Charles Smith: "I feel more European in my taste"

Charles Smith. (Photo courtesy of Handpicked Wines)

“I seek balance and substance. Everyone wants an enjoyable wine,” says the former rock manager who is now a star.

Charles Smith has spent the entire day at the winery in Seattle. He’s there as often as he can be, despite the extensive traveling. His bottles are popular, and he wants to continue being a voice for American wine. But miles in a car are in his blood. For ten years, Charles Smith managed rock bands in Denmark.

"Traveling is really just sleeping somewhere else. You see a lot and get inspiration."

Charles Smith’s life is like a road trip; the American dream come true. At the turn of the millennium, he became so interested in wine that he wanted to make his own. By chance, he ended up at a barbecue in Walla Walla, Washington, and made the right contacts. It resulted in 300 cases of Syrah, which he sold directly from his Chevy Astro van. But to move forward, he needed money – money he didn’t have. So he took a couple of bottles to the bank, popped the cork, and let the wine speak. A few minutes later, the loan was approved. $5,000.

Charles Smith. (Photo courtesy of Handpicked Wines)

In interviews, Charles Smith is often quoted with expressions like “everything is possible.”
“To some extent,” he says via the link from Seattle.
“For example, I would never play hockey for the national team. I don’t have the physique for it. You also can’t grow Chardonnay in the desert. But if you have access to Chardonnay and a suitable place – then anything is possible.”
And maybe especially so in the USA. Here, there are no strict appellation rules. Grow what you want, where you want. Charles Smith, who is a great friend of terroir and varietal typicity, says it’s double-edged.

“Sure, we have freedom here. But just because we can do what we want doesn’t mean it will
be good. A few rules wouldn’t hurt to maintain distinctiveness.” As an example, he mentions Champagne, Bordeaux, and Chianti Classico. If you go there, you know what you’re getting.
“But what does a Cabernet from the USA really taste like? We have more creativity, but not the history. I feel more European in my wine taste,” he says, revealing that one day he’d like to make wine in Italy.
“There, you have incredible diversity, and the whole country is surrounded by the sea.”

However, his own wines have an unmistakable attitude, regardless of which of his six brands they represent (K Vintners, Sixto, Substance, Golden West Vino Casa Smith, and B Leighton). Charles Smith wants to make honest wines. People deserve it, he reasons.

“People work hard for their money, so they should also get something good for their bucks. For me, a wine should first and foremost be good. Pleasant. Then it should have integrity. I don’t just want to make a ‘red wine’. It should taste of the grape. Last but not least, it should carry an imprint from the place it comes from.”

Charles Smith K Vintners-serien. (Photo courtesy of Handpicked Wines)

He laughs at his dream back at the turn of the millennium – to make about a thousand cases per year and build a quiet future with his family. But when the legendary K Vintners Royal City Syrah 2006, as the first wine from Washington, received 100 points from Wine Enthusiast, he had to rethink. It was time to step up.

In 2015, the brand Substance was introduced. Again, he had regular wine drinkers in mind. Charles Smith wanted to make the most affordable Cabernet Sauvignon wine in the USA.

“Cab is the big grape here, and I wanted to make a decent wine at a better price. From suitable land, with traditional winemaking.”

Substance Cabernet Sauvignon is aged for a year in French barrels, half of which are new. The fruit takes the driver’s seat, and the wine has an almost European freshness, combined with America’s deep fruit. Later, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, as well as a blend, were added to the series. The wines come with a clear label, black and white with the print Cs, Me, Ch, and so on. For Charles Smith, it’s about straightforward communication.

“Substance stands for the substantial. Honesty, integrity, this should be the best I can produce from these grapes. You should clearly see what it is, and you should want to take the bottle.”

In Sweden, it’s the Substance series that does best in restaurants, with its varietal typicity.

The latest project also revolves around a single grape. In 2018, he planted about 140 hectares of Pinot Noir in Golden West. The largest planting of Pinot in Washington to date.

“It’s a fantastic location. Continental climate, limestone soil, and at the same latitude as Pommard. The wine has an amazing color and taste, it reminds of Burgundy even though it’s made here.”

The conversation constantly drifts to Europe, and Charles Smith admits he’s drawn to it. Especially to Scandinavia, where he has many friends from his time as a rock manager. He visits at least once a year.

“Next time might be in the summer, and I hope to visit Sweden then.”

Published 09-May-2024
Partner content / Sweden

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