Interviewer & Writer: Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham
Charles Smith: The Springsteen of Winemaking
“I make wine for the people,” says Charles Smith, winemaker and owner of Charles Smith Wines in Washington state. “At every price, you should get value for your money. People work hard for their money. I think it’s the responsibility of the winemakers to give (the people) something true that has integrity. That’s what I do.”
Even the labels on Smith’s bottles are designed to speak to the working-class everyman. “How many people can read a French wine label?” he asks, presumably with the average American consumer in mind. “(If) they can’t pronounce it, they don’t know what’s in the bottle, so it doesn’t really communicate the language of wine to people who don’t speak wine.”
And for thousands of years, humans haven’t needed to “speak wine” to appreciate it. Likewise, you don’t have to be a sommelier to interpret what’s inside of Smith’s bottles. The labels — indeed like many Americans — are direct and to-the-point. Printed in stark, gritty black-and-white with uncomplicated imagery, they’re created to evoke an immediate sense of the wines they represent. These aren’t labels that are overly aware of themselves, or trying too hard to be cute. On the contrary, Smith’s labels make a no-nonsense introduction, and then step aside to let each wine tell its own story.
And Smith, like his labels, speaks plainly: “I’m an American winemaker,” he says. “An American making American wine. I don’t want to tell a European story for American wine.”
The slogan on his website shrugs, “It’s just wine, drink it.”
There’s a rock-and-roll sensibility to Smith, his wines, and his business overall. It makes sense when I learn that prior to moving to Washington to make wine, Smith, originally from California, spent nearly a decade managing indie rock bands on tour in Europe.
Later, a visit to the Pacific Northwest took him to Walla Walla, where he met some winemakers who convinced him to move to Washington and follow his dream of becoming a winemaker.
Smith first discovered wine at the age of 19 or 20, by way of restaurants as many do. As a winemaker, he is self-taught.
Throughout his young adulthood he relished visiting wineries, meeting and talking with winemakers, learning about the craft and developing his palate. Finally, in 1999, he planted roots in Walla Walla, rolled up his sleeves and produced 330 cases of wine. Today, Charles Smith is the third largest producer of wine in Washington, and the state’s largest independent winemaker-owned winery.
It occurs to me that Smith, in his jeans and t-shirts, with his DIY spirit, egalitarian mission and non-threatening likeability, just might be the Springsteen of winemaking.
I decided to have a little fun with Smith. As a way of getting to know his wines, I presented him with five situational rock-and-roll tour clichés, and asked which of his wines made the best match.
Here’s how that went.
It begins with the sound check. There’s a strange electricity in the air tonight. Somehow, this hackneyed set feels new – like you’re hearing those familiar songs for the first time again. You have a feeling tonight’s going to be one hell of a show.
It’s a moment that calls for a Malbec. Smith recommends Broncho. “It’s named for a band called Broncho from Oklahoma. The wine is so rock-and-roll. The wine is so badass, it needed to have its own band.”
Royal City Syrah
During what proves to be a singularly memorable show, the crowd is held in euphoric suspension during a guitar solo. It’s a bit like drinking Smith’s Royal City Syrah. “It’s the most maximum wine that I make,” says Smith. “Rich and powerful. And it’s got a great skull crown on the label.”
And later, backstage, you’re easily seduced by the slow smile of a groupie lingering in your doorway. She’s a sure thing.
It’s a moment expressed by “My K Vintners Viognier,” says Smith, “because the wine’s fragrant. It’s rich, supple, and it’s pretty sexy.”
Later you wake up in an unfamiliar, opulent hotel room wearing nothing but a tour t-shirt. It reminds Smith of an ice cold bottle of Kung Fu Girls Riesling. He says it’s the best wine to lend clarity to whatever happened last night.
The next night you may find yourself with less company, but no less lucky. As the tour bus rolls on to the next gig, you feel the droning of its tires resonating through every fiber of your blissfully spent body. Smith says you’ll want something soothing to calm your nerves. “I make a wine called The Boy,” he says, “It’s 100% Grenache. It’s named after the song from Serge Gainsbourg where he sings, I am the boy who can enjoy invisibility. I think in that moment in time, I would like to just cease to be there and be invisible, in my bunk with a bottle of Grenache.”
For Smith, it’s all pretty straightforward: wine is love. “I love what it represents,” he says. “Friends and family around the table. It’s romance. It’s generational. It’s the countryside. It’s so many wonderful things.” He even has a wine named for his three-year-old daughter. “It’s called Charlotte,” he says in a voice momentarily downy with affection, “and it’s love.”
THE NEW BOTTLE EXPERIENCE REVIEW & RATING:
Broncho Malbec 2012
Bright appearance, with full/intense aromas of sherry, butter and dust. A full-bodied red. The finish is layered/complex. One wild ride – a bursting kaleidoscope of flavor. An overall excellent Malbec from Walla Walla, Washington – United States.
You can purchase Charles Smith wines at CharlesSmithWines.com. Or, if you find yourself in Washington state, you have two opportunities to get better acquainted with the wines of Charles Smith: at Smith’s tasting room in Wall Walla, and in Seattle, at his two-level tasting room, Charles Smith Wines Jet City, on the north end of Boeing Field. Let Charles know that Uncorked Monthly introduced his wines and that we said hello.