He has 51 wines under his watchful eye, including the five he recently sold to Constellation Brands for approximately $120 million.
“I started out with a borrowed $5,000 and an Astro van and someone writes you a check for an ungodly amount. It’s a dream come true.”
He’s been making highly-rated wines in the Walla Walla Valley in Washington state since 1999 (his 2015 Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling recently made the 2016 Wine Spectator Top 100) and all these years later, his dream still is to make great wine. “You have to have a passion for it here because it’s in the middle of nothing. You’ve got to want to grow wine to be here.”
And at 55 years old, that’s all he wants to keep doing in what he calls the “most exciting wine region right now.”
“I’m like the Forrest Gump of wine. I just keep going. Run Forrest! ...I just keep running.”
Thankfully, he slowed down for a few minutes to talk to us.
How do you go from managing rock bands to making wine?
Wine was my thing first. I started working in restaurants at 19. By 23, I realized the wine guy had best job in restaurant. I ended up going to Copenhagen with a girlfriend and couldn’t get a job in the wine world. So I started working in a bar…and inadvertently became a band manager.
But I eventually went back to Walla Walla and started a winery because I figured I had nothing to lose. I was [winery] number 17 back then. Now there are 120 bonded wineries.
And there’s a strong parallel to the music world. I watched so many great performances — so many musicians leave everything on the stage — it’s the same with my winemaking. I do everything I can do — from begin to end — no compromise.
You started Charles Smith Wines in 2006 and you realized then that many people want to consume their wine immediately. You were ahead of your time with that — what made you realize it?
Wine should be complex but you should enjoy drinking it. Think about a simple wine like a Chianti — you can drink it today. And yet all restaurants have new wines on their lists, even though some are built to not be drunk for 5 to 10 years.
So we develop wines with levels of complexity that are not fruit-forward or grapey.
The winemaking is the same, you just have to change the perspective. You can’t cook dover sole and tuna the same. I make my wines so you can drink them today and enjoy them with food.
Are you worried you will lose creative control now that some of your wines are with Constellation?
You have to be able to let it go. It’s like your kid. You’ve done as much as you can do. You can stick around for a bit and the day they leave is a little bit sad. But that’s it. I took [those wines] as far as I could, unless I wanted to hire more people, which I didn’t. So the best thing I could do is hand them to someone else who could do more. I’m staying on as consulting winemaker and now way more people can get access to what I raised.
Why did you decide to go Italian with Casa Smith? What made you plant Sangiovese, Barbera and Primitivo grapes in Washington state?
The vines were there already. The immigrant growers that worked there carried the vines over with them from their homeland. There actually were a lot of Italians in Walla Walla. And Italian grapes are fantastic. They’re great with food. And since we are further north and its cooler, the grapes are less fruiter than if they were grown in California. So we are making single vineyard varietals.
Favorite wine and pairing?
German Riesling after a long day. And White Burgundy with chicken and mushrooms. Do you need anything more? Maybe a crust of bread. That’s Sunday dinner.
Tracy Byrnes, former FOX Business Network anchor and host of “Wine with Me” for Foxnews.com, is editor-in-chief and chief contributor of The Sip.