Charles Smith on Charles Smith

*City Arts senior editor Jonathan Zwickel takes a tour of Charles Smith's new Jet City winery. Click here to read Zwickel's story on Jet City from our August issue.

City Arts: How many times have you done this tour already?
Charles Smith:
Not a lot. It keeps changing. This has been a huge process. It was just the shell of a building. A really huge amount of work. It hadn't been a bottling plant for a long time.

This feels like frontier territory for Seattle.
Dr. Pepper bottling plant, '63. Been used for multiple things since that was gone. Film studio, for advertisements. Storing recyclable trash, big bundles. That was here when we bought it. It really was trashed. It's 32,000 sq ft. What I really want to do is create a place for people to come visit and this place made a lot the sense. It's the oldest community in Seattle, it's the part of Seattle that feels like Old Seattle and I knew Old Seattle really well, so it made a lot of sense for me. 

Anyhow, you have the full on black-and-white building and the sign will be attached to that steel up there. The sign is nine feet high, the letters are 70 inches high. You know that grating that you use for side walks? When you walk over the subway? It's a big grid like that. We took the same thing and made nine-foot panels powder-coated white and did the letters cut out of steel of aluminum and powder-coated those matte black. It'll say Charles Smith Wines Jet City with three bottles on it. The idea is you can light up the white and you have a big huge black and white sign. Or you change the color. I can put red on it. It's white, so it can absorb any color with the season.

And here's my thought: Exposed to I-5, that's 50,000 cars a day. This is the widest place in the city that's open. You've got Boeing field and on a clear day, Mt. Rainier is right there. Lots of light, warehouse style, floor-to-ceiling glass. The black [side of the building] is the public area and the white is the production area. It's a big building, so big scale. Big door, big stuff, big building. The idea is you can see right in. There's no smoke and mirrors, "Ooo, wine's a mystery." No, it's artistry, we make stuff. It's not the mystery part, it's the romantic aspect of people who actually make things.

A more human way of describing wine making, as opposed to a mysterious magical process. Or something so steeped in tradition and history that you're not allowed to give it this kind of update.
Or back to what it had always been. You make wine in your neighborhood, in your village in France. Some charcuterie, someone makes the bread and you make your wine. It's just something you make, it's not a mystery. Wine just happens to be a wonderful thing. People don't go bread tasting, they go wine tasting. Why else would people be out in Walla Walla? It's beautiful, it's countryside, but they wouldn't go wheat tasting. Bringing the vineyards to the city in a way by making the wine here.

Is it efficient to ship grapes in from Eastern Washington?
It is. Yakima, where the majority of my fruit is, is 138 miles away from Seattle. From Seattle it's 278 miles to Walla Walla. When I pick fruit, I move everything in refrigerated trucks anyway, because I want to be able to pick it when the vineyard's really cool in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. We keep it refrigerated to keep it cool. What I do is put my fruit in cold storage for 24 hours anyway. You can do it in a warehouse or you can do it in a truck. Gotta be more careful about how I pick: smaller bins, less weight. So nothing really changes. And also, I think for me, on the strictly wine-quality side for making very high-end wine, it's not "Ooo! I got the recipe!" There is no recipe. Wine changes all the time. I want to allow my wine to get to a higher level and coming over here is one way. Eastern Washington is very dry, so you evaporate water from your barrels; where you have more humidity, you evaporate alcohol. So what will happen is the alcohol in my wines will go down a little bit, but it will make the wine a little more concentrated, and it won't lose as much [water] going into the air as liquid. That will allow the alcohol to be higher. When I'm making wine that's say 15 percent alcohol, I wish that was a little lower. I might even get down to .3 or a half-percent over the aging time of the alcohol going down. 

Have you experimented in the city?
No, it's just humidity. [Pulls out smartphone; checks Yahoo weather ap.] Right now in Walla Walla the humidity is 32, pretty high this time of year. Humidity here is 53. There's a true reaction. If I humidified my winery, that's a breeding ground for bacteria. This is ambient and natural. I think you can make better wine here. How do you get better than 99 points? I guess you get 100 points.

