Charles Smith’s wine labels are unmistakable.
Iconic in their black and white presentation or paltry use of color or photography, Smith knows how to make a lasting impression. He managed rock bands throughout Europe, opened a wine store and eventually decided to be a winemaker.
Armed with no formal training, he took a chance. What’s followed is an impressive portfolio of wines and countless accolades. When reached by phone, Smith showed the boldness of his wines and their corresponding labels is deeply rooted in his character. He didn’t hesitate to call me out when I told him I’ve been meaning to get to eastern Washington wine country for quite some time.
“The people that say they want to go somewhere before they die, I say if you want to go to France, get a ticket and get on a plane,” Smith said. “Tomorrow is promised to no man. If you come to eastern Washington you fly into Seattle, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We’ve got some of the best, most highly allocated wines in the world.”
I’m working on finding my flight and a visit to the 17th bonded winery in Walla Walla, Washington, will be included on the trip.
When Charles Smith managed rock bands, most notable the Danish duo The Ravonettes, he’d travel through Europe with an entourage of musicians and creative people. Yet, as Smith is about 10 days away from harvest getting serious, he said a connection between his former music industry career and current one as winemaker exists.
“With winemaking and a band you’ve got to have a certain do-it-yourself mentality,” Smith said. “You just start it, do it and don’t always know if it’s going to bring. I didn’t have a winemaking background, but I said why not me, that’s the same way it was with music. In the music industry I learned to be independent. I didn’t care what everyone else was doing and that turned out to be a successful recipe.”
But when he hits the road as a winemaker, it’s a solo act.
“Working in music you’re with a group of creative people,” Smith said. “It’s the exact opposite as a winemaker. It’s just you out there on your own. Even when you travel as a winemaker it’s on your own. That’s not how it goes in the music business.”
The weather in eastern Washington has cooled down into the mid 70s. For a growing season that got off to an early start and was followed by a warm summer, Smith is excited about what he said could be a great vintage.
In all of his wine industry ventures – Smith’s labels include K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines, Sixto, Charles and Charles, Vino, Wines of Substance, Secco and Casa Smith Wines – every wine has a purpose.
Because he has a broad range of interests, inspiration comes in many forms. There’s the homage to Spanish Rioja in K Vintners El Jefe ($55), a Tempranillo grown in Washington that Smith makes with a very hands-off approach. The 2012 has a nose of savory red meat and an exotic mix of rich spice flavors.
While the Kung Fu Girl takes inspiration from sake labels, it also evolved from the marriage of food and film. Smith recalled eating spicy Asian food at a Seattle restaurant that had an outstanding collection of Rieslings then he saw Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 1.” The Evergreen vineyard wine is driven by a stone minerality and stone fruit flavors. It’s one of wine’s best values and amazing he can sell it for $12.
Widely available and affordable is the Charles and Charles label. It’s a partnership with Charles Bieler. The 2015 Rosé ($14) is perfect for a picnic on a warm fall day. Sweet cherry and a citrusy zest define the salmon-colored wine. The 2014 Cabernet Blend ($14) checks in at less than 14 percent alcohol, which allows the wine to maintain its freshness and acidity.
From the Cabernet there are cassis and cherry flavors, while the Syrah adds the meaty, earthy, gamey note that makes a pairing of varietals of which Smith said he’d found the ultimate balance which is “delicious, sensible and really great.”
The same could be said of experiencing the wines of Smith’s portfolio.
• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at email@example.com.