Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Charles Smith is a wine cartoon. Really.

Winemaker Charles Smith of K Vintners is going to be a character on Pokemon!

No, really. I'm not making this up.

Turns out that Smith has been going to Japan to sell his wine since 2003, and a creative director for Pokemon is a big fan of his wines. As a cartoonist, he also loves Smith's labels; no wonder.

Smith made a special wine for the launch of a black-and-white Pokemon version. Returning the favor, the Pokemon team asked if he would like to be a character in an upcoming video game.

"I thought I would be standing around in the background," Smith said.

But just look at this guy -- he's already a cartoon star; it just took the Pokemon team to recognize it. Turns out he's going to be the new Ash!

"They made me the Pokemon trainer for the new game," Smith said, relaxing on his porch on the outskirts of the noted entertainment industry capital of Walla Walla, Washington. "I introduce the game and say, 'My name is Charles. My power is passion. I'm passionate about all things, all the time.' "

They got that right. I had the honor and test of spending several hours in Smith's company last week, and it was exciting, exhausting, frustrating and occasionally exhilarating -- as when we drank that last wine.

I'll admit that when I first met him, I did not like him. He roared up on his customized Harley Davidson late for an appointment with two British journalists and me and immediately announced that he had a hangover from passing out in a beer bar in Oregon the night before, a 3 1/2 hour ride away. He verbally abused his employees and bragged about how he's the only winemaker in his region who knows how to pick the right barrels. My tasting notes say this about his Viognier barrel sample: "Nice intensity -- I mean the wine. OMG is he arrogant."

Smith, a self-trained winemaker, has been the beneficiary of some 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate, and his K Vintners small-lot Syrahs are highly sought after. He also makes wines with very cool labels for Charles Smith Wines and owns 1/3 of the budget House Wines label, although he says Precept Brands -- which he originally sold an interest to in order to get some marketing help -- pushed him away from the winemaking over the last couple of vintages.

He invited us for dinner made by his Italian wife, Ginevra Casa, at his Walla Walla farmhouse.
(The story of how they married last year: Both were former sommeliers now in the wine industry -- she imports Prosecco -- and they had known each other for some time, but were involved with other people until they connected in the late fall. Within two months he asked her to marry him. She wanted to invite her friends and relatives, but he said we have to do this right now or never. So they're married; her diamond is huge.)

I knew wine geeks around the world would pay hundreds to switch places with me, but I went reluctantly. Many of his tales of going out for dinner in Denmark, where he lived for several years, and Spain and Napa Valley ended with him passed out underneath a pool table or under a shady tree, etc. But the English women really wanted to go, so we went.

I had forgotten that he had been a sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton. I imagined an evening of struggling not to irritate him because I'm not Jay Miller, who gave Smith 100 points for the worst wine of his we tried all night, Royal City Stoneridge Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah 2007. It was 16 percent alcohol, syrupy and hot and monolithic, and was exactly the kind of wine Parker haters complain about. And Smith had a bug up his butt because Stephen Tanzer hadn't liked it; he kept complaining that Tanzer had said, "I can't believe the same guy who made these wines made this."

Smith really is a great winemaker; you just have to avoid Jay Miller's favorites. The K Phil Lane Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2007 ($70) was delightfully complex, with great black plum fruit and notes of cola, smoked meat and black pepper. It's soft in the mouth but still has good acidity, and changes with every sip. Casa's favorite, the K Wells Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2006, was spectacular as well.

Casa is a great cook. We had, from memory, bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and capers; fried lamb tsukune with 6-hour tomato sauce; an salad of lettuce from their neighbor's organic farm; an excellent morel risotto; chicken scallopine with morel sauce. For dessert we had their neighbor's very ripe, end-of-season strawberries with good vanilla ice cream. I think I'm forgetting a pasta course; it was all as good as it sounds.

Smith was very generous with his cellar. "I'd rather drink these wines than leave them to my young wife," he said.

