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Charles Smith built one of the largest wine companies in Washington state with his brash personality, irreverent marketing and distinctive packaging.
Behind all that style, however, Smith’s wines have always had substance.
Many of the top wine critics have awarded Smith’s wines high scores, and several of his brands have been hits with consumers. Since starting with just a few hundred cases under the K Vintners brand, Charles Smith’s annual production has grown to more than 740,000 cases comprised of eight major brands and many SKUs.
The company’s latest project is a tasting room and winery in Seattle’s Georgetown district (an urban neighborhood described as “quirky” and “gritty”), which is home to a mix of light industrial, art galleries, restaurants and bars.
The area seems a good fit for Smith and his wine company, as both have maintained a style that runs counter to the wine industry’s traditional marketing. A native of California, Smith picked up a passion for wine while traveling and living in Europe, where he managed a Scandinavian rock band. When he returned to the United States, Smith ran a small wine shop in the Seattle area before being drawn to Washington’s vineyards on the other side of the state. He settled in Walla Walla, Wash., and launched his own brand in 1999.
Smith gets his footing
Smith’s initial releases earned some positive attention from wine critics, and after a few lucky and smart business moves (like founding the bulk brand House Wine, which Smith later sold to Precept Wine) Charles Smith Wines grew into a well-established operation. As Smith became more successful, he kept his mane of frizzy, shoulder-length hair and uniform of a black T-shirt and jeans.
As the company grew, Smith hired additional winemaking talent to ensure quality. Brennon Leighton who worked at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Efeste teamed up with Smith in 2012.
By 2013, Leighton (who recently gave Wines & Vines a tour of the new winery) said the company had outgrown three separate production facilities. The first plan was to build a new winery on land owned by Smith in Walla Walla, but because the company was also planning a tasting room in Seattle, the two goals came together as one: an urban winery with a hospitality area. Leighton said they found the empty industrial space, which in the 1970s had been a soda bottling plant, and it fit all their needs.
“It just sort of worked together that the space was for sale and that Charles would have a winery and tasting room in one place,” Leighton said.
The new tasting room in Seattle is the public face of a 32,000-square-foot winery that is fully equipped for producing premium red and white wines. Called Jet City, the winery is located across the street from Boeing Field (or King County International Airport), which is used by private jets, cargo carriers, the U.S. military and aerospace manufacturer Boeing for maintenance and trial flights.
Bringing Jet City to life
Completed for the 2015 harvest, the Jet City winery and tasting room helped Smith establish a base in Seattle while also providing much-needed crush capacity.
Smith hired Tom Kundig, owner and principal of Olson Kundig, to design the new winery. Kundig had designed the Charles Smith tasting room in Walla Walla, and for the new project he sought to preserve the building’s “hard-won industrial patina” while also opening it up, creating views of the nearby airport and Mt. Rainer, ensuring plenty of space for all winemaking operations.
The building is fronted by huge 19- by 20-foot windows that stretch almost across the entire building’s façade. From both the walk-in tasting area on the first floor and more private tasting space on the second level, visitors can watch jets take off and land at Boeing Field and see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Rainer in the distance.
Concrete floors, exposed beams and a large, reclaimed-wood tasting bar evoke an industrial feel in the first-floor tasting room. The second-floor area is accessed by a large steel staircase and is furnished with low-slung couches and minimalist tables that surround a Lexan-topped tasting bar. Used for private tastings and events, the second floor has the atmosphere of a posh airport lounge in the 1960s.
Large windows on the interior of the building provide visitors in both the second and first floor tasting rooms with a full view of any winery work that may be occurring during their visit.
Leighton said the company started moving into the new building in July 2015, held a grand-opening party in August and received their first grapes during the first week of September. During that same period, the new winery also hosted two music concerts. “It was insane,” Leighton recalled. “We received wine in barrel from Eastern Washington, got them ready for bottling and at the same time were doing concerts.”
