Aspen Times Weekly: Gut Feeling | AspenTimes.com
by Kelly J. Hayes

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Aspen Times Weekly: Gut Feeling

"The funny thing is, I'm terrified of flying," chuckled Washington winemaker Charles Smith as we stood watching a 787 glide in for a landing from the window of his wondrous new winemaking facility at the edge of Seattle's Boeing Field.

As we enter a new year, Smith would have to be the leading candidate for the "most interesting man in the wine world." And it is clear that, save for flying, there is little that gives him cause for pause.

This past summer, Smith opened what is perhaps the most exciting winery project in America, a 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art production facility, tasting room and hospitality center aptly monikered "Jet City." The fact that it sits across a two-lane road from the end of a runway, a hundred miles or so from the nearest vineyards, makes it, well, off the charts. Add to that the funky surrounding neighborhood and the striking contemporary design by Olson Kundig, one of the nation's most innovative architectural firms, and you have a destination winery that is worth making a trip to experience (wine country or not).

Charles in Charge

A self-taught winemaker with an outrageous head of hair (think Sammy Hagar), Smith released his first vintage in 2001. That year he sold just 330 cases of his 1999 K Syrah, a wine grown and vinified in the Walla Walla, Washington, wine country where he still maintains a winery and tasting room, as well as a home.

In 2014, just 13 years later, Washington State wine records show that he shipped 750,000 cases under six separate labels. Growth has been trending at 25 percent per year and it would not be a stretch to suggest that Charles Smith Wines will surpass Precept as Washington's second-largest winery behind industry behemoth Chateau Ste. Michelle in the coming years.

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Winemaking may seem an unlikely transition for a former manager of rock 'n' roll bands who spent close to a decade in Scandinavia shepherding the bookings and careers of artists, but then again, everything about Charles Smith seems a bit unlikely. His only previous experience in wine before becoming an entrepreneur was drinking great Bordeaux and running a wine shop on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. A meeting with Cayuse winemaker Christophe Baron at a barbecue led to Smith moving to Walla Walla and trying his hand at being a farmer/winemaker.

In the ensuing decade, Smith developed a variety of brands that appealed to different sections of the wine market, from those willing to pay the price for some of Washington's best Syrah to those who wanted a bigger bang for a smaller buck.

But all of the wines reflect the personality of the man who made them. Charles Smith is a larger-than-life perfectionist who has 2 million ideas a day and the ability to delegate and designate which ones are worth pursuing. He tools around Seattle in a black Rolls Royce and is known in all of the best restaurants. It is rumored that those restaurants stock their lists with vintage Bordeaux just in case the man gets thirsty.

And on his website, his official title is "El Presidente." Fitting.

The Juice

Charles Smith markets wines under six separate labels, each distinctive in their own right. K Vintners, the flagship, released 10 different wines this past fall including six bottlings of Syrah, with the 2012 Cattle King Syrah garnering 99 points from the Wine Advocate. 100 points is perfection.

His eponymous Charles Smith Wines feature wines for everyday drinking, including the hugely popular "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling and the Eve Chardonnay. He has an old-vine chardonnay project, Sixto, named for the musician Sixto Rodriguez (the subject of the "Searching for Sugarman" documentary) that he makes with Brennon Leighton, director of winemaking for the winery. Other projects include Charles & Charles, made with Napa winemaker Charles Bieler and a sparkling wine project called Seco Italian Bubbles.

Each wine resonates with Charles on a visceral level. He chooses the sites and dictates the styles with a plan in mind for just who will drink each style of wine. He creates labels for the bottles that are playful, bold and meaningful and are visual interpretations of what the wine is all about and the audience that it is geared toward. Philosophically, Charles Smith wines are about more than just wine. They are about an attitude.

Jet City

Nowhere is that attitude more prominently on display than at Jet City. The neighborhood, the Georgetown section of south Seattle, is a mash-up of eclectic restaurants, seriously independent coffee shops, comic book and vinyl record stores, tattoo parlors, shot-and-a-beer bars and industrial design outlets. Long considered to be an "emerging" neighborhood, Jet City in its short history has already brought attention to the area that will inevitably lead to change.

A massive two-story window looks down the length of the Boeing Field runway fronting a space that once housed a Dr. Pepper bottling plant. On a clear day, "when the mountain is out" as Queen City locals like to say, Mount Rainier reigns over the runway, making for an epic Seattle view. Every couple of minutes a massive jet glides mere feet from the top of the winery before touching down on the runway. Everyone who works at Charles Smith is accustomed to the interruptions caused by the jets, and they simply pause, mid-sentence, allowing the whine of the engines to fade, before they pick up the conversation where they left off. This may seem like a distraction, and I suppose it can be when doing a proper tasting, but the power aroused by the aircraft and the sense of place induced by the views of these iconic Seattle sights evokes a feeling that fits exactly — precisely — into the Charles Smith zeitgeist.

And then there is the design. If this were not a winery and tasting room, it could be one of the most interesting museum spaces in the country. Designed by Tom Kundig, of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects (who are on any list of white-hot architects in the world today), it pays homage to the working-class nature of the neighborhood with a spare industrial feel using a combination of steel, glass and expansive white walls to define the various rooms. Opposite the Mount Rainier and runway view, the winery is exposed via an expansive glass wall.

And what a winery it is. Huge wooden fermentation tanks sit across from the largest collection of concrete tanks that I have ever seen anywhere. Gleaming steel and black industrial beams play off the immaculate collection of large oak barrels that the Syrah is stored and aged in. It is all brand new and immaculate. And it is all done to Charles' exacting specifications.

Jet City will also be a symbol for both an iconoclastic wine man and an emerging wine region that is fast becoming one of the most interesting places in the world for wine lovers. It is a destination winery.

And perhaps the best winery without a vineyard in the world.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

2104 Charles Smith Wines “Eve” Chardonnay $14

There are so many CSW offerings that I could suggest, but this elegant and affordable chardonnay can be found just about anywhere and is a great value. Creamy, with hints of oak, there is a green apple element that screams Washington. A solid food wine and one that is ever so lovely in the glass. Worth taking a bite out of.