Out of a thousand people that might come to Seattle for holiday, visit friends, epicurean pursuits, maybe 1 out of 1,000 make it to Walla Walla. This is my chance to get in touch with those 999 people. If I had done this in Walla Walla it wouldn't have brought me anymore commerce or visitors. 'Cause I already have places in Walla Walla. Bringing it here this creates synergy and people wanting to visit me from all over the country and I sell wine in 24 countries as well. So people get access who couldn't get access otherwise. Without any compromise. Actually I think maybe an upgrade in the wine.

Were you looking for a space like this or did it open up and it seemed like fortuitous timing?
I bought a building over there on Airport Way, just a small tasting room and then also I saw this and it wasn't for sale.

When was this?
A year ago last spring. I immediately bought this, sold that, and went to work. There you go. That was it.

There's something about that frontier mentality here, that pioneer mentality; this is a very interesting time in Seattle's history. To take a big audacious move like this, the timing is right now.
I wasn't going to sell more wine out of my tasting room in Walla Walla by building a tasting room in Walla Walla. So if I don't even sell one bottle here, it's the same difference if I would have done it there, because I'm producing it here. Now that the winery's here and the tasting room's here, there's an opportunity for more commerce. What's going on in Georgetown in particular—you have Franz Chocolates, Georgetown Brewery, Elsyian, a couple small wineries over here and a couple other small breweries and the thing is, this is where people make stuff. That's a metal fabrication place there. People make stuff here, whether it's things you eat, things you drink, things you use. It made sense for me, like the old days—the cook, the baker, the candlestick maker. Everybody lives in a differentpart of town and Georgetown kind of has everybody. You have chefs, you have bars, you have breweries, you have chololates, you have people doing the whole thing. And I'm the guy making wine.

I moved here when I was 7 years old, 1968. Lived here for about a year and then I lived here again in '88 when I was 28 years old. I lived here for two years and moved to Europe. Met a lot of folks over in Europe. That brought me back to the Northwest to visit, and happenstance to visit to Walla Walla. I was involved with wine before I went to Europe; I was a wine director at restaurants in California.

Why isn't this happening in Napa or Sonoma or somewhere for that kind of tourism?
That's like saying Seattle isn't for that kind of tourism. I don't want to be at the end of something, I want to be at the beginning of something. They don't need another winery in California. Washington wine, or American wine in general—they're ready for what I'm doing.

I'm a big fan of the Charles and Charles rose. I have some buddies that own wine stores around the Bay Area, Vintage Berkeley, and I was shopping for a pink wine for a date and I was asking, they said go with the Charles & Charles.
It's sort of like a house with 10 doors. One way or another, you get into my house. It could be Charles & Charles Rosé, or the Riesling, or my $150 high scoring Syrah. There's lots of ways to get into it, but if you're into wine and you're into wine in the Pacific Northwest, you're going to find me. At least I think you would. I own six different wine companies. So anyway, that's the building. Lots of sky, lots of light. If you come down I-5, that's the exit right there, Albro. Go down I-5, take a right. You could take an Uber here and after tasting wines here, you could go to Franz Chocolates, you can go to Fonda La Catrina and drink mezcal and eat tacos, you can go to 9 Lb Hammer and get shitcanned. It's what you can't do in wine country anywhere else in Washington state. Everything is here. Going to a baseball game: Grab some breakfast at one of the little places, taste some wine and then go to the ball game. You can do it all right there. You can do all kinds of things right there. You can get done with the game at 4, 4:30 or whatever and get a 6 o'clock flight. By being here there is that possibility. Without being here, that isn't possible. [In Walla Walla] the county is 52,000 people. It's rural America with Main Street. It's agriculture. It's the middle of nowhere. It's the middle of there. I love Walla Walla, I have a home there. That's where I started, that's where I grow my grapes. I'm not leaving there, I'm just adding this on.  

[We head inside the winery, upstairs, still under construction.]

