Charles Smith – crazy or genius?

A wine from Walla Walla in Washington with a different approach

A beautiful day in May, I went to Hornstulls Strand where Handpicked Wines Ltd had invited one of the new “cult winemakers”, Charles Smith. Bistro Barbro was filled with people, mostly from restaurants plus a few wine writers. The wines highly appreciated; the mood was high and spittoons used very modestly.

So who is Charles Smith?

Charles Smith, Walla Walla winemaker

Charles Smith, Walla Walla winemaker, copyright Roland Eriksson

Who is Charles Smith? Charles grew up in Sacramento, California. Her mother came from Wales, and his father from France. The French heritage meant that the father made a “garage wine” from purchased grapes to drink at home. And perhaps it might also have contributed to Charles future interest in wine?

In the 1980s, Charles met a Danish girl and moved with her to Denmark. There he started to work as a manager and tour producer for several rock bands.

In 1999 he moved back to the U.S., to the Bainbridge Island where he opened a wine shop. On one of his travels to Walla Walla in Washington State he met a young Frenchman named Christophe Baron. Both began to talk about wine and especially about syrah, a grape that they both admired.

Christophe suggested that Charles should move there, to Walla Walla, and become a winemaker. And so he did, in 2001. He had no money for a winery so Charles went to a small bank in Walla Walla and presented his idea. He explained where he would buy the grapes from and let people at the bank taste some wines. The bank caught on and lent him $ 250,000 with the wine as collateral.

That same year, 2001, he released 330 cases of his first wine K Vintners Syrah Walla Walla Valley that sold out immediately.

They changed the company name a few times and in 2007 they released their first wine under the name of Charles Smith, that they have kept since then.

They changed the name of the winery a few times and in 2007 they launched their first wine under the name of Charles Smith. Today the work with five different brands: K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines, Vino, Secco Italian Bubbles and Charles & Charles.

A little loony, the winemaker?

It is fun to meet winemakers. Most are passionate and a little loony in one way or another. Charles is a bit rough at the edges, slightly overweight, with a big blonde rasta-like hair. Black T-shirt, jeans and sunglasses seem to be a favourite. But he certainly seems like a fun guy!

As a winemaker, he is completely self-taught. The philosophy is to make a great wine for all tastes, and especially in all price ranges. It is not hard to do a good wine that is expensive, he says, but to make a good inexpensive wine is almost impossible.

– I want my wines to have the strength, balance and personality and the character of the grape should be clearly evident, says Charles. What you also notice are the imaginative names and the unusual labels with bombs, skulls and skeletons designed by the Danish designer Rikke Korff, former head of design at Levi Strauss & Co..

In 2009 Charles was named “Winemaker of the Year” by Food & Wine magazine.

And what about the wines?

Charles Smith wines

Charles Smith wines, copyright Roland Eriksson

But how do they taste these peculiar creations? After a while I managed to squeeze in next to a nice girl from Malmö who planned soon to open an American grill restaurant with Charles’s wines as a feature. I understood she was completely sold on the wines, which she thought would be easy to sell to her future restaurant guests.

If we look at the Swedish prices, they start at moderate 115kr (~12 euro) and ends at about 900kr (~95 euro) for the prestige wine King Coal, so they fit both the thinnest and thickest of wallets.

Secco Italian Bubbles 2011

77% chardonnay, 15% pinot bianco, 8% raboso piave. Medium body, young, grapey nose with some hints of mushroom. Young, dry, quite fruity, straightforward, made me think of Henkell Trocken. Charles is the winemaker but the wine comes from Viticoltori Ponte Srl, Ponte di Piave, Veneto, Italy. 75p. (~12€)

Vino Pinot Grigio 2011

Medium body, young and fruity. Dry, fresh, clean taste with some apples, but rather short. 76p. (~13€)

Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2011

Medium nose with hints of citrus, yellow apples and mineral. Medium-bodied, fresh, almost half dry on the palate, with hints of citrus, apple and with some residual sweetness. 78p. (~13€)

