It's been three and a half decades since Chateau Ste. Michelle opened its showplace winery on the former Stimson estate in Woodinville. The idea, almost revolutionary at the time, was that it would become a tourist destination. "Wineries are just factories," the snobs intoned; "you wouldn't leave the house to visit a toaster production line in South Seattle, would you?" Ah, well, turns out the snobs were wrong. Over 100 wineries now fill the Sammamish River Valley, a few of them having made gestures toward their agricultural roots by planting a symbolic vineyard (that takes spaces away from the parking lot), but most firmly in the toaster-factory production facility mode. The difference for the producers is "access to the market," and, for visitors, "free samples." Wine-touring in the Seattle area has come to mean a trip to Woodinville.
Now the locus of this paradigm has shifted from the northeastern suburbs to a close-in neighborhood of South Seattle. The state's most innovative wine maker, Charles Smith, has opened a winery that houses a 32,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room. A video at CharlesSmithWines.com introduces visitors to Smith's irreverent attitude toward wine, not as an an "aspirational" object to be approached with awe but to be consumed, to be drunk, to be enjoyed: "It's just wine," says the site, "Drink it."
For all the "aw shucks" and "pshaw" attitude, the Smith empire is extensive. The original K Vintners winery in Walla Walla has spawned a supermarket label, Charles Smith Wines, a brand called Sixto (chardonnay only), another called Wines of Substance, another called Vino (pinot grigio), an Italian-style sparkler called Seco, and a partnership with wine maker Charles Bieler called Charles & Charles. It's no wonder that Smith was named Winemaker of the Year last year by Wine Enthusiast, the first time the honor has been given to anyone in the Pacific Northwest. "Amazing," was Smith's reaction.
Although he had worked as a sommelier in several prestigious California restaurants, he had no grand plan to get into the wine business. Instead, he followed a girlfriend to Denmark and spent the better part of a decade as the manager of rock musicians in Europe. Eventually he made his way back to Washington and took over a tiny wine shop on Bainbridge Island. And after a while, he made a few hundred cases of wine himself. That was 15 years ago. Today, Smith's various labels produce half a million cases.
In the beginning, he worked with Frenchman Christophe Baron; now he has hired Efeste's Brennon Leighton for the chardonnays and Andrew Latta in addition to partnering with Bieler. (Replacing Leighton at Efeste is a Canadian, Peter Devison, who's got a good grip on eastern Washington vineyards.) Smith quickly found critical acclaim, perhaps because Washington vineyards provide an antidote to the pro-California bias of the national press and international wine judges. They cannot deny the quality of Washington grapes ("So amazing," says Smith, "because we can make great wine from every grape: Bordeaux varieties, Burgundies, the Rhone, aromatic whites").
The defining moment, what he calls his "masterful hands" epiphany, came in 2007. By then, Charles Smith had been in the wine business for over a decade. He had won prizes and accolades, and really no longer needed to prove himself. It was the moment he realized that he had become a master of his chosen craft, that he really did know how to make wine.
And now he's moved into Seattle's oldest commercial neighborhood, Georgetown, "where Seattle has always made things." The designer for his new facility was the architect Tom Kundig, who had won awards for his remodel of the tasting room in Walla Walla.
As he adds production, Smith is moving beyond Walla Walla. In fact, many of the vineyards are as close to Seattle as to Walla Walla, so the move to Georgetown makes lots of sense. Much of the riesling, for example, comes from the Millbrandt brothers' Evergreen Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes region (a relatively new AVA adjoining the Columbia River near Quincy). The Wine Spectator named Smith's Kung Fu Girl Riesling to its annual list of the world's top 100 wines.
Now, firmly ensconced in his "Jet City" winery at the north end of the Boeing Field runway with Mt. Rainier in the background, Smith is moving into popular Italian varieties, even a Prosecco-style sparkler, and Spanish varieties like Tempranillo. "It's just Wine," he reminds us, and we remind you. "Just drink it."
And to update this tale, according to reports from the Wine Spectator, the folks at Constellation Brands seem to agree. They have just announced an agreement to buy five Washington brands from Charles Smith Wines for $120 million. The sale is expected to close later this month. With this deal, Constellation says it will become the second largest supplier of Washington state wines.
The deal features five wines that Charles Smith calls "the five core brands" of his company--Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Eve Chardonnay, Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot and Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon. Altogether, the brands add up to nearly 500,000 cases per year, selling mostly at $12 to $15 a bottle.
Smith created these wines as separate brands, beginning with Kung Fu Girl in the 2006 vintage. The rest were added in 2007. One hundred twenty million dollars. Kaching, right?