The production staff made it through that hectic opening, and Leighton said everything went smoothly at the winery he designed with Smith.
Like most other Washington wineries, the grapes arrive by refrigerated truck from vineyards in the eastern half of the state. Leighton said he uses quarter-ton MacroBins because the smaller volume of grapes results in less crushed fruit from compression. He said he can typically haul 18 tons of grapes per truck load.
After the bins arrive at the winery, Leighton said he puts them in the winery’s cold room (set at 35° F), where they sit overnight. “We like to have grapes really cold so we g et sort of a cold soak out of it.”
The bins of chilled grapes are then dumped into the hopper and conveyor (built by J&M Specialty Welding in Mabton, Wash.) that carries the whole clusters to Bucher Vaslin sorting table, which dumps to either a Pellenc Winery Selectiv’ or Bucher Vaslin crusher and destemmer. Sorted and destemmed grapes fall into either small, open-top steel tanks or an elevated conveyer from Euro-Machines that dumps to open-top fermentation tanks.
Leighton will fill the winery with nearly 150 of the steel bins that he uses as small, open-top fermentors. The bins are built by Rule Steel in Caldwell, Idaho, and were originally designed for use by alfalfa seed growers. Some of the first vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley were planted near alfalfa fields, and those pioneering winemakers used the steel bins to ferment grapes. The practice caught on and is used by several wineries in the state.
The bins hold about 1.5 tons of grapes and have forklift channels to move and dump them. Leighton said the bins are excellent small-lot fermentors and also help him with grape lots that won’t fit into the winery’s 7-ton oak fermentation tanks or 8.5-ton concrete tanks.
During harvest, he will heat the main work area in the winery to 75° F to keep the small-lot fermentations bubbling. He said he can fit nearly 150 of the bins in the winery, laying them out in rows two bins wide and 15 bins long.
Manual punchdowns on so many bins used to be an arduous chore, so Leighton developed a pneumatic punch-down device with J&M Specialty Welding that produces agricultural equipment. The device is rolled around the cellar and has two punchdown arms on a swivel to make punchdowns quick and easy. “For that many bins it used to take five guys and one extra person to do the Brix at the height of harvest, and it would take them 2.5 hours to get all the punchdowns and Brix,” he said. “With this new machine it takes three people 1.5 hours, and it improves safety.”
Leighton said the heavy lifting and hard work of winemaking has often meant most cellar workers have been men. In addition to making safety a priority, Leighton wanted anyone to be able to perform most cellar jobs. Fermentations in the larger tanks are also managed with large, pneumatic punch-down devices that were also built by J&M. “It’s a pretty male-dominated world on the cellar floor, and a lot of that has to do with lots of fairly vigorous, high-labor jobs. I really wanted to cut that labor down so anyone could do any job at any time.”
None of the wine is inoculated to start fermentation. During the inaugural vintage it took a little bit longer to start, but once the first few lots began to ferment in earnest, everything took off in the winery.
Because no yeast or bacteria are added to the wine, the wine is made in a reductive manner to impair the growth of Acetobacter and other spoilage organisms. Grapes and fermenting wine are blanketed with dry ice, and Leighton will also sparge the headspace of tanks and bins with carbon dioxide. Since he is trying to be as reductive as possible, Leighton said he’s noticed color has also improved—as have wine aromas. “You get a lot more secondary aromas other than just fruit.”
The winery’s lab is equipped with an alcolyzer and densimeter by Anton Paar as well as an Enolyzer by Unitech Scientific. The Enolyzer machine can run enzymatic tests for glucose and fructose, nitrogen, lactic and citric acids as well as free and total sulfur dioxide and phenolics. In addition to analytical equipment, the lab also serves as a garage for a bright pink electric car that Smith’s young daughter likes to drive around the cellar when visiting with her father.
