“Whether I’m making a $100 bottle of wine or a $12 bottle of wine, I put just as much effort into each wine. All wines have to be balanced to be successful.” Charles Smith, winemaker
Charles Smith has been called everything from the Wildman of Walla Walla to Winemaker of the Year (2009 Food and Wine Magazine & 2010 Seattle Magazine). Looking more like rock star Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame, than the stereotypical winemaker, Charles is a rock star in the winemaking world.
After years of managing rock bands across Europe, Charles landed in Walla Walla to follow his true passion; winemaking. His first vintage was a mere 330 cases of 1999 K Syrah. A self-taught winemaker, Smith created the House Wine label which he sold in 2006. Today his labels include K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines, Secco Italian Bubbles, Charles and Charles Project and Vino.
We met up with Charles on a beautiful spring morning in Austin, Texas in the courtyard of the trendy Hotel San Jose on South Congress. After the interview, we headed out for post-interview enchiladas at Guero’s Taco Bar, just up South Congress Avenue. While sitting at the bar, one fellow looked to his friend and pointed at Charles saying “look dude, this is cool thing about Austin, we’re sitting at a bar with Sammy Hagar.”
As you will see, Charles Smith is as unique an individual as are the wines he strives to create. He prides himself in creating high-quality value-priced wines that appeal to the consumer who might not reach for a glass of wine as their first beverage of choice as well as the budget conscious wine enthusiast.
B&B Wine Blog – How did you get started in wine?
CS – I came to wine the way many people do, through the restaurant business. I started when I was 19 years old, down in Palm Springs. I didn’t know how to do anything and I ended up spilling a tray of oranges into the lap of the chairman of General Motors. I high-tailed it out of there with the chef chasing me with a knife. Fortunately, I was faster than him and just kept running. So here I am today. But through those restaurant jobs I realized the wine aspect was my favorite. So I decided to focus on that. It was a lot easier than working in the kitchen or being a waiter. You get to come in the latest, leave the earliest and drink all night. I did that until I was 29 and moved to Europe.
I was set to go to UC Davis and study viticulture but I fell in love with a Danish girl and moved there. But I never forgot my passion for wine and on a road trip in 1999 we passed through Walla Walla. A winemaker encouraged me to move back to the US and make wine, and that’s what I did.
B&B Wine Blog – Did you find it intimidating to take that step from wine enthusiast to a self-taught winemaker?
CS - I’m not sure I’d use the word intimidating but I had conviction that I was going to do this. I wasn’t dating the girl in Denmark so I had nothing to go back to, so all I could do was move forward. I took all that I knew about wine, the history of wine and winemakers and applied it.
B&B Wine Blog – Why did you choose to focus on Rhone Varieties?
CS - It’s like this. When I started in Walla Walla there were already over 300 producers of Bordeaux varietals across the state and only 3 wineries focusing on Rhone varietals. I’d rather compete with 3 rather than 300.
B&B Wine Blog – How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
CS - I try to maintain focus, purity and balance. Balance is number one with everything I do.
B&B Wine Blog – Your bottles have unique and wild labeling. The packed Charles Smith wine event we attended was held at something of a biker bar in east Austin. Do your wines appeal to demographic different from the typical wine bar crowd?
CS - Yeah, they could be younger, they could be older. The idea is to communicate the language of wine to everybody who doesn’t necessarily speak wine. And so I think that’s why people gravitate to it. It’s a language they can understand through the art work.
B&B Wine Blog – When you were in Europe you managed rock bands. Is there similarity between managing rock bands and a harvest team?
CS - I think with a harvest team we are a lot better prepared. We really know exactly what we’re doing. With a rock and roll band you never know what you’re doing. They scatter like letting cats out of a box. It’s definitely easier to manage a winemaking team.
B&B Wine Blog – Why do you choose to make so many single-vineyard wines?
CS - I want to do wine expressions that are complete from one spot simply because nothing else is going to mimic it. If it has all the attributes to make a really great wine, why blend it with anything else. I’d rather my wines be distinct than anything else.
B&B Wine Blog – How much control do you have over the grape growing in your single vineyard wines.
CS - Total control, whether it’s vineyards I own or lease. I have a vineyard manager and we farm everything ourselves or it is grown to our specifications. We don’t buy any fruit.
B&B Wine Blog – What makes Walla Walla special?
CS - It’s been somewhat isolated and had the opportunity to develop on its own without much outside interference. The wines that are produced there are made by guys with a real passion for wine. Wines from Walla Walla can have a real depth and plushness to them. It’s a real good spot. You can be focused on making wine and not a lot of other things. There are still a lot of undiscovered sites for vineyards so I can be a bit of a pioneer. That really appeals to me.
CS - Whether I’m making a $100 bottle of wine or a $12 bottle of wine, I put just as much effort into each wine and all wines have to be balanced to be successful. So I’m the most proud of my inexpensive wines like Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Vino Pinot Grigio because it allows people that may not have a lot of money but are into wine to have access to wine. Whether it’s a single vineyard wine made in a really balanced, pure fashion or the wine selling for $12, those are the ones I’m the most proud of.
B&B Wine Blog – Kung Fu Girl is very popular on wine lists. What are your favorite pairings with that wine?
CS - That wine and a glass to drink it from…. It works so well with so many foods. I love it with grilled or sautéed fish. I love it with Thai or any Asian influenced dishes. I even like it with Mexican food because it balances out the spice and gives a big burst of freshness. Kung Fu Girl isn’t sweet, its dry so you get the fruit to cool the heat and you get the dryness to make it enjoyable to drink.
B&B Wine Blog – When you wake up in the morning, who do you see in the mirror?
CS - If it was a half hour from now, it would have been you…saying come on Charles let’s get on with the interview (laughing). This morning was a guy who badly needed to get his teeth brushed and his hair combed… But really, I just see Charles, the guy I bring around no matter what I’m doing. Charles the winemaker, Charles the father, Charles the hung-over guy. Charles, the guy who is probably going to eat some enchiladas this afternoon.
CS - I’d probably say either my Kung Fu Girl or the Charles and Charles Rosé. I’m not real fond of young red wines. I want wines that are highly drinkable with complexity and if it’s with friends I know we’re going to down a few bottles so having a fresh white wine or rosé is right up my alley.
B&B Wine Blog – When you’re not drinking your own wines, what wines do you drink.
CS - I rarely drink my own wines, so this is a good question. I like to drink a lot of red Burgundy and white Burgundy. I like northern Italian white wines. I drink a lot of German Riesling and of course a lot of Champagne. As for California, I like Schramsberg. In some ways I think it’s under-rated. It delivers full pleasure and tastes like American sparkling wine.
B&B Wine Blog – What can we expect from Charles Smith in the upcoming year?
CS - Several things…this fall with my Charles and Charles project I’m releasing a Chardonnay from some nice cool vineyards sites with a touch of oak and malolactic, a really beautiful mouth-feel and long finish, a really bad-ass label with me and Charles Bieler on it, in black and white. It will be really hard to miss and I think you’ll really love this wine.
This last year we took on a new project to make high-elevation, old-vine Chardonnay from some really great sites. We made three Chardonnays we will bottle next spring. It will be the highest expression of Chardonnay ever produced in Washington state. High expression means, you know, the wine expresses everything, a sense of place, its varietal and that it’s really true to itself.This is really exciting for us. It’s not necessarily a departure but it is definitely a move in a direction to see what we can do with Chardonnay and see how it stacks up against the rest of the wines on the west coast.