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Life, times and growing wine empire of Charles Smith
WALLA WALLA, Wash. – For such a colorful character, Charles Smith is a man seen in terms of black and white.
It’s not just the colors he tends to use on his labels. With Smith, you either love him – or you don’t. There isn’t a lot of gray beyond what is starting to show on his temples.
At this point, it’s safe to say way more people like Smith and his wines than not, based on the fact that he produces and sells an astonishing amount of wine that puts him in rare company in Washington.
We recently sat down with Smith at his Walla Walla tasting room. Here’s the interview:
Charles Smith: wine pioneer?
Smith, born in Sacramento, Calif., arrived in Walla Walla in 1999. This practically makes him a pioneer, as his K Vintners was one of the first 20 producers in a valley that now is home to more than 130 wineries and considers itself the center of the Washington wine universe.
His arrival on the Washington wine scene is well documented. Smith managed a band in Europe before finding Walla Walla during a road trip. That he decided to move here and make wine – and sell it in his own bombastic way – was an affront to many. Rumors abounded that he couldn’t make wine, that his operation was a joke, that he was just a loud guy with big hair.
Guess who’s laughing now?
It turns out Smith might just be the smartest guy around. He grew up working in and around the wine industry, primarily in the restaurant trade, where he learned plenty about wine and its history. Smith has forgotten more about wine than most people know – and he hasn’t forgotten very much. He picked up winemaking along the way and ultimately applied his knowledge upon his arrival in Washington.
He released his first wine in December 2001, a 1999 Walla Walla Valley Syrah – of which he produced just 330 cases. The paint on his tasting room walls was still drying when he opened the doors to the public.
“I saw myself building a humble life,” Smith told Great Northwest Wine. “I was hoping to make 1,000 to 2,000 cases of wine … and have a small-town life and do it until I became an old guy. I wanted to be seen on a bench on Main Street with my cane and a handkerchief in my pocket, and people would walk by and say, ‘Who is that guy? Oh that’s Charles Smith, and when he was young, he was a real you-know-what.'”
Building an empire
After initial success with K Vintners, Smith created The Magnificent Wine Co., a brand that included such labels as House White, House Red, Fish House, Steak House and others. They were inexpensive wines with simple labels, and they were such a huge hit. Smith sold the entire brand to Precept Wine in Seattle in 2007.
Since then, he has built such brands as Charles Smith Wines (featuring Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Boom Boom Syrah and Velvet Devil Merlot), Charles & Charles (a partnership with winemaker Charles Bieler), Secco Italian Bubbles (made in Italy) and Vino Pinot Grigio.
He recently purchased Wines of Substance, a clever Walla Walla label that was created a few years ago and looks like a periodic table. The brand never gained traction, but with Smith behind it, count on it to be another hit.
He’s coming out with Sixto, which he describes as “my Chardonnay project.” And he’s planning to launch a brand called Casa Smith, a label that is a collaboration with his wife.
These days, Smith is not exactly sure how many wines he makes. When pressed, he can come up with more than 30 single-vineyard wines that are made in small lots.
All told, Charles Smith is responsible for about 650,000 cases of wine. That’s more than Pacific Rim Winemakers, more than Hedges Cellars, more than Kiona Vineyards & Winery, more than Hogue Cellars.
“I guess I make a lot of wine,” he said.
Astonishingly, that makes Charles Smith Wines the third-largest wine producer in Washington, behind only Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Wine. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, much less a guy whose aspirations never seemed quite so far flung. And it’s all on Smith’s shoulders. He has a team of three winemakers: himself, Andrew Latta and Brennon Leighton. The latter is a former Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker, where he worked on Eroica Riesling and later went to highly regarded Efeste in Woodinville before heading east to Walla Walla.
At home in Walla Walla
Smith now has two locations: his original K Vintners operation east of the airport, and his relatively new downtown tasting room that he opened three years ago. It’s a stark space in an old warehouse district that has a groovy urban feel to it.
“I call it my world headquarters,” Smith said with a wink. “It’s basically an original warehouse from the turn of the century, and it reflects that.”
It’s stark, clean and classy with a great sound system.
There’s also a new vineyard project for Smith that is coming on with this fall’s harvest. He’s planted small vineyards before, but this is a bit larger: It’s a 146-acre property south of downtown Walla Walla on Powerline Road, of which 40 acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Viognier.
Smith is 52 and still loaded with energy and attitude. He has big plans for his next move, though he’s not revealing exactly what they are.
Whatever it is, it will undoubtedly be successful because Smith will be behind it.