Here are the wines that six of us drank in one evening:

Gaston Chiquet Tradition 1er Cru Champagne Brut NV
Gaston Chiquet 1er Cru Champagne Brut 2000
Kung Fu Girl Washington State Riesling 2009
Charles & Charles Columbia Valley Rose Volume II 2009
Clos du Papes Chateauneuf du Pape blanc 2007
Domaine Rossignol-Trapet Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru 2000
Canalicchio Brunello di Montalcino 1990
K Cougar Hills Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2002
Mas Foulaquier le Rollier Pic Saint-Loup Coteaux du Languedoc 2001
K Wells Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2006
Charles Smith Wines Royal City Stoneridge Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah 2007
G. Huet Le Clos du Bourg Vouvray Moelleux 1961

That's two full bottles per person; I believe only the 100-point wine had any left in the bottle when the Brits and I left, though I'm sure Charles and his wife polished it off.

I have winemaking notes from our less-pleasant interview earlier, about his beliefs in warmer fermentation ("A lot of people are really nervous of their fermentation temperatures. They're always at 74 degrees. You're going to be stumbling over the fruit when it's that cool. We're trying to get the fruit out of the way, so you can appreciate everything else.") and crushing by foot ("It sucks, but it's the best way to do it. You can't get athlete's foot because the carbon dioxide kills everything.") and why he went to Walla Walla instead of California ("You don't go to Italy to open a pizza place. I didn't want to be at the end of something; I wanted to be at the beginning.")

From the dinner, though, I have very few notes written down. But for some reason, after I painstakingly wrote down every wine I noted above, I took the trouble to record the quote below. I don't remember exactly why he said it, though I do remember something about him going up to fetch his boxing gloves if I agreed with Tanzer. But I think it's appropriate dialogue for the new Pokemon trainer, Master Charles.

"I will hit you so hard that I will knock out your diaphragm." -- Charles Smith


King Krak, Oenomancer said...

As someone who was written a Pokémon book (on the collectible card game), I toast Charles for ascending to the ultimate pantheon of Pokédom. May he win all of his Pocket Monster battles.

A fun story, Blake.

Anonymous said...

Amazing the credit this clown gets when it is everyone around him that is making the wine.

W. Blake Gray said...

That's an interesting point, though I don't know how valid it is because I'm not there every day. Charles does travel a lot. But he described his winemaking technique as watching other people do something and saying, "Do it a little bit this way instead." And I think that's a totally valid way of working in this particular field -- that's why Helen Turley, for one, gets the big bucks.

Anonymous said...

Having been around Mr. Smith, he is not the winemaker; nor do his staff always listen to him. Your first impression was correct - "didn't like him". He is a promoter, not a winemaker.

Anonymous said...

Chuck is a lot of things...but seldom the winemaker...this is a fact. I have known him for years so I will also be anonymous. That he is highly successful speaks more about the business he is in and he knows that. He is just selling widgets to the masses in a style that makes them buy. That is the beauty of America.

Anonymous said...

Glad people are starting to figure this one out...Marketing whiz- absolutely. Winemaker....????

Anonymous said...

And, a king kong jerk to boot.

Anonymous said...

is mario batali on the line everynight in all of his restaurants? winemaker, yes...cellar master, no....

people seldom have a neutral opinion of Charles, if they did, he probably wouldn't be so successful.

Anonymous said...

Great story Blake. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

- Steve in oakland

Anonymous said...

Batali can cook. In the alternative, Batali could walk a novice through the cooking process. Big Hair cannot make wine without a lot of help from others with the real winemaking skills and knowledge. In the old days of the wild west, Big Hair would have been known as a "snake oil salesman".

W. Blake Gray said...

Folks, I appreciate that Charles can be difficult to take -- I experienced it myself. But I'm getting uneasy about all these anonymous slams of him.

If you're an employee of Charles Smith, I can understand why you wouldn't want to give your name. I heard him tongue-lash one of his assistants in a way that made me cringe.

But if you're not, why not go on the record with your name? I did. And I even gave Charles my card, so he knows where to find me and my diaphragm.

