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Wine City

Photo by Jason Neuerberg

Charles Smith opens the West Coast’s largest urban winery.

The epicurean dream of village life in France includes a butcher preparing rillettes from his acorn-fattened hog, a baker swaddling crusty baguettes still warm from the stone hearth and a rosy-cheeked winemaker tippling the vintage he recently barreled from the fruit growing beside his tumbledown cottage.

Winemaker Charles Smith dreamed that dream, then brought it to life in Georgetown. His village includes a drive-through bikini barista shack, a run-down roadhouse and the buzzing runways of Boeing Field, all steps away from his gleaming new wine production facility and tasting room. Atop the 32,000-square-foot warehouse is a nine-foot-high steel sign: CHARLES SMITH WINES JET CITY. You can see it from I-5.

“One time I received 100 points [from Wine Enthusiast magazine] for one of my wines,” Smith says, giving a tour of the place. “What other winery in the world that’s received that kind of accolade has a bikini barista and a dive bar in the parking lot?”

Smith, in his early 50s, is dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and black Vans dotted with white skulls; his silvery corkscrew locks bob in the summer breeze. He does not cut the figure of a typical winemaker.

He’s a rock star in the wine world—and did in fact manage a rock band, Denmark duo the Raveonettes, before settling in Walla Walla almost two decades ago. In 1999, he bottled his first vintage, 330 cases of Syrah. In the 16 years since, on the way to becoming Washington’s third-largest wine producer, he opened two tasting rooms in Walla Walla and this month launches his latest venture: the biggest urban winery on the West Coast, at an estimated cost of $8 million. Smith owns the entire operation, land, building and all.

“I didn’t plan any of this,” Smith says, “but all of a sudden here I am and I can’t imagine anything more. I’m lucky.”

Lucky maybe, but Smith knows wine. He grows his grapes in Yakima Valley and has, until now, fermented, aged and bottled in Walla Walla; in that hot and dry climate, water evaporates during the production process, leaving wine with high alcohol content. He says that in Seattle, with its higher humidity, more alcohol will evaporate than water.

“When I’m making wine that’s, say, 15 percent alcohol, I wish that was a little lower. Here I might even get down to .3 or a half percent over the aging time of the alcohol going down. So it makes a wine with a little more density and I lose less [water] going into the air. I think you can make better wine here.” When in full swing, Jet City will produce 45,000 cases a year of several varietals.

From day one Smith has insisted on accessibility—as in that Francophilic fantasy, everyone in the village should get in on the good life. His relationship with Seattle dates back to the late ’90s; today he owns a home in Seward Park. Georgetown, he says, is the city’s last, best hope for maintaining its bohemian, blue-collar flair.

“Georgetown kind of has everybody,” he says. “You have chefs, you have bars, you have breweries, you have distilleries, you have chocolates, you have people doing the whole thing. And I’m the guy making wine.”

Charles Smith Wines Jet City
1132 S. Albro Pl.
Click here to read an extended Q&A with Charle Smith from Jonathan Zwickel's tour of Jet City

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