Charles Smith, a self-taught winemaker, has become one of the most successful vintners in the Pacific Northwest while eschewing most of the industry’s conventions.
“You want to make wine? Get some grapes, get some equipment, crush your grapes, make some wine. People have been making wine for centuries without going to winemaking school.”
The former rock band manager who used to sell bottles out of a beat-up van before earning high scores from prestigious tasters. The American winemaker who defies conventional, conservative labels and instead goes for black and white imagery that tease pop culture memories.
Smith would not have it any other way. The 52-year-old is a self-taught vintner who has managed to channel his boundless curiosity, restless energy and passion for wines into a portfolio of reds and whites that he produces in and around the little town of Walla Walla in the Pacific Northwest. He has become the third-largest wine producer in Washington State, churning out 650,000 cases of mostly affordable wines for a worldwide market. Yet he still manages to collect prestigious awards and top ratings for his single vineyard Syrahs.
In January 2015, the trade publication Wine Enthusiast named him “Global Winemaker of the Year.” The award joins a growing collection of sought-after accolades, among them “Best Winery of the Last Ten Years” and “Winery of the Year” by Wine & Spirits, top honors by the gourmet magazine Food & Wine, plus a rare 100 point rating for his 2006 “Royal City” Syrah by Wine Enthusiast and 98 points by oenologist kingmaker Robert Parker.
In spite of economic success and fame, Smith has maintained a down-to-earth attitude to his craft and his business. Jumping out of an aged SUV, he strides into his tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. A brick garage has been converted into this sleek open space where almost nothing detracts from rows of black and white cases and a phalanx of minimalist bottles lined up on the bar. He runs his hands through his mane before launching into a rapid description of his career as one of the pre-eminent winemakers on the West Coast, with a total of seven different labels, ranging from an inexpensive Riesling all the way to high-end Rhône varietals that retail for 100 US dollars.
It all happened through a string of lucky coincidences, as the Sacramento native tells it. “I started my road to winemaking by working my way up in restaurants as a young guy. I realized the person that serves the wine has the best job. He gets to come in late, leave early, and he gets to drink all night.” Along the way, Smith absorbed all there was to know about wines: “I always took the one job beyond my skills, and it eventually led me to where I am today.”
With a crucial detour, which came in 1990 when he followed his Danish girlfriend to Copenhagen and became the manager for a local rock band. Smith says he learned a key lesson for his winemaking: “Just as anybody can be in a rock ’n’ roll band, anybody can make wine. You want to be in a band? Get a guitar. You want to make wine? Get some grapes, get some equipment, crush your grapes, make some wine. People have been making wine for centuries without going to winemaking school.”
After his return to the U.S. in 1999, Smith one day rolled into the sleepy town of Walla Walla, a good four hour drive East of Seattle. Historically a hub for wheat farming and orchards, it had just begun to develop a winemaker scene. Smith took out a loan with the first vintage as collateral and in December 2001 released his first 330 cases of K Vintners Syrah — a then neglected grape without much local competition. It is, to this day, his flagship label.
“My communication, my labels, my packaging is modern. It reflects the true history of where I am in the modern world. Black and white is the purest form of expression.”
The bold K drawn across the entire label laid the foundation for a growing array of wines. Smith defines his philosophy as influenced by European wines or as classic winemaking with a “modern American” face. “My communication, my labels, my packaging is modern. It reflects the true history of where I am in the modern world.” Smith lets his wines speak directly to consumers with simple labels. “They are made for people who don’t speak wine,” he says.
“Black and white,” explains the unconventional vintner, “is the purest form of expression, like the flyers for a concert that a rock band makes on a photocopier. I use visual and emotional cues for my labels that are contemporary to American culture and tell you what you might find in the wine.” Smith’s bestseller, a Riesling called Kung Fu Girl, was inspired by a famous showdown in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill and its label depicts a female fighter ready to strike.
In the tasting room, a converted brick garage in downtown Walla Walla, almost nothing detracts from rows of black and white cases and a phalanx of minimalist bottles lined up on the bar.
Besides the tasting room in downtown Walla Walla, he still operates the original tasting room in a small barn next to the 19th-century farmhouse in which he lives. But he is busy consolidating and moving his entire winemaking production to Seattle, the wealthy urban center of Washington State and a magnet for the pleasure-seeking high-tech world.
With a two-level tasting room and his own restaurant, Smith is readying his next act as a down-to-earth winemaker. “I’ve never gone from one thing to another and abandoned something, I’ve always added on,” he explains. “I’m a winemaker, which makes me a glorified farmer, but I really have blue-collar work and a blue-collar lifestyle. My idea is go to an urban community where people actually make things, just like me. It’s really important for me to always put myself out there, whether it be in my personal life or in my wine business, because I want people to get something that’s real.”
Text: Steffan Heuer
Photography: David Magnusson
“I’m a winemaker, which makes me a glorified farmer, but I really have blue-collar work and a blue-collar lifestyle.”