A Conversation with a Washington Idea Guy

Apr 13, 2009

Charles Smith kind of sneaked up on the Washington wine industry. The frizzy-haired ex-rock manager had never made wine when he opened the doors on his funky shed of a winery in 2001. Winemaking errors meant that some of his early bottlings were funkier than the shed, but the good ones were startling in their depth and character.

He called it K Vintners, a sly play on the winery's focus on Syrah (get it? K Syrah?), making small lots from grapes purchased from local growers, including his friend Christophe Baron of Cayuse.

Who knew a whirlwind was brewing? One idea after another proved successful. He seems to have an endless supply of them. Some ideas shoot for the moon, such as small-lot Syrahs that burst with layers of character. Others aim at making wine more accessible.

He loves clever names and modern, edgy art work. Big, bold all-capital-letter scrawls identify the wines on black-and-white labels. And, except for the small lots under the K Vintners label, they mostly cost around $20 or less.

At every price level, his current wines are amazingly consistent at delivering clear, bright fruit flavors, a hallmark of Washington wine. "I know I am a better winemaker now," Smith shrugs.

The California native, who spent 11 years managing rock 'n roll bands in Scandinavia, uses the general Washington appellation on his modestly priced bottles, even those that are actually single-vineyard wines. "They all say Washington state," he says. "People think of it as a cool, clean, fresh place. Our wines are cool, clean and fresh."

"I came here from outside," he adds. "From that perspective, I thought, you can do anything. No one has any expectations." In the end, he says, "I’m selling Washington. I am proud to be a Washington vintner."

In 2004, when a winter freeze killed Walla Walla’s vintage, he blended some relatively low-priced wines and called them simply House White and House Red. He expected supplies to last a year. They sold out in six weeks. "I realized I was onto something," he laughs.

To that pair he added a 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon called Steak House Red and a 100-percent Chardonnay called Fish House White. Under the label Magnificent Wine Company, they became so popular he made a tidy profit selling a majority interest to Precept Brands, which has the distribution to get them into 47 states. Precept kept him on as winemaker and idea guy. The wines are made at Milbrandt, in Mattawa, at the foot of Wahluke Slope.

To Magnificent’s House Wine series he has added a varietal Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling.

Charles Smith is a prolific winemaker and man of ideas.  

His restless mind could not stop there, so he developed another brand, Charles Smith Wines: The Modernist Project, which features black-and-white art labels by a friend, Rikke Korff, known as the denim guru for her work at Levi's. Korff, now a minority partner in the wine company, has designed all of Smith's labels, starting with the giant drawing of the letter K on the original bottle.

(There are actually two K's, one with serifs for those made from Walla Walla grapes, no serifs for those from elsewhere. Neither one is entirely filled in, a sly suggestion that the best may yet be to come.)

Korff's idea for Kung Fu Girl came as the result of her and Charles free-associating what to call a new dry Riesling while watching the DVD of Quentin Tarantino's action film Kill Bill. The final scene, a stylized kung fu battle in a snowy garden, inspired the image of a robed female figure, arms outstretched.

The apple tang of the fruit flavors in Chardonnay, and Washington's identification with growing apples, inspired the Eve label: a big black apple with a bite taken from it. The power of Syrah suggested the name Boom Boom, which featured a cartoon bomb complete with lit fuse.

"Boom Boom was an old girlfriend," Smith smiles, "Elizabeth 'Boom Boom' O’Brien. She got the name because she looked like a 1950s stripper. The wine is kind of like that, round, generous, and overtly sexy."

These bottlings, made to sell for $12 to $15, contain some pretty good juice, too. Kung Fu Girl comes entirely from grapes grown in Evergreen VIneyard, in the cool-climate Columbia Gorge, and it's lively and citrusy. Eve and Boom Boom are both bright and effusive. I also like the Velvet Devil (Merlot), and Chateau Smith (Cabernet Sauvignon). Plus, Smith makes the best dry rosé I have tasted in a while, called Charles & Charles  Volume II.

The Modernist Project is up to 120,000 cases and growing. Magnificent is at 160,000 cases. K Vintners remains small, its (mostly) Syrahs showing more depth and focus and consistency with each vintage.

Smith recently bought a 5,000-square-foot brick building on Main Street in Walla Walla, where he plans to install a tasting room and a casual restaurant. "There will be a 30-person table, and a kitchen making killer food Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays," he enthuses. "The wine list will have more than 150 K wines."

If he does it, I am so there.

Dining Out Red Wines United States Washington Syrah / Shiraz

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