YOU DON’T have to like Charles Smith.
You don’t have to like his billboards, his hair or his ego. But you can’t help but appreciate his success.
Washington has winemakers who are universally loved and some who are equally loathed. Nobody is quite so polarizing and fascinating as Smith. He is the Mark Cuban of wine.
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And he couldn’t care less because he is proving that while tenacity and vision won’t always win friends, they will bring fans. And they’ll sell lots of wine. Smith, who showed up in Walla Walla some 15 years ago with a few hundred bucks in his pocket, is now the head of a wine empire cast in his own image.
Get this: At 650,000 cases of wine per year, Smith is responsible for producing more wine than every Washington company except two: Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Wine. More than Hogue, more than Columbia, more than Maryhill.
When Smith got to town, he was a novelty, the former manager of a European rock band who decided to get into winemaking. But he had the secret sauce: In his youth, the California native worked in restaurants, and he soaked up a ton of wine knowledge. When he launched K Vintners in 1999, he was prepared, and his wine showed.
It didn’t take long for him to create Magnificent Wine Co., a line of inexpensive wines such as House Red. He sold it to Precept in 2007 while diving into Charles Smith Wines, which includes such labels as Kung Fu Girl and Boom Boom Syrah.
Now he has added Charles & Charles (a partnership with New York winemaker Charles Bieler), Secco Italian Bubbles, Sixto Chardonnay, Casa Smith and Wines of Substance. And nearly three years ago, he hired uber-winemaker Brennon Leighton from Efeste in Woodinville.
Smith qualifies for AARP — he’s 52 — and a fair bit of gray is showing up on his famously big hair. With a wife and small child, one might think he’s mellowed, perhaps ready to sit on a park bench and enjoy the success of his legion of fans, two Walla Walla tasting rooms and vineyards.
Smith is cranking the volume and heading your way. He’s leased 32,000 square feet of warehouse space in Georgetown and plans to be open this spring.
Seattle survived one fire. We’ll see if it can handle this.
Andy Perdue is a wine judge, journalist and author. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.