One of his wine bottles has a bomb on it, another a devil. All the labels are black and white, and look more like punk rock band posters than something that should be affixed to a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Riesling. So it’s not surprising that when I go to meet Charles Smith, the winemaking firebrand from Walla Walla, Washington, he’s wearing a Dead Moon pin — a nod to one of America’s foremost cult garage bands.
Some have called Smith a cult winemaker, partially owing to his freeform hairstyle and penchant for dressing like a roadie amidst the button-down wine world, but that’s an inappropriate term for a guy who’s basically dominating American wine right now. Besides his top-selling Charles Smith Wines, he has several sublabels (K Vintners, Charles & Charles, Wines of Substance) and is about to shake up the wine world — again — by opening the 32,000-square-foot, highly designed Jet City Winery in Seattle this spring.
I caught up with Smith during a rare stop in NYC, where he was supposed to be picking up Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year award, the first ever won by a Pacific Northwesterner. A faux blizzard led to the event’s postponement, which meant that Smith had more time to run amok in Manhattan. But first, he filled us in on the new Seattle winery, his thoughts on winemaking and how he went from managing rock bands in Europe to settling in Walla Walla, where he created one of the most formidable wine brands in the world.
So first of all, why go outside the confines of the vineyards out in Walla Walla to do a winery in an industrial section of a big city?
Well, the thing is, Walla Walla’s approximately 300 miles away from any population base of any size, whether it be Portland or Seattle. And of course being a Washington producer, Seattle would be the city I would choose. So the idea is that unlike Napa Valley, where people can do day trips, you cannot do day trips to Walla Walla. So considering all the people who come through epicurean pursuits, and general business in Seattle, who would never make it to my winery, I decided to bring my winery to people. And I’m not just opening up a tasting room or a storefront in an outlet mall, so to speak. All of my artisanal wine will be made in Jet City.
You’re building Jet City Winery in Georgetown, which is a cool, emerging neighborhood, but not very centrally located. Why there?
Georgetown is where people make things. There’s the largest brewery on the West Coast, the Rainier Brewing Company; there’s Georgetown Brewery there; there’s Elysian. Fran’s Chocolates just opened up. I mean, it’s a gritty place that feels like Seattle used to feel like — the whole city used to feel like, especially when I used to live there in the late ’80s before moving to Europe. And so the thing is, I wanted my winery in Seattle. And that’s the Seattle that still exists.
Here’s a video Charles Smith Wines released to coincide with Wine Enthusiast‘s Winemaker of the Year award:
What do you think about urban winemaking? Are you familiar with what’s going on here in Brooklyn and San Francisco, where people are experimenting a bit—
I’m not necessarily that interested. They’re doing a niche or whatever — is it because they want to make wine, or do they want to make a business? I mean, I started out in the countryside. We evolved. My viticulture roots are in Walla Walla, and I make Washington wine. The idea [of Jet City] was a natural evolution for me. You know, yeah, I can understand why people would like to have the city living, and also be able to make wine. Because that’s what I’m doing as well. But I have very firm roots in the countryside. I’m an artisanal winemaker from the countryside who continues to grow my own grapes, my own vineyards there.
You’ve always done a great job of reaching an audience, making Washington wine accessible to people. A lot of that I think is through your labeling. People might get attracted to your labels and try the wines and they’re great and they come back for them. Why do you think you’ve been able to master that?
I know who I am. And what I did is, I put myself out there. So my thing is, I like black and white, from managing the indie bands where you Xerox copied and that’s how you’d make your flyers. White paper, black print. It was just punk rock — not trying to be something, it just happened to be my thing. The truth is very powerful. And this is my truth. And I think a lot of times, people may fall in the trap that they want to project themselves as something, or their winery — they want to be high end or whatever; they think a certain thing represents that. What I figured is, integrity represents whatever you want to be, whether it be inexpensive or very high end. Artisanal or scientific.
Did you always aspire to get so big?
No. Complete fucking accident. I don’t even know why I’m here. No, really, my idea was to make a thousand, two thousand cases of wine a year, maybe make a hundred thousand bucks, be able to do this till I’m an old guy with a snotty handkerchief in my back pocket. Meet a local girl, have some kids, and that’s what I wanted. To me that would have been a huge success. It didn’t turn out that way. I’m not complaining, but what I do is definitely not easy. It’s fucking fatiguing. But it’s what I’m compelled to do, and apparently — I’m not bragging, but apparently I do it really well.
