Interview with Charles Smith

Former rock group manager, Washington State winemaker Charles Smith released his first vintage – of just 330 cases - in 2001. Over the next 13 years, he was named Winemaker of the Year by three publications, including the Wine Enthusiast, and his eye-catchingly labeled and full-flavoured wines had become pat of the US wine landscape. In 2016, he sold five of his brands to Constellation for $120m. WEINWIRTSCHAFT asked him a few questions. 

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Charles Smith
Charles Smith

You started as a manager in the music business. Do you see similarities between the sectors?

I’ve found many similarities. First, everything is possible. Second, the DIY – Do It Yourself – ethos definitely carries over. Because if you don’t get up and do it yourself, you’re never gonna make it. You have to take that first step.

But the main thing is, you’re trying to communicate.

When a band starts, they’re making something out of nothing. Then they add these notes, some drumbeats, and it becomes a song. Then a group of songs. Then a live performance. Then a record. Making wine is the same. It starts with a place and a varietal, and you transform those grapes and that earth into a wine, a song.

When you realize your individuality, you’re able to create great things. I’m not gonna do what everybody else does. The Kinks have a song, ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else.’ If you become just the next boy band or one hit wonder, well, you know what you get. One more insipid Chardonnay, one more off-dry red wine. One more thing in a box you don’t have time to drink.

 

You sold the brand-family Charles Smith wines to Constellation. How hard was it to let go of that brand?

It wasn’t hard to do the deal because, coming from a very modest / poor background, I’d be a fool not to. It’s a lot of money. It was a time to create financial stability for me, my family, and my extended family at the winery.

 

What are the most important desires of the consumers which you want to address with your brands?

The bottom line is everyone deserves an infinitely pleasant wine to drink. That’s my number one responsibility. Yes, it needs to taste like the varietal it’s made from and the place it was made. But if the wine isn’t pleasant to drink, game over. Strong, communicative labels that tell you what you’re gonna find in the bottle. Honesty. I look in the mirror for the truth in my wines. You see a picture of me and a picture of a guy in a lab suit, well, who the hell do you want making your wine?

 

Sixto is the sixth wine brand you created. What inspires your brands?

For inspiration I look for what is missing and what is desired. Most people believe the greatest expression of Chardonnay comes from France / Burgundy, and I concur. So, I looked for a place in Washington State where I could grow the absolute best Chardonnay. And that is what is first and foremost for every brand in my portfolio.

 

Six different brands from one man is quite a lot. How do you create the brands? Is it all about the different approaches to winegrowing and winemaking? Does each brand reflect a special character trait of you?

Once again, I look for the need and I make it. The one characteristic for myself that is ground zero in making wines is my integrity and my no compromise approach. I do not cut corners. I believe people should have access to the best wines, period. I think about the consumer, and I think about what’s not in the market, then create to fill the void.

Every brand represents me in one way or another.

Wines of Substance, for example… When I think of Cabernet Sauvignon, and what I believe people want from it and what its best expression is, I search for that. A dark fruit profile, a strong terroir imprint, and fruit that can hang on the vine until its physiologically ripe with depth and character. I will find that place and do this from the earth up.

They need a label that communicates what you’ll find in the bottle. Substance: black fruit, pure, deep, complex, complete. If you’re gonna be so bold as to use the word ‘Substance,’ the wine better be substantial.

 

Most of your wines are single vineyard wines. Is there a reason for this?

I personally like the idea of a single vinveyrad expression, and therefore when I can it is what I do.

Making wine from a single spot is kind of like gambling with all your chips in.

To produce some of the best wines you need a singular vision. But that singular vision will challenge you. When we find sites we believe have the greatest expression for each wine, it’s intellectually stimulating and allows us to put on our thinking caps, and requires us to work at the next level regardless of price. After all that, if I had made a wine that just said some large region like Columbia Valley or Washington State, it’d be the same as if I were a Burgundian producer who was required to put on just the word ‘France.’ So, in most cases, a single vineyard works for me.

 

You are staying loyal to Washington State in all your brands – despite not originally coming from there. How important is Washington State for the concepts of your brands?

X marks the spot, and the spot is Washington. I believe Washington is one of the greatest winegrowing regions in the world.

It’s been a slow reveal. Think about 1950s burlesque: First a glove, then a shoe, then a stocking… But what’s here, what’s been revealed so far, is astonishing. And fortunately, because of the way that I approach it, with individual projects, with single vineyards, I’m at ground zero for some of the most exciting things happening in American wine.

 

Your wine life started with Syrah and Rhone-style wines.

When I first started out in 1999, the vineyards I had access to were Syrah. For me, the best Syrah in the world was from the Rhone, so there was no doubt about how to begin. You know the saying ‘if you’re given lemons, make lemonade’? Well, if you’re given Syrah, make the greatest Syrah you can with a clear inspiration, and make sure it’s as individual as it’s place of origin. At the time, Washington had very little history of ‘oh, this is the best spot for Cabernet,  this is the best spot for Syrah, and this is the best spot for Riesling.’ I was never going to be one of those people who thought just because I willed it I could grow Riesling where its hot or Cabernet where its cold, you know?’ I researched, I picked, and I executed.

 

What plans do you have for the future?

I’m not a person who goes wandering around looking for his next inspiration, wondering if I’m gonna find it. When it comes to me, it comes fully formed, and that’s what happened with my Pinot Noir project, Golden West. It’s the largest Pinot Noir planting in the history of Washington State. Single vineyard. 350+ acres in what I believe will be one of the greatest areas for producing Burgundian varietals in the world.

It has the soil. Latitude. Temperature. Climate. You know where else checks all these boxes in the northern hemisphere? Nowhere.

We’re at the same latitude as Pommard, so we’ve got that nailed. You know what else we have? The same continental climate. You get the idea. But someone has to be first, and I’ve never waited for somebody to do something of which I was certain. So, I’m in the deep end, I’m all in, and I’m elated with what I see. To have not jumped would perhaps have been the biggest mistake of my wine life. I firmly believe this is going to be my legacy as a winemaker to Washington State. And those are some bold words, considering what I’ve done thus far.

 

 

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