Charles Smith: One
We were introduced to Charles Smith three years ago. Tina and I were managing a wine shop in San Diego. I was in Sonoma on a junket of the Russian River Valley and Tina had the con. It was her first time running the show and Charles Smith was scheduled for a wine tasting. It was to be an evening Tina would not soon forget.
Charles makes an impression. You can’t miss the crazy Sideshow Bob hair and his imposing frame. Charles knows how to make an entrance, but he excels at hosting the party. He no doubt learned this skill during his time in Europe working in the music business as manager of rock bands where the ability to create interest via forming an underground movement is key. The wine business was a natural progression for Charles when he returned to the States via the Pacific Northwest. From retail wineshop owner to winemaker, Charles has made an incredible impression on the wine trade during his thirteen year run in the business.
We began to see Charles Smith Wines in the marketplace a few years back. These were wines of distinction and style, capitalizing on Washington’s ability to over-deliver in the price for quality department. Each label is simple and clean with a stark black and white style that stands out in any line-up. These are exactly the type of wines we love to uncover: unique sensibility offering quality and value. Initially these wines were sold via a smaller wine distributor. Mike Rohner, now proprietor of Legit Wine Co. was his representation at the time. Mike is a bit of a loose cannon himself and the pair of Mike and Charles made a perfect team.
Tina says of that day, “I remember when they arrived at the event. After pausing for a cigarette in front of the shop, Mike and Charles came in pleasant as punch. After hearing about Charles’ wild reputation I was relieved, ‘Maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult a situation to manage as I first suspected.’”
Tina can remember that night in vivid detail, “It wasn’t long before 50 party-minded patrons arrived, eager to taste wines from this Washington state upstart. As they filed into the back room, the event gained steam and things got lively. I was manning the front desk and Mike and Charles were free to conduct the tasting. It wasn’t long before the jazz standards playing on the building’s sound system came to a screeching halt. The tasting room had a roll up door to the outside and Mike used it to drive his suv halfway into the room. When I walked into the back room I was surprised to see Mike’s car blaring alternative rock with tasters milling around Charles excitedly. The two employees assigned to pour in the back room had looks on their faces that straddled the line between doubt and fear. Hmmmm.”
I’m glad Tina was there that day, because she’s an excellent administrator and while this experience was no doubt stressful at the time, she looks back on the event with fond memory. She says of the evening, “It really stretched my boundaries about what a wine tasting can be like. I was very comfortable with the typical wine tasting, pour wine, talk about taste and scores, etc. But this was something new, original and unexpected!”
As it turns out Tina remembers the evening ending well but not without a bang, “We went on much later than expected. I had to pry people away from Charles. I found myself surveying the tasting room with a van parked in it. Mike was talking to me, others giggling, but I wasn’t hearing what he was saying. I was locked into thought about all the stresses and distractions of management. Charles was standing directly to my right and out of nowhere he reached out and gave my hair a gentle but definite yank.”
I know that, at the time, this was a clear and definite violation of her comfort zone. When I asked her what she did after the hair pull she said, “I think my eyes jumped out of my head and I gave Mike such a look.” Over the past five years working together I’ve come to know this look from Tina and there’s no mistaking its message. Mike quickly bid the shop ciao and ushered Charles off to an evening engagement at a local pub.
When Tina and I reflect on this memory today, she’s all smiles about the experience. “It was an exciting time for me. I’d just worked my way into management in the wine business and was cutting my teeth as wine buyer. The tasting with Charles was particularly powerful. I found him to be a man of the moment and could be he recognized that I was not present in the experience of the evening when we finally had time to connect. I’m grateful for his reminding me with that hair pull that wine is all about the experience and that experience can be particularly powerful and meaningful, albeit new and scary.”
Charles Smith – Two
Years later Charles Smith Wines has developed ambitiously. He’s expanded his line and distribution considerably. But his reputation as a man who loves a party still proceeds him. When I attended the Washington State Wine Commission’s tour of wineries it was good to see Charles as an active and vibrant member of the Commission. Part of the event involves wineries taking a group of professionals for an evening and giving them an intimate look at their operation followed by friendly socializing.
The year I attended I couldn’t help but notice that Charles Smith was the only winery member to have a chaperone from the Commission assigned to him for the night. When I asked why I was told it was because one year he took his group of wine pros bar hopping all night long and dropped them off bleary eyed and sleepless the next morning at the tour bus. The organizer laughed as he said, “Those people could barely stand much less spend 12 hours touring vineyards and tasting wine, but Charles turned on his heels and headed off to a vineyard to check on its progress.”
Charles Smith – Three
Present day: Tina and I find ourselves working another Charles Smith event: this time for our own business. Charles is not present, but most of his wines are. We’re conducting an event for VAULT wine storage @ Pacific a local wine and archival storage facility that we’ve partnered with to build clientele. It’s amazing how these labels become like old friends. Each time you see them they recall such fond memories. And one of the great pleasures of coming back to these bottles is sharing them for the first time with new clients. And so as others have taught us, we do likewise, expanding the idea of what wine can mean in their lives, even if we have to resort to a little hair pulling.
GUY and Tina, Partners
PROTOCOL wine studio