I want everybody to have access to the building and to be able to experience it. The [wheelchair-access] elevator is fucking expensive, but the bottom line is I want everybody. If my whole thing is everybody should have access to wine, that means everybody. This is a great spot. We don't have the thing fully lit, but you can look over the whole winery. We could be pressing in that press right now. We could be punching down the grapes in those tanks. We could have the bottling line to truck. We could be bottling right now. You watch the fermentation. You can see all cycles of the wine here, seven days a week. We'll be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday and Monday and Tuesday by appointment, so if you came here, every week you could come here and watch the evolution of the winery and take a picture and get the whole year.

What's the production capacity?
All told, 45,000 cases a year.

The largeset urban winery on the West Coast. Meaning it's in the city limits?
It's the quirky part of Georgetown, right? I want it to stay.

[Right outside is] The Runway Bar?

It's a dive. I have a drive-through bikini barista and a dive bar in my parking lot. You tell me what other winery that makes... One time I received 100 points from one of my wines. What other winery in the world that's received that kind of accolades has a bikini barista and a dive bar in its parking lot? I can go to like Le Berndardin in New York City, I can order the whole dinner in French, but I can also go [to the Runway], get my drink on and play the jukebox. I can be wearing a Paul Smith suit or I can be wearing old beat up Levis and work boots. I like this and I like that. I don't just like one thing. 

I can't believe I own an elevator. I can't believe I own anything. I started with 5,000 bucks.

What's the secret?
I don't know. Fairy dust. If there's a thousand things to choose from and one of them is the lottery ticket. It turns out that I found my thing. And so of all the things in the world I could have done, this must have been my thing. I can't think of it any other way. Everybody, when they pick what they're doing, they hope that it's their thing. It's like with relationships, people hope they find the right peson. Some couples are together their whole life. Happy, they don't get bored, they like being with each other physically, they're happy. How rare is that? Same thing with work or anything else. I just got very fortunate.

I think that kind of relationship to your work, that's attractive to other people. It gets you this fan base.
Because it's genuine, it wasn't naïve. I've said it before: Are you willing to love enough that you're willing to get your heartbroken? Are you willing to put yourself out? If you put yourself out there, sometimes people are attracted to that, because it allows them to dream. We all dream, but how many times do we put our dreams into action? 

Here's the inside of the winery.

It's huge.
All those stands will have tanks like stands, but they're still coming in from France. All the wine will go through that press, so we're talking about small artisan wine to the max. Natural fermenation, no cultured yeast, no nothing.

Those tanks are for aging?

They're for fermenting. And you can age in 'em too if you want. All our Bourdeaux. Beautiful barrels. Aren't they beautiful?

Yeah. Artisan. So beautiful. Let's go this way. It's pretty cool, 'cause the office is right there. The idea is that except for the fermentation, I won't be using these at all. Sort of like the hammer. Once you get to a certain part of the building, you put your hammer away and you use other tools. So this is for fermentation.

What's the difference between the concrete and the oak fermentation?
Oak is going to give you another feel, a little bit softer, but you won't get a lot of oak character. You get a nice texture. These here are more focused, more freshness and minerality. This is really good for Syrah, Merlot and white wine. Chardonnay. Get really focused, real mineral. And these are great for making Savignon Blanc. Rich, textured.

So there's four barrel rooms. Barrels for aging and during harvest some will be doing secondary fermentation. It needs to be 65 degrees in here. The real aging difference. [indistinguishable] travel between the barrel rooms without being outside. [INDISTINGUISHABLE 0:41:51]

When will you start production?

So September, October?
Yeah. I'm a winemaker. I ferment, press, barrel. That's what I do. I don't build buildings and this other stuff, but apparently I do. I've never built a building this size.

Are you working with an architect that you've worked with before?
Yeah, Tom Kundig. We did my big place in Walla Walla with him. The office and taste room there. This is also based on the experience of wine making. They don't design wineries for the engineering part. We use ourselves, our knowledge and work with engineers. Crazy, huh?

Yeah, man. It's an interesting mix of urban-industrial and this rustic, artisanal product.
And it's in a cool room! Obviously this will be better in a couple weeks when we're in full gear. All the racks are going, we're getting black racks. We're moving stuff in right now, we'll worry about that once it's moved in, because there's still construction going on. When you come back in three or four weeks, you'll be like, Aaaah!