Eve Chardonnay 2010

Quite full-bodied, buttery nose with fresh fruit and hints of citrus, caramel and with a balanced oak character. Quite full-bodied, fresh flavour with hints of citrus, minerals and a bit “fat” feeling. 80p. (~13€)

Charles & Charles Rosé 2012

Young, small nose with notes of red berries and raspberries. Young, light, semi-dry flavour with hints of red fruit and some acidity, short. 71p. (~13€)

Charles & Charles 2011

51% cabernet sauvignon, 49% syrah. Big, quite grassy, herbaceous nose, with notes of dark berries and bell-pepper. Medium-bodied, young and dark fruit, with hints of pepper and black currant, almost felt like a cabernet franc. 82p. (~13€)

Charles Smith Boom Boom

Charles Smith Boom Boom, copyright Roland Eriksson

Boom Boom! Syrah 2011

Big, young and jammy nose, with some character of grape juice and plums. Young, soft and medium-bodied palate, with soft tannins, dark berries and a bit of jamminess. 84p. (~15€)

Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

96.5% cabernet sauvignon, 3.5% malbec. Quite a big nose, with notes of dark berries, black currants and some oak. Medium-bodied, quite young on the palate, with hints of dark fruit, black currant, and a slightly acidic spiciness, and some oak character. 84p. (~20€)

The Velvet Devil Merlot 2010

Medium nose, young, jammy, with hints of red berries and Victoria plums. Soft, medium-bodied, jammy flavour, with hints of red berries, blueberries and plums. 80p. (~13€)

K “Ovide” 2009

67% cabernet sauvignon, 33% syrah. Big nose, quite ripe and spicy aromas, with notes of dark fruit and hints of toasted barrels. Medium-bodied, quite complex and quite mature on the palate, with hints of dark berries, violet candy, coffee and a nice oakiness, long. The wine is a tribute to Charles’s father Robert Ovide and only around 2,000 bottles are produced. 92p. (~40€)

The Creator 2010

70% cabernet sauvignon, 30% syrah. Young, big, quite spicy on the nose, with notes of dark fruit, black currant, plum and oak barrels. Quite full-bodied, a bit jammy on the palate, with dark berries, black currants and some oak. 90p. (~45€)

King Cole 2009

70% cabernet sauvignon, 30% syrah. Big nose, quite ripe aromas, with hints of both red and dark berries like blackcurrant, cherry, nicely integrated toasted barrel character and cedar-wood. Powerful, full-bodied, balanced on the palate, with silky tannins, dark berries, cherries and plums, well-integrated toasted oak barrels, very good length. 93p. (probably ~70-100€ but probably very difficult to find)

In summary, mostly delicous and easy-to-drink wines in American style, the three prestige wines were of high quality, while Vino, Secco and the Rosé were well made but perhaps a bit expensive (ed. note: this refers to the Swedish market situation). Some of the wines can certainly age well, the prestige wines from 5 to 10 years. But all are delicious to drink now.

Before I went home Charles sat down on a bench outside the restaurant in the warm afternoon sunshine with a bottle of rosé, looking like a true “rock star”, sorry “wine star”, with the two prettiest girls of the tasting next to him; and he was clearly enjoying life.

Charles Smith with at least one of the two

Charles Smith with at least one of the two, copyright Roland Eriksson

Roland Eriksson writes on BKWine Magazine on wine tastings with wine merchants and importers in Sweden.

This post is also available in: Swedish

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  1. Handpicked Wines showcasing wines from Italy, Portugal, USA etc. | BKWine Magazine |BKWine Magazine - September 4, 2013

    […] more about Charles Smith and his wines here on BKWine […]

  2. Six wineries and 21 wines from Washington | BKWine Magazine |BKWine Magazine - April 24, 2014

    […] Read more: Another BKWine Magazine article on Charles Smith’s wines: Charles Smith – crazy or genius? […]

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