Mr. Smith Rocks Washington

Iconoclast winemaker Charles Smith spurns rural romanticism for a Dr Pepper plant in an industrial part of Seattle

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Charles Smith
Charles SmithKyle Johnson

I couldn't move my vineyards out of Walla Walla," says Charles Smith as we stand outside his new 30,000-square-foot winery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. "But I could move my winery here," he says, as he gestures to Seattle's clattering urban landscape. A former Dr Pepper bottling plant redesigned by acclaimed architecture firm Olson Kundig, it's all modern layers of steel, glass, and concrete with two glass-walled tasting rooms inside. With his new building, Smith is making a point: Good wine can be fun, and not everything has to be yoked to tradition all the time. Smith even plans to display a massive sign on his roof as a call to would-be visitors flying in planes overhead—not exactly the demure overture you would expect from a respected winemaker.

Wine labels are impossible to decipher...

Smith, a former rock-band manager, is recognizable by his headful of long, silver curls. Though he identifies as a classical winemaker, he has long been stylistically at odds with the industry's rural romanticism. He started making wines in Walla Walla in 1999, plumbing the rich and gamy depths of Washington syrahs in high-end, vineyard-specific batches. His success with the Rhône grape helped propel the great Washington syrah rush. But years ago, Smith saw the need for good casual wines, too, and he turned out to be one of the great populists of the wine industry. He put punky black and white graphics on his bottles and gave them names like Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot, and Kung Fu Girl Riesling, a $12 crowd-pleaser. There is plenty of cheap wine sloshing around on the market today. But Smith's dedication to making wines with varietal character and traceable vineyards at a lower price point was at the forefront of a push toward great, affordable wine.

As we walked through the winery, Smith excitedly showed off the looming presses and fermenters. “It's all about the wine,” he said. Smith may not want to be known as a marketer, but he's used showmanship—from rock and burlesque shows at the winery to his bold labels—to market his brand in a way that reaches drinkers who might not otherwise find serious wine. “Sometimes people can't access great wines because the labels are impossible to decipher,” he says. “My wines communicate in a contemporary style; they tell an American story with straight talk.”

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