It sounds like you’ve found a way to blow off steam. You just did a road trip across the West with your whole team (documented in an Instagram takeover for Food Republic).
I don’t know — I’m made of steam. But I mean, I said I’m not bragging, but the thing is, if you’re the fastest human being on earth and you say I’m the fastest human being on earth, it’s not bragging, it’s just a fact. I’m really good at this. It just happens to be a fact. I want to be whatever — better than anybody else? I don’t care about anybody else. How they’re doing. I hope everybody’s well and happy. You know what I mean? That’s what I wish for everybody. But I just run my own race. And it just seems to be working really, really well. And with no compromises.
I imagine within the winemaking world people must look at you a certain way. Do you know or care about what perception people have of you in the industry?
Well if you read the last article they wrote about me in Seattle Times where it says, what is it? Love him or loathe him. Apparently I’m the most polarizing figure in American wine. Because you’re in the Pacific Northwest, and — and I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s just because I don’t hold back. I’m not judging people; I’m not talking shit about anybody. I’m not bragging. Actually, in a lot of ways, with my wine I’m a lot more humble than I should be. Than I could be. But the bottom line is, I just think — like they say, some people are afraid of freedom. They like things to be organized and in order, and I represent freedom. A lot of people can’t accept that.
What about actually learning how to make the wine? Was that something that came fairly naturally to you?
I’m still learning. Wine was made for centuries without any oenology or viticulture schools. You know, people just started making wine. Their parents taught them how [to make], the family-made wine or whatever. So the bottom line is, it’s not this mystical thing. People can do it. I just realized that I could — just like the same thing you realize when you want to start a band. Some people start bands and all of a sudden the next thing you know, they’re U2, right? And some people start a band and they’re like — somebody you never heard of. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.
So when you say you’re still learning, what are some of the challenges remaining for you, like is there a certain type of grape that you haven’t gotten something out of yet?
It can be some of that. I’ve never made a wine that was not good. Even like when we had this — where the grapes weren’t really that great, the texture and everything else, the wine was really good; it’s just that there wasn’t really complexity because the farming wasn’t good. But you can tell it’s one of our wines. It’s just not it. The thing about it is, I’m always looking at the wine, no matter how many high accolades I get — how we can make it better. Each year. And the thing is, one thing that’s great about wine, you make it once. Once a year. You only have one time to do it. And that’s the other thing: You can have a whole year to reflect on what you would have maybe done differently. You can’t just throw it out and do another one. So you’re not — it’s incremental. So you have time to develop and think and dream and get inspiration before you do it again. It’s not like Adam and I are going to do it again tomorrow. I think that’s one of the great things — wine has space in time.
Can you tell me about House Wines, which you built up and sold before Charles Smith Wines became so successful?
That’s what started the idea that I can do anything. Because the thing about it is I took the most common wine term in the world — no one had ever trademarked or branded it — and I went to making 1,800 cases of wine. I continued to do that artisanal thing, and within three years it was 93,000 cases. I had two employees, and I had no partners, and I made about $30 a case. Oh my God. I went from never making $100,000 in my life to making a million dollars the next year. And the next year, I made two. Three years later, I sold the whole fucking thing for [about] $20 million. Cash.
At this point, Walla Walla’s well-established in the wine world, but it must have been extremely challenging early on, right?
It was extremely challenging to live on nothing. I remember in like September 2001, I remember my friend Rikke Korff [the woman who still provides the art for Smith’s labels] – I borrowed $300 from her so I could eat until I released my first wine on December 2nd. So I survived on 300 bucks from September 6th until December 2nd. That was tough. That was a lot of Top Ramen. I never thought after my teens that I would have to go back to Top Ramen, and at 40 years old, there I was with my wok and my bag of carrots and an onion and my Top Ramen making stir-fries.
What made you believe that your wine would eventually connect with people?
Because I figured that I was willing to let it all hang out and put it all out there. And I had nothing to lose. I had nothing to go back to. I mean, I was poor, I was broke. I had no job, no education. But I had a passion for wine and a really deep knowledge of it. And I could only succeed. I think because I was so genuine. You know, like there was no ulterior motive besides I want to make the best wine, and I hope people buy it. There was no pretense.
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