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, 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.

Charles Smith with car.jpgNow we are just weeks from shifting the locus of this paradigm. From the northeastern suburbs to a close-in neighborhood of South Seattle. The state's most innovative winemaker, Charles Smith, is opening a new winery that will house a new, 32,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room, to open in April or May (depending on permits and such). If you go to the Charles Smtih website, you'll be treated to a lively, 54-second commercial for the new space.

The video also introduces visitors to Smith's irreverent attitude toward wine, not as 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."

Photo by Ali Walker, courtesy of Charles Smith Wines

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 winemaker Charles Bieler called Charles & Charles. It's no wonder that Smith was named Winemaker of the Year last month 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. He 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 moving into Seattle's oldest commercial neighborhood, Georgetown, "where Seattle has always made things." The architect for his new facility is Tom Kundig, who won awards for his remodel of the tasting room in Walla Walla.

As he adds production capacity, 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 Milbrandt brothers' Evergreen Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes region (a newly designated AVA adjoining the Columbia River near Quincy). And just this month the Wine Spectator named Smith's Kung Fu Girl Riesling to its annual list of the world's top 100 wines.

Well, of course it's never happened. Ten minutes and eleven seconds after nine, happens every day, but the month and year sequence (as we write them in the US) is unique, 12/13/14. Time is linear, and we've never been here before.

Hope you had a good look around, folks, because we won't be back soon.

Rich Malia w Alvin Binuya at Ponti.JPGWe've seen the type, often in these very columns: the flashy celebrity chef. No names, but you'd recognize them in a flash. They're on TV, they're in the glossy airline mags, they've got their names on the door (or they don't, and you still know who they are). But for every pack of camera hounds there's a handful of professionals who just roll their eyes and get on with the business of actually running a kitchen without calling their personal hairdresser. We'll put Alvin Binuya, the executive chef at Ponti Seafood Grill, in this second group; he may be the best Seattle chef you've never heard of.

Born in the Philippines and raised on Vashon Island, Binuya went through what was, 35 ago, the foremost culinary training program in town at South Seattle Community College. From there he went to The Other Place (alongside Bruce Naftaly), to the Hunt Club, to Tom Douglas's Cafe Sport, and to Adriatica, a partnership between Jim Malevitis and Rich Malia where the late John Sarich helmed the kitchen. Binuya headed up the kitchen for their new venture, Ponti, adjacent to the Fremont Bridge, for the next decade, then ran his own place, Madoka, on Bainbridge Island from 2005 to 2009, before returning to Ponti.

All the seafood that comes into the kitchen is wild; Binuya is the beneficiary of those close relationships with suppliers. "We know the boats," he says. Consider his signature dishes, which combine that local fish and Asian seasonings (the trendy term is Fusion). The Thai Curry Penne, for example, has been on the menu since Binuya first joined the restaurant, in 1990: grilled Alaska weathervane scallops and Dungeness crab with a ginger-chutney spicing that blends Mediterranean and Asian flavors. Or his current favorite, an appetizer of grilled and marinated Monterey calamari (olive oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic). He takes special pleasure in the Pan-Pacific seafood stew, which features scallops, prawns, mussels, clams, and swordfish delivered fresh from Hawaii in a broth of coconut milk and tomatoes (enlivened with a cilantro pesto); it's not cioppino, it's not bouillabaisse, just distinctively "Ponti."

Ponti's owners, Rich and Sharon Malia, have long been innovators. Their first restaurant, the Snug, capitalized on the fresh ingredients of the nearby Pike Place Market; their second, Mrs. Malia's, introduced the concept of wine dinners to Seattle. In 1988, they bought a lot behind Bleitz Funeral Home overlooking the Ship Canal and built Ponti ("bridges" in Italian) with views of both the lower-level Fremont bascule and the soaring Aurora Bridge: elegant but not intimidating, a sort of dialed back version of Canlis, with over 200 seats. Close-in waterfront dining without the swarms of tourists. To fill the seats in the early days, Rich Malia pioneered the then-novel notion of a dine-around (25 for $25 at the time); private rooms with lots of light for corporate events; and a decades-long commitment to sourcing only fresh fish and wild-caught seafood.

All of which requires complete confidence in the guy running the kitchen. Having come up through the discipline and structure of the traditional SSCC program, having worked in classic kitchens like Rosellini's Other Place, Binuya now finds himself, at 52, an elder statesman. "I can make the numbers work in the kitchen," he says modestly. Not to mention being an undisputed, understated master of restaurant seafood.

Ponti Seafood Grill, 3014 3rd Ave N., Seattle, 206-284-3000  Ponti Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon

Richland Tuesday.jpg

Rob Griffin's wines have been at the forefront of Washington's wine industry for the past three decades: moderately priced, varietally correct thoroughbreds. Elegant wines for everyday drinking led by a show-horse rosé of Sangiovese, the bottles have always been easy to identify with their colorful tulip labels. (At the Seattle Opera, they pour a custom-bottling called Red of the Walkyries, and a white called Das Vinegold.)

And now, as the Richland-based winery positions itself for additional expansion, a slight adjustment to the label. The memorable tulips came from Deborah Barnard, an accomplished artist, and won't go away completely; the winery, after all, is located on Tulip Lane. But the family decided it was time to move in a more "aggressive" direction: a representation of the legendary creature known as a griffin (or griffon, or gryphon) with the body of a lion and the wings, face and talons of an eagle. Fearsome beast. Details in a lengthy PDF and on the winery's website.

Tri Cities Barnard Griffin.jpgHere's that new Griffin, along with a shot of the BG tasting room in Richland.

Depending how you count, the top wineries in Washington stack up like this. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates at the top, bigger than all the rest combined, followed by, well, a shifting tier of also-rans. Actual ranking depends on what you're counting (acreage? tonnage? production? sales?), Here are the players: Hogue Cellars, which is no longer owned by the Hogue family; K Vintners, the multi-pronged brand founded by Charles Smith; Hedges Family Cellars; what's left of Columbia pending a relaunch by its relatively new owners, the Gallo brothers; an interloper from California, Pacific Rim; Barnard Griffin; organic producer Badger Mountain, the Leuthold family's Maryhill; and the Precept Brands portfolio, led by Canoe Ridge. This ranking via Puget Sound Business Journal, by the way, as published back in August. The hot labels this winter: K Vintners (about to open a production facility and tasting room in Georgetown), and Precept Brands.

When I interviewed Rob Griffin a year and a half ago, he was hinting at some sort of dramatic expansion. Yesterday's announcement of the new label didn't mention anything new, but we'll update this post if that turns out to be the case. In the meantime, keep on growling.

UPDATE: Here's an email received from Griffin: "The 'something big' was indeed the complete label redesign. For us, or me at any rate, this process was worse than childbirth. Difficult to eject an old friend and take chances on something new but so far the results are almost entirely positive. We had been suffering in Eastern markets where the tulip label was viewed as crass and simplistic. It's ironic to remember that in 1983 the tulips were more cutting edge than not....maybe someday that kind of image will come back but for now we have a label that's comfortably upscale and 'tasteful'".


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