Charles Smith Wines and K vintners Tasting Room (Walla Walla, Washington)
We have never met Charles Smith but it is easy to decide that we would not like him. His persona is huge and he has become somewhat famous and with fame comes judgment and stories and they are not always flattering and not always accurate either. The Sideshow Bob haircut and the massive billboard announcing his wine as you enter Walla Walla somehow play into that image. So if we wouldn’t like him, would we like his wine? That correlation was about to be put to the test.
When you round the corner off Main Street to get to his tasting room, the quiet pre-World War II store fronts that are the norm in Walla Walla are interrupted by the huge lettering that announces your arrival at Charles Smith Wines. The black and white motif and images of skeletons on wine boxes seen through the window cause you to stiffen a little. Someone going to this much trouble to put forward this kind of image is making wine. Can this be a good thing?
The tasting room is a 97 year old former auto shop. Exposed brick and wood rafters and 30 foot ceilings are very cool indeed. Kayla stands alone behind the tasting bar and greets you with a cheerful hello and a warm smile. She is not playing into her boss’s stereotype. It kinda puts you back on your heels for a second.
We opted for the full tasting which includes a choice of six wines from a lineup of about a dozen wines from the lower end Charles Smith Wines and the higher end K Vintners. We ended up tasting 9 wines in total, six from K Vintners and three from Charles Smith. It was a terrific tasting right across the board. My prejudices going into the tasting based upon what I had read were confirmed to be just prejudices. Regardless of anything else about Charles Smith, he sure makes good wine.
2013 K Rose 100% Syrah. A lovely copper/orange colour this wine spent just 45 minutes on the skins. An appealing strawberry/cherry nose is followed by a refreshing, minerally palate with juicy acidity and a spicy finish.
$20 US at their tasting room.
2013 K Viognier 100% Viognier from Art Den Hoed and Wallula Ranch in Yakima Valley. Peaches and apricot lead to a full body of voluptuous texture with just enough acidity to keep it all together. This wine is all about pleasure and hedonistic delight. Smith wrote “balanced in the mouth with a minerally finish so long you’ll need binoculars to see the end.” What can we add to that??
$25 at their tasting room.
2012 K The Boy 100% Grenache from River Rock, Walla Walla Valley and Northrhide, Wahluke Slope. Crimson red. Cherry liqueur and cranberry nose. Soft and totally approachable attack this wine is warm and embracing in its medium to fully body. Not the most complex wine but terrific mouthfeel and lovely ripe redfruit flavours. Smith says the wine will age beautifully but I find soft and sexy wines like this offer more joy in their youth. Oppulent.
$50 at their tasting room
2012 K Milbrandt Syrah 100% Syrah from Sunridge and Northridge on the Wahluke Slope. Dark purple. Nose of blueberries and blackberries backed up with baking spices. A warm, velvety mouthfeel makes me think of a Merlot-lover’s Syrah. Flavours of blueberry, wet stones, vanilla and smokey spice are delivered in a soft, thick robe. Lots of flavor without tasting extracted.
$30 at their tasting room. (particularly good value, this wine was right in there with the rest of the line up but $15 to $20 less.)
2011 K River Rock Syrah 100% Syrah from River Rock, Walla Walla Valley. Dark red/purple colour. Blackberry and earth on the nose. Medium body, this wine differed from the rest in its search for complexity versus hedonism. Minerals, forest floor, white pepper and other notes are supported by a fairly tannic structure. It shows the cooler 2011 vintage in its character and is likely to merit more praise after several years in the cellar. We were a bit divided on this one as to how well the complexity over hedonism paradigm worked, but both thought it was delicious.
$45 at their tasting room.
2011 K Merlot Northridge Vineyard 100% Merlot from Northridge Vineyard, Wahluke Slope. Deep, dark colour, almost black. Huge nose of black cherries, mocha, coffee and vanilla. A full bodied powerhouse of a wine. On the palate the wine is thick and rich and the chocolate and cherry notes are evocative of a rich, black forest cake. Baking spices and espresso notes play an important supporting role to keep the wine on the charts and not over the top. Lots of structure assures this is a serious wine with a long life ahead. We have to quote Smith again in his tasting note: “The complex aroma of a woman’s evening bag – think perfume, coins, paper money, lipstick, a cosmetic case, a pencil and perhaps even a broken matchbook.” How do you dislike a guy who writes that kind of tasting note?
We also quickly tasted three from the Charles Smith line up: Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Velvet Devil Merlot and Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon. We did not take notes but really liked each wine. We were completely shocked to learn that each sold for $12! Each of those wildly over-delivered for their price point.
We probably never will meet Charles Smith and never learn if his reputation is deserved or not. But we sure attest to his ability to make good wine. The house style was much in evidence: full flavours, full body, richly textured and early approachability. The K wines delivered good value in the premium category; the Charles Smith wines deliver unbeatable value and could easily be priced two times higher and still be well worth it.