The large fermentation tanks include 16 oak vats by Tonnellerie Boutes and nine concrete tanks by Nomblot. Leighton said the use of oak fermentors is following in the tradition of Bordeaux, and he believes the large vats help build the mid-palate. Leighton said he and Smith had heard about how well concrete pairs with Rhône wines, so they experimented with one in Walla Walla. “It was really giving them a lot of structure, and it kind of enhances minerality, so we liked that aspect of it.”
For pressing the red varieties, Leighton uses a Bucher Vaslin JLB because of its relatively gentle pressure and because he can flush the basket with an inert gas.
White grapes are pressed with a Bucher Vaslin XPlus 80 press that Leighton said has been a major improvement because it helped reduce the phenols and hard tannins in the juice. The winemaker raved about the machine’s sequential press system. Most bladder presses run on a set cycle to hit certain pressure levels at certain times. Bucher offers the option of adding what it calls “organ” programing that employs sensors in the presses’ juice channels.
The machine adjusts press pressure and pressing time based on the flow of juice in the channels and whatever parameters have been input by the operator. Leighton said his old press used to hit 1.6 bar, and the new Bucher, programed just to rate of flow, will produce the same yield of about 145 to 150 gallons per ton at just 0.8 bar. “It’s really, really incredible. When the flow rate drops and it hits max bar, it just shuts off,” he said.
Rather than waiting for the press to finish a complete cycle, the cellar staff know when the press stops; it’s done and ready to be emptied.
White juice is transferred to variable-capacity, stainless steel tanks by Spokane Industries for any adjustments before being transferred to either concrete tanks or barrels for primary fermentation. Once primary is complete, Leighton uses the wine from concrete tanks to top up the barrels and puts the remainder in oak as well.
Nothing gets racked at Jet City. Once wine (both red and white) is in barrels or puncheons, Leighton said it stays there until bottling. Rhône varieties age in puncheons, and some of the cooperages include Ermitage-Berthomieu Tonnellerie, Tonnellerie Allary and Tonnellerie Sirugue. Bordeaux variety wines age in Tonnellerie Sansaud and Tonnellerie Boutes.
The winery has four climate-controlled barrel rooms that can each hold 850 standard-sized barrels. Leighton said each room has a slight slant to the floor, so all wash water flows to a long drain that runs beneath the wall separating the barrel rooms from the rest of the winery. The design replaces any drains in the floor of the barrel room that create an uneven surface, which can be dangerous w hen forklift operators are moving stacks of barrels. “I’m pretty excited about that idea,” he said. “I thought it was quite genius on our part.”
Finished wine is pumped directly from barrels to one of the stainless steel tanks, and from there it is bottled by Signature Mobile Bottlers, which is based in Clackamas, Ore.
The wines for Charles Smith and other brands are packaged in glass from TricorBraun under Stelvin screwcaps or Cork Supply corks with Ramondin capsules. Some of Smith’s success can be attributed to his distinctive black and white labels that use striking images and fonts to stand out on retail shelves. All of the labels have been designed by Rikke Korff, who is from Denmark and is the former design director for Levi Strauss & Co. Korff and Smith have been friends for nearly two decades. Label printing is by Richmark Label Co.
The winery at Jet City is producing around 32,000 cases, which includes K Vintners, Charles Smith Royal City, Sixto and some of the wines for the Wines of Substance program. Leighton also produces wine for his own brand, B. Leighton Wines, at Jet City.
The rest of Smith’s wine is produced at custom-crush wineries in the Washington state cities of Mattawa, Benton City and Quincy. Leighton said the company accounts for nearly all the tank space at each facility, so he has a great deal of control over the winemaking, but it still means he does a tremendous amount of driving around Washington state.
In addition to the latest in winemaking equipment, the winery also has a few features indicative of Smith’s style. An elaborate sound and lighting system can illuminate the cellar with a variety of different color lights and blare music at near-rock concert decibel levels.
While equipped for serious winemaking, the winery is just as well equipped for some serious partying, and that seems rather apt for a facility bearing Smith’s name.
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