Janna Rinker said...

I wrote the first Batali comment and I sell Charles Smith Wines. He is an extremely generous person to his staff, can be difficult at times but in all it is so worth it. Here is a pic of Charles and his buddy and assistant winemaker Andrew "not making the wine"


Andrew Latta - K Vintners said...

Blake – I applaud you calling out these seemingly akin “anonymous” postings. I think that’s where the applause stops for me though. It’s completely within your right to express your opinion about our wines; it’s why we invited you in the first place. In that right, I suppose our hope is that we can trust to be quoted accurately and the facts presented without embellishment. I was the only employee present for the barrel tasting and afternoon porch session, sadly I missed dinner. Without rewriting the blog, I’d just like suggest a few corrections:

Tardiness – I greeted you on time with a smile and was met with avoidance of eye contact and mumbles. I’ll admit it was not a strong first impression but it seemed hasty to dislike you so soon.

Verbal abuse – None, Charles does employ colorful language from time to time but I can say it was not directed at me. We all have different standards of decorum.

Barrel Slam 2010 – While some wineries do purchase sub-standard oak, which is what was actually said, we did not state that we were the only winery to purchase quality barrels. That’s absurd.

Wine Advocate – We have never received a 100 point score from the Advocate. The highest score from WA we’ve received is a 99, the 100 point score was from Enthusiast.

Athlete’s Foot – This quote was a one-eyed mash-up of a laughter-filled conversation between the English writers and Charles in which there was no assertion of CO2’s anti-fungal properties.

In closing, you’re never going to be quoted correctly 100% of the time, but what you do hope is that writer in question captures the spirit of the moment. Charles can be a cartoon for sure and needs no ghost-writing help to fill his thought bubbles, they pretty much spill out free of filtration. Maybe what Blake is elucidating for me is the difference between blogging and professional journalism, I hope not. In response to the comment board, I work too hard to have our wines derided as being made by someone else. Charles and I work side by side on these wines. All the vineyard visits, the punch downs, the pressing, the racking and blending must have just been for photo ops.

Andrew Latta
Assistant Winemaker

PS – If anyone’s got any 100 point bulk juice for sale, feel free to contact me.

Anonymous said...

oh snap. you got told.

W. Blake Gray said...

Andrew: You are very loyal. I would not be happy if my employer cursed me out in front of reporters as Charles did to you. Or maybe you thought that was playful? I didn't write it down, but I recall profanity and threats of bodily harm. If that's OK with you, then you're in the right job.

As for the 100-point score, if it's wrong, I'm reporting what Charles told me.

You're correct, this is a blog and not a print article. Sometimes I'll put in something like that, whereas if I was getting paid for a print article I would look up the score in Wine Advocate.

As for Charles being late, with all due respect Andrew, we weren't there to meet you. I'm sorry if I wasn't cheerful or clear-spoken enough for you; I'll try to work on that.

Anonymous said...

As far as being verbally abusive to employees Charles told a female employee at Hospice du Rhone in front of maybe 200 people that "she could F*** up a blow job"

Anonymous said...

Yes, the comment at Hospice du Rhone is true. I found out about this unfortunate news from a number of RESPECTABLE winemakers in California that attended. What a terrible way to represent Washington. He should be ashamed and apologize to Hospice du Rhone. This is an incredible event with so many outstanding individuals. Hopefully those that attended the event will look past this foolishness and recognize that he does not represent the Washington Wine Industry. He is simply an immature, self-centered, miserable person who is a masterful marketer. Enough said.

Anonymous said...

and this blog and every post on here plays directly to making Chuck a success....a truly well crafted marketing plan which gets everyone to chatter about him and his wines. He is a pig of the first order...part of the plan...and you are all helping him out regardless of what you (me) write.

Anonymous said...

regarding who has made 'Charles' wines in the past, ask him about Walla Walla Vintners, Kiona, Hogue, Christophe, etc. etc. etc. Those of us who sell wine for a living up here tend to get lots of snippits through the grapevine that even Grand Master K would not like us to know.

