Charles Smith - Coming Soon to a Bottle Near You

What follows is a section of my 2010 Walla Walla Spring Release Report. The report will be published in its entirety in .pdf form after the last entry is posted to the blog. See previous posts here.

Charles Smith of K Vintners continues along as an irrepressible force of nature. Much like his wines, he is almost unavoidable. In any given week, he's pictured in newspaper articles and blogs posts around the world, including a recent favorite from The Gray Market Report. One isn't even safe in the car with his visage now on three separate billboards in or around the Walla Walla Valley.

Smith has parlayed his marketing and promotional genius into a wine empire. Already far along the path to stardom with his omnipresent ‘House Wine’ from the Magnificent Wine Company and his highly rated micro-quantity wines from K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines, Smith rose to national prominence last year after receiving a 100 point score for his Royal City Syrah from Wine Enthusiast and being named Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine.

K Vintners is where it all started. While Smith dabbles in a few different varietals at K, the winery is best known for its ‘K Syrah’ wines. The K wines are hand picked, foot crushed, and fermented with native yeasts. These wines are almost all produced in minute quantities and span a range of price points and styles. At the low end is the twenty-five dollar ‘Milbrandt’ Syrah. Like several of the wines reviewed here, this one comes from one of the Milbrandt vineyards on the Wahluke Slope. Smith continues to be a one-man marketing machine for the promise of Syrah from this area. The 2008 Milbrandt Syrah is as good as any from Washington at this price point and is the best K has produced from this vineyard to date. At the high end is the Phil Lane Syrah, which comes from the small vineyard adjacent to the winery in Walla Walla.

In addition to the numerous Syrahs that have made Smith famous – or did Smith make them famous? - K Vintners also produces Sangiovese (‘Guido’) and Grenache (‘The Boy’). The latter, which hails from Christophe Baron’s Armada Vineyard, is another compelling argument for the future of Grenache in Washington. This is a varietal on the way up. Other excellent examples come from Cayuse, Gramercy, Grand Reve, McCrea, and Rotie Cellars to name a few.

‘The Boy’ is named after a song by the same name by French artist Serge Gainsbourg. The technical sheet reads “The lyrics go, ‘I am the boy who can enjoy invisibility’ - a sentiment much enjoyed by Charles.” While his enjoyment of invisibility might be questioned - if we can't hide from him, how can he hide from us let alone enjoy it? - his mastery of marketing, as well as irony, would not be.

K Vintners Viognier Columbia Valley 2009 $20

Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) A bouquet of flowers along with peaches and mineral notes on an aromatic wine. Palate brings a lot of fruit and a pleasing tingle of acidity. Barrel fermented in neutral French Burgundy barrels. 14.1% alcohol.

K Vintners Milbrandt Syrah Wahluke Slope 2008 $25

Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Light in color. A very alluring nose with light floral notes, game, barbeque sauce, and red fruit. Crisp and tart on the palate. Among the best Washington Syrah found at this price point. 100% Syrah (90% Sundance, 10% Pheasant vineyards). Aged in French Burgundy barrels. 13.9% alcohol. 800 cases produced.

K Vintners Pheasant Syrah Wahluke Slope 2008 $35

Rating: + (Good) Ground cranberries, nuts, fresh berries, and lots of red fruit on the nose. Light and lithe with red fruit on the palate. 100% Syrah, Pheasant Vineyard. Aged in French oak (30% new). 15% alcohol. 193 cases produced.

K Vintners Clifton Syrah Wahluke Slope 2008 $35

Rating: * (Excellent) Lots of bright, tart red fruit along with meaty streaks and sliced olive mark the nose. Big and opulent on the palate. Shows a fair amount of alcohol at times but pulls it off. 100% Syrah. Clifton Vineyard. Aged in French oak. 15% alcohol. 213 cases produced.

K Vintners Phil Lane Walla Walla Valley 2007 $70

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Abundant floral notes along with earth and very light streaks of game. Big and packed full of tightly wrapped fruit on the palate. Capped off by a seamless finish. 100% Syrah. Phil Lane Vineyard. Aged in French Burgundy barrels. 14.5% alcohol. 141 cases produced.

K Vintners Guido Walla Walla Valley 2007 $40

Rating: * (Excellent) Nose really pops on this wine with smoked meat, Red Vines, red fruit, and high toned berries. Palate shows penetrating but elegant red fruit flavors along with umami notes. 80% Sangiovese co-fermented with 20% Syrah. Lefore Vineyard. Aged in French oak (20% new). 15.5% alcohol. 175 cases produced.

K Vintners The Boy Walla Walla Valley 2008 $45

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Aromas jump from the glass including sliced black olives, seaweed, umami, and game. Intensely flavorful on the palate with red fruit and game. A spectacular effort. 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah. Armada Vineyard. Aged in French oak. 14.5% alcohol. 318 cases produced.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. There is no doubt that Charles Smith is a master of marketing. He can be quite the polarizing personality in wine too. From what I've seen (and what your reviews echo) is that the quality of his wine holds up to the hype. I appreciate the fact that he makes quality wines that deliver at all price points (case in point the Kung Fu Riesling and Velvet Devil Merlot - at least the 07).

    The simplicity of the black/white label stands out among the shelves lined with critters / artwork or fancy french text. While Charles has been going gangbusters among the Millenial crowd, it surprises me that he puts very little effort into social media marketing...imagine the possibilities!

    How can we land him as a client?



  2. Josh, thanks for the comment. I believe the variety of wines Smith makes across different price points will have the most enduring impact on the industry. The labels are immediately recognizable and say Washington State prominently. With a number of the Charles Smith Wines receiving wide distribution - such as the Kung Fu Girl and Velvet Devil - this guarantees to draw a lot of people's attention to the state's wines. Additionally, Smith has the ability to march people up the price ladder with his various offerings, something few can boast.

    Interesting point regarding the Social Media effort. He certainly has taken advantage of viral marketing!

  3. He's an embarrassment to Walla Walla.

  4. Hmmm - I live in Walla Walla and have never found Charles Smith to be an embarrassment, let alone heard he was one. Am I missing something? I am happy he is here.

  5. Embarrassment??????? Really? I have been to W2 quite a few times and have always enjoyed visiting and tasting his wines. I have bought Motor City Kitty amongst others and these wines are Good....if not excellent!

    Embarrassment I think not! Irreverent? Probably, but NOT embarrassment!!!!!

  6. I only heard Charles Smith is an asshole. A great marketer, but asshole. His 'Royal City' was nice, but no one seems to know how he learned winemaking. Happy he got rich off of his elementary labels, but I hope he sticks around and adds some humility to his game. Driving a Rolls around Hicksville only means he's the big fish in a small pond. And, he ain't well regarded in Hicksville either...

  7. Hey now - he belongs to us in Walla Walla and we don't like outsider's saying bad things about him, only we are allowed. However,I met him in a professional non-wine setting once and he was quiet, unassuming and very gracious.

    I forgot to mention Sean, I think your wine notes are from when we were tasting together at K-Vintners? I think I will "steal" them. Kidding. WAwineman, you know I adore you, but you don't exactly live in "Unhicksville."

  8. Met him..... Wasn't impressed. Arrogant, pompous, self absorbed, demeaning towards others.... shall I go on? The only thing bigger than his ego is his BELLY.......


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