Any day now, grapes from the 2015 vintage in Washington will be harvested from vines, placed into bins in temperature-controlled rigs, hauled over Snoqualmie Pass and trucked to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, where a team, likely dressed in black, will receive them at a 32,000-square-foot refurbished former Dr Pepper bottling plant. Truck after truck will arrive, laden with enough grapes to crush a half-million bottles of wine. And each of those grapes carries a simple message: Charles has arrived.
There are only a handful of folks in Washington winemaking circles with big enough personalities to be referred to by a single first name. Charles is one of them. Big wines, big hair, big billboards in little Walla Walla: The man is well suited to Washington’s biggest city. And now Charles Smith’s Jet City Winery—perched across from Boeing Field—is open, just in time for what is shaping up to be a warm, early 2015 harvest. Smith and his team, led by Brennon Leighton (formerly of Efestē winery), will crush all of the prestige wines for Smith’s family of wines here, including the K Vintners, Charles Smith and Sixto labels, approximately 40,000 cases in all. His larger-production wines, such as Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Wines of Substance Cabernet Sauvignon, will continue to be made at partner facilities near the vineyards. Smith produces 750,000 cases a year, making him the most fruitful independent winemaker/producer in the state.
Visitors to Jet City will witness every step in the production process; the upstairs and downstairs tasting rooms look onto the first-floor production area. Or, they can turn 180 