Charles Smith has made some bold moves in his life, as he recounted in my profile of the Washington vintner in the Oct. 15 issue of Wine Spectator ("Marching to His Own Drummer"), but moving his base of operations from Walla Walla wine country to Seattle may be the biggest.
When I visited, Smith unlocked the unimposing front door of the warehouse he purchased earlier this year, walked me through a warren of deserted offices into the airplane hangar–sized space that's perfect for a functional and versatile winery. Charles Smith Wines has outgrown its patched-together warehouse winery in downtown Walla Walla.
The new winery should be ready for the 2015 vintage. It will continue to make all the high-end wines for K Vintners, Charles Smith and the new Sixto Chardonnay project. Popular labels such as Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Velvet Devil Merlot will continue to be made at other wineries: Milbrandt, in Mattawa, and Goose Ridge, near Pasco.
Even though his architect-designed tasting room in Walla Walla will continue to host visitors to wine country, Smith is betting the two-story, glass-fronted tasting room that will replace the empty offices in Seattle will be even more of a magnet. The building is in an area called Georgetown. It's on South Albro Place, the street that crosses the north end of Boeing Field and leads right up onto Interstate 5. Overlooking the private jets and FedEx 747s landing across the street, with a rooftop suitable for a sign seen from I-5, the new tasting room should get plenty of traffic.
"We'll put a professional kitchen here, so [my wife,] Ginevra, can cook when she's here. We can do big dinners and parties," Smith said. "I also want to put in a restaurant. I even have a name—Jet City. And local community groups can use it for their functions."
Getting closer to the people who buy the wines is the main reason Seattle has boomed with more than 100 wineries. It's why the earliest adopters, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia and Quilceda Creek, made their headquarters on this side of the Cascade Range. Countless truckloads of grapes cross the mountains that separate the populous west from the vineyards on the eastern side of the state—it's about the same number of hours from most Columbia Valley vineyards to Seattle as to Walla Walla.
Most of those other wineries are north of the city, centered around Woodinville, but a few are within a mile or two of this site, including Cadence and OS. Smith's winemaking team, Andrew Latta and Brennon Leighton, who will also be moving the operations for their small labels made in partnership with Smith, are eager to leave small-town living behind. They got noticeably animated over dinner in Walla Walla recently as they described what they could do in Seattle that they can't in Walla Walla.
"Georgetown is a historical area with lots of soul," says Smith, once a rock music agent. "It's up-and-coming. It just feels right."