What's the budget?
Oh god. I'd say about $8 million, including the land

Do you own the land and the building?
Yeah. But I'm the state's largest independent producer. [We ascend steps above production space.] Up here you can sort of get a perspective. Same level as the vats. That's pretty cool. 

You'll be doing tours for the public? Or the windows in the tasting room are as close as they'll be able to get?
There'll be opportunites for people to visit, but it'll be on a person-by-person basis. This is our working area. It's not like you can't come in here, but you can't just wander in. But we're working heavy equipment, we're focusing. We don't mind people watching. We think it's cool.

You mentioned the black and white pallette and huge number of different varieties of wine. It seems like branding and naming has been really critical in your success.
It's one aspect of it, because if you want to grant access to your wine you got to give people something they can see and recognize and repeat. They can't repeat it, you can't build it. I'm a traditional winemaker. I make traditional, classic-style wine, but communication is modern. I didn't start my winery in the 1800s, I started my winery in the 1990s. The communication is contemporary, but the wine is timeless. I don't consider myself an artist, but what we do is artisanal. It's handmade. When science happens, the idea is we're looking at how you can take wine with emotion and nuances and instinct. And at they very end it's a bottle of wine, but does that bottle of wine satisfy you because you're thirsty and it's a hot day, it's the Charles & Charles rosé? Is it the middle of winter and you have a 10-year-old bottle of red,  you've got some kind of roasted meat thing, you're sitting with four friends and it's candlelight and it's 30 degrees outside and you have a beautiful big glass of dark unctious wine. That's a different thing and they're both equally beautiful.

You guys are going to build a stage in here for next Monday? So Mudhoney can play. You friends with the Sub Pop guys?
What I'm doing is in line with things Sub Pop probably interested in, is just creating something. Having Mudhoney play. Fuck, it's Mudhoney, come on. What can you say about that? Bruce Pavitt, he starts Sub Pop, how many great albums has Sub Pop put out? There you go. Here I am in Seattle with my winery, it makes sense. The idea is this whole floor space here is for fermentation. If I'm not doing that it's 7,200 sq ft. It's nearly the size of the Showbox.

Are parties and shows part of the game plan?
No. I'm not a concert hall, but there will be concerts. I'm not a restaurant, but there's a kitchen. I'm not fully committed to doing it or not doing, but most likely there will be. We'll have our official grand opening on August 12. I'm going to book somebody absolutely legendary for that event. Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killer. He turns 80 years old in October and he's only doing three shows in America. This is one of them and it's invite only. And our pre-opening is this. We're not a concert hall, but Jerry Lee Lewis. C'mon. 

All these trusses, they're gonna be lit all the way across. I can change the colors on it, I can even run it on a sequence. But the idea is that the whole room could be backlit with some faint lighting in the barrel room. It's gonna be kind of dramatic, kind of punk rock, kind of beautiful. The bottom line is I make wine. And I imagine people will come here to discover what I'm doing.

This place will be a magnet. I think people will be looking for something like this. It seems like an honest mix of wine making and your personality.
This is my life, this is my place. I'm not getting somebody else's place.

Can we call this your life's work?
Wine is my life's work and this is a period in my life.

It seems like a pretty majore culmination.
It's pretty much everything come down to this moment. When I had my child—I have a little girl named Charlotte, she'll be three in August—my whole life was preparing me to have her. When it comes to wine I think the whole thing lead to this moment. This is it. I never wanted anything that happened in the wine world, it just kind of happened. All of a sudden, here I am. I never planned on having Charlotte and I have Charlotte and I couldn't imagine life without her. And I didn't plan any of this, but all of a sudden here I am and I can't imagine anything more than this. This is all I want. I didn't even know I wanted it. This is amazing. I'm a very lucky guy. Come on. $5,000 and Astro Van and you have this sixteen years later. First wine was 1999's Walla Walla Valley Syrah, co-production 330 cases from the winery was released on December 2, 2001. And here we are. 

No shit. This is not a pinch. This is full-steam into a concrete wall. If you wake up on the ground it's real.

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