Charles Smith Wines / K VintnersWhen you think of a wine seminar with a famous winemaker, what types of images come to mind? Perhaps you're in a large lecture-style room, glasses of wine presented to you, while the winemaker recites values for SO2 and weeks of malolactic fermentation and BRIX levels. Somewhere by the fifth glass his eyes have glazed over as he goes on autopilot, reciting the information he's provided on a hundred other occasions in a hundred other cities. You begin to wonder why he didn't just send along a DVD of his presentation for the room to watch.
And then you have the delightfully fresh, engaging, lively Charles Smith of K Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington. His early years had been spent in wine-involved activities such as being a cellar master at a restaurant. Then he was lured away to the wild world of rock star management, partying for eleven years in Denmark. At age 39 he decided he needed to "settle down" and went on a three month journey around the US, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
In May 1999 his travels took him through Walla Walla, a wine region he'd come to enjoy. A chance encounter at a wine shop led him to a local BBQ for the evening, and before he knew it one of the local winemakers was offering him the chance to make his own wines from some spare grapes. He jumped at the opportunity!
The question was how he was going to pay for it. Sure, the winemaker would let him pay for the grapes out of the profits - but how about the bottles, the corks, and the many other things necessary to create wine? He went down to the local bank to ask for a loan. Charles jokes that at the time he had no money, no assets, no credit history, and his very first attempt at a wine was sitting in the barrel. He gave his best effort to his presentation and to his delight the bank asked him to come back tomorrow - with a sample of the wine! He found an empty bottle and a blank cork and brought along the sample. The group from the bank all had a taste, and that was that. He was given a $250,000 loan to launch his dream.
Charles feels avidly that a wine should reflect the essence of the grapes, and that having fantastic grapes is key to a good wine. "I've always been about the grower - it's all about the source," he says. His job as a winemaker is then to balance the result as much as possible. "Balance is key to making wines that have purity, integrity, speak of a place, the true passion of wine." He gave the analogy of a see-saw with two 50-pound girls on it, or the same see-saw with two 300-pound men on it. Whatever the style of wine, it needed to be in perfect balance. "Balance means you've got your act together."
The "K Vintners" name came about as part of his quest to meet his goal that "everyone should have access to wine." He wanted to make sure his winery name was easy to say, easy to spell, and easy to remember. "I didn't like the idea of faux European names for American wines" - names that new wine drinkers found confusing. His mind went back to the way livestock were branded in the Old West. Ranchers used simple symbols that everyone could understand. "People can recognize it, pronounce it, and remember it. I make wine for the people, I don't make wine for myself."
This desire to make sure there are affordable, delicious wines for every day drinking is the driving force behind his Charles Smith line of wines. Charles explains that there are other inexpensive wines out there that are simply not worth drinking. "They would use $20 of packaging, 10 cents worth of wine, and charge $10 for it. The wine tasted like it was made with a chemistry set." Instead Charles' theory is to use a $20 wine, add in 10 cents worth of packaging, and charge $10. Yes, he wants his packaging to catch your attention, but then he wants his wine to keep you spellbound and come back for more.
Charles was enthusiastic, energetic, and full of fantastic stories about his experiences which had the audience laughing and applauding. We didn't want the evening to end! Charles is clearly passionate about his vocation. "I didn't move from Denmark to Walla Walla for the action," he points out. It was all about making the best wine possible, and bringing those results to his avid fans.
Everything he does is sustainable up to biodynamic. He feels strongly that you should care for your soil and pay attention to what you do to the natural world around you.
Amazingly, Charles is completely self taught. "I never worked one day at another winery, never went to a seminar, a class, read a book on how to make wine," he explained. While he visited wineries while living in Europe, it was when he came to Walla Walla that he got serious about learning the techniques. "I would go out to drink with a winemaker and they would tell me about their wine - they would tell you about everything," he explained. Over time he found what worked best for him and stuck with it. "You need to trust your instincts."
Here are the wine tasting notes!
Charles Smith Wine Tasting Notes
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