truly, it doesn’t.
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