W. Blake Gray said...

All right, folks, that's it.

NO MORE anonymous comments ripping Charles Smith with rumors. If you have facts, let's hear them.

Andrew Latta is right about one thing -- he works too hard to have anonymous people saying somebody else makes the wines.

If you want to spill the beans BUT you don't want your name publicly identified, then email me privately. There's a link on this blog. I'll be happy to discuss all levels of anonymity, from not running your comment at all to running it with a pseudonym.

Maybe there's a good story here, but for all I know it's one ex-employee with a grudge. Prove otherwise.

Daniel P. said...

At Hospice du Rhone this year, Charles Smith was one of the guest speakers. His employee kept screwing up the slideshow. Charles got very testy and frustrated. He turned to her at one point and said, "You could ruin a blowjob" out loud and into his microphone.

That is all I never needed to hear about this person. I was not in attendance, but one of my employees was.

And I agree, posting anonymously is just not that interesting. You have something to say, put your name on it!

Unknown said...


Well done. Well written. I agree with you 100%.


PS: I was a Canadian cartoon once...

Daniel P. said...

Sorry, the quote was

"You could f*** up a blowjob" at HdR.

Want to make sure Charles is accurately quoted.

W. Blake Gray said...

To summarize what people have been emailing me off the record, Charles has earned a reputation for intentional unpleasantness, both to his staff and outsiders. The reputation appears to be nationwide but I've heard from several people in Washington who don't like him, and who don't work for him. Nobody had a specific incident they wanted me to report here other than the widely reported remark regarding fellatory competence.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, and one person claims he didn't make all of his wines at the beginning of his career (he admits not making House Wine now).

I don't see the importance of that -- Castle Rock isn't a worse company for having a good nose for purchased fruit.

And it does raise the question, what exactly does a winemaker do? What does the winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery do, or at Gallo of Sonoma? I think it's a bigger question than just saying, "he bought this fruit and took credit for it." In this industry, people do that.

Unknown said...

I have been a "Winemaker" for about 14 years and have my MS in Oenology from the University of Adelaide.

It is amazing to me that the size of the ego's in this industry. (Not just picking on Charles here)

Basically all we do is take fruit and convert into a beverage with the help of a lot of little bugs. We are yeast herders, not gods.

There is no right and no wrong in this industry. We all just produce a beverage. On the small scale we are janitors, backyard mechanics and beer drinkers who report to our tasting rooms. On the large scale we are spreadsheet geniuses, work order writers, and beer drinkers who report to a marketing team.

I think many winemkaers could use a good lashing, and get knocked down to earth and realize that we are not gods, just people who produce another beverage. Get over it.

Daniel P. said...

Charles sold House Wine a few years ago, AFAIK.

Friendly Vine said...

Wow, the blog post was initially about Charles Smith as literal and figurative cartoon. Seems like quite a bit of bile getting spewed because the man is a genuine character in every way.
Charles Smith is a master marketer - beginning with his own larger-than-life-midlife-regressing-to-teenage persona, right through to his iconic, eye-catching labels, all the way to the wine that he does or does not actually press from his own feet.

If that big-haired persona talks like a sailor or is terse with his people in public, who is to separate man from image - and when, exactly?? For all I know he has a report with his staff that gets him a pass on his gruffness.

No matter, the guy has been cool when I have chatted with him. He is responsible for juice that pleases Parkerites as well as connoisseurs. The bottle line for this retailer is that the man plus the myth SELL WINE!

Cheers! - and chill out, Haters

W. Blake Gray said...

Readers: If you commented on this post, you may be being sued.

I have cut off comments on this post because of the lawsuit, but am posting this as a courtesy so that the anonymous commenters being sued have every chance to learn that legal action is being taken against them.

Please DO NOT contact me if you are one of the commenters in question. If I don't know your identity, I can't be compelled to reveal it. Instead, you may want to contact an attorney. I cannot offer legal advice.

For details of the suit, please visit this post: