Charles Smith is not your average winemaker. For one he’s Food & Wine’s 2009 winemaker of the year and scores in the high 90’s with Robert Parker (if you buy into that whole thing). His labels feature skulls, skeletons and kung fu kicking girls. He’s got a mop of hair that would make early Jon Bon Jovi jealous and, sometimes, he reveals more than the complexity of a wine at his tastings.
“Unfortunately not every event I’ve been able to keep my clothes on, but for the most part, it’s been pretty good,” says Smith from his winery in Walla Walla, Washington.
“I guess somebody flips a little switch in my head and says: ‘Now it’s time to pull my pants down.’”
His reasoning behind throwing a party rather than a stuffy tasting is that we all grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and none of us really feel like dressing up in a cardigan and tie to drink. He works in boots, jeans and T-shirts, so why should a boozy gathering be overly stuffy.
Smith is a lucky man. The stars aligned just so when he decided to make a living as a winemaker, he was looking forward to a quiet life in the country, but things took a turn.
“I was 39 years old, I thought I would make somewhere between 2,000 to 2,500 cases of small-batch artisan wine, selling it for $25 to 50 bucks a bottle,” says Smith. “Make a decent living, not a big living, live in the coutryside, meet a nicer bad girl, have a couple of kids, have a small life and be like 80 years old sitting on a bench with a hankerchief in my back pocket wiping my nose.”
“None of that happened as I had planned it and it just blew up out of nowhere.”
After running into a winemaker while travelling through Washington, Smith moved to Walla Walla, convinced someone to give him some money for land and jumped in with both feet. Before he even had time to realize what was happening, his quiet life in the country became a money making bonanza.
“I had enough wine to bottle 14,000 cases, I bottled 10,000 cases and had 4,000 worth in tank and crossed myself and hoped I’d be able to sell it within a year or else I’d be screwed,” he says. “It was gone in six weeks. I was like ‘Holy shit, I’m on to something.’”
“Within three years I was at 93,000 cases. Just me, my assistant in the winery at the time… and two people in the office, that was it.”
For a man that had never made more than $50,000 in a year, all of a sudden Smith was rolling in it. But what about that nicer bad girl?
“Working on it,” he says.
Those wishing to sample some of his delicious wine, and maybe get a peak under his clothed exterior have several options in Calgary this week. Smith will be at Murrieta’s on Tuesday, March 9 with the promise of a surprise wine for tasting. The event costs $60 and includes hors d’oeuvres, wine tasting and music. There’s also a prize for the best black-and-white rock T-shirt worn. It’s a casual affair after all.
On Thursday, March 11, Smith will be at Bookers BBQ Grill & Crab Shack for a winemaker’s dinner. Appetizers, wine, dinner and more wine will be topped off with some rock ‘n’ roll and dancing. This might be the best opportunity to see Smith in his element, but it will cost you to the tune of $136.22 with GST and gratuity.
Finally, on Friday, March 12, Smith will be at Willow Park Wines & Spirits for the Groovy Wines from Washington Mini Festival. It’s the cheapest bet of the bunch at $25.