Customers save much-loved Exeter wine shop

PUBLISHED: 07:52 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 08:05 17 September 2020

Iain serves fabulous food matched with several different wines at one of his mid-week supper club gatherings.  Photo: Rhodri Cooper

Iain serves fabulous food matched with several different wines at one of his mid-week supper club gatherings. Photo: Rhodri Cooper

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When Iain Smith of Smith’s Wines was diagnosed with cancer, he was overwhelmed at the offers of help which kept his business afloat

Iain has recently expanded the shop into new premises just up from where he previously operated in Magdalen Road, Exeter.  Photo: Rhodri CooperIain has recently expanded the shop into new premises just up from where he previously operated in Magdalen Road, Exeter. Photo: Rhodri Cooper

It’s all about great wine, with food thrown in too, isn’t it? Well yes, Smith’s Wines is a mecca for anyone who loves good wine, who wants to find something a bit different, who wants to be informed and learn a little more about what they’re drinking.

It’s also a rather unique dining venue, with its mid-week supper club running Tuesday to Thursday. Diners sit around a table in the centre of the shop and are treated to plates of food, with several wines to match, selected by shop owner, chef and host, Iain Smith.

But there’s far more going on at 39 Magdalen Road than just great wine and food, and it goes back to a story that began on Friday 13, September last year.

That was the day things started unravelling for Iain. He went to hospital with a pain he thought was a trapped nerve. It was Horner’s Syndrome – his body telling him something was very wrong. It turned out to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Iain serves fabulous food matched with several different wines at one of his mid-week supper club gatherings. Photo: Rhodri CooperIain serves fabulous food matched with several different wines at one of his mid-week supper club gatherings. Photo: Rhodri Cooper

That marked the beginning of what Iain calls “Team Smith”. It began with the people who encouraged him to go to the hospital – they happened to be shop customers; then there were the doctors and consultants who helped push through tests, scans and appointments – they too happened to be his customers.

But perhaps the biggest indicator of the love for this wine shop and its owner came from the 40-strong group of customers who rallied around to run the shop when Iain had to spend long blocks of time in hospital. They coordinated shifts through a WhatsApp group.

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The story, in all its detail and as Iain gently recounts it, is too long to cover in one feature, but the 57-year-old remembers every day, almost every hour, of his cancer journey. Perhaps reflecting Iain’s acceptance of his situation from day one, and the fact he was told that he could be cured – albeit with a lot of chemo and treatments - it’s a factual and level-headed account. But, at one point in the retelling, he goes quiet and becomes tearful.

“I was told in the beginning that I was going to live…but the really emotional bit is the love and support from customers.Not one of them knew each other; but they set up an online calendar and I just put in when I could work. And a dear friend of mine, Simon, came in and saw what I was going through and took over the reins from me and started managing things for me. No words were spoken, nothing ever said, he just did it.”

Iain says without the help of Simon and Team Smith: “I would have lost my business, my house; I’d have lost everything.”

Team Smith carried Smith’s Wines through the Christmas period, allowing Iain time for treatment and recovery.

He was so touched and so grateful, that on his birthday, 23 January, he organised a surprise meal for all the team. He’d invited everyone for a glass of fizz at the shop, but hadn’t told them that a coach would be turning up to take them to the Rusty Pig in Ottery St Mary for supper.

He’s also eternally grateful to everyone working on Yarty Ward at RD&E. “They were just so immense, so caring and had so much love – when you go through so much shit you just need a cuddle,” he says.

And what can a wine shop owner do in return? He gave them all a bottle of wine.

It was just four weeks before lockdown when Iain was given the all-clear.

Now, looking back on the last 12 months, he simply says: “I feel I am one of the luckiest men in the world.”

Discover more here about Iain’s shop

A VARIED CAREER

Next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of Iain setting up his wine shop in Magdalen Road.

Scottish-born, he moved to Whimple as a child. “My soul is Scottish, but my heart is Devonian,” he says. He’s been based in the Exeter area ever since, although his earlier career as a DJ took him all over the country and to Europe. Music was his first passion, in particular house music, which was to see him go from being a touring DJ to owning his own clubs in Bristol and Exeter.

His interest in wine began after tasting a bottle of aged white burgundy. “I’d never had anything like it, I’d never experienced those flavours. I thought, ‘I really need to know about this’.” That led him to giving up the music to work for Majestic Wines – the beginning of his route to Smith’s Wines.

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