Charles Smith, K Vintners, Charles & Charles, Washington
In going from 330 cases to more than 650,000 cases in 15 years, he’s having a huge impact on the wine world.
"It’s just wine. Drink it.”
That’s the motto of Charles Smith, as simple and direct as the black-and-white images that adorn his iconic K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines labels. This simplicity belies a diverse wine empire of seven brands that represent one of Washington State’s largest and most influential wineries.
Brash, outspoken and as irrepressible as his hair, Smith started his wine-industry journey in a modest manner, purchasing a wine shop on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1999. That year, Smith travelled to Walla Walla and made his first wine, a Syrah, utilizing fruit and inspiration from Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards.
Two years later, he launched K Vintners.
“The K Vintners label began with the desire to tell an American story for American wine, simple and direct,” Smith says. The label evoked a cattle brand, and when paired with the varietal name, it delivered a whimsical message: K Syrah.
Smith has displayed marketing acumen that few in the wine industry can match. He’s created instantly recognizable labels, from Kung Fu Girl Riesling to House Wine, which was sold to Precept Brands in 2006.
“Charles cleared a path for a new way of marketing wine,” says Trey Busch, of Sleight of Hand Cellars. “He stripped away the stuffiness and presented it in a way that people can understand and not be afraid of.”
But Smith is more than just a wine-marketing savant, as his long list of 90-point scores attests.
“He has a strong sense of wine aesthetics,” says Winemaker Brennon Leighton, who’s responsible for implementing Smith’s vision on the Charles Smith, Charles & Charles and Sixto brands. “He has a very clear idea in his mind of what he thinks the finished product should be like and what he is looking for.”
And what exactly is Smith looking for?
“First and foremost, wine is grown,” Smith says. “I’m looking for purity, typicity and transparency. This is my Holy Grail.”
Nowhere is this quest more apparent than with his K Vintners offerings—small-batch, native-yeast fermented, foot-stomped, vineyard-driven wines.
At Charles Smith Wines, offerings range from the value-priced Boom! Boom! Syrah ($15) to the pricey Royal City Syrah ($140), which received a score of 100 points from Wine Enthusiast for its 2006 vintage.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest contribution, however, has been making wines that are equal parts accessible, affordable and top quality.
“Charles is a breath of fresh air,” says restaurateur and James Beard Award winner Tom Douglas. “Wine is for everyone, every day, and Charles is going to give it to us at a price we can afford without the panic. Just drink it, damn it!”
For this and his many other contributions, Charles Smith is Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year.
—Sean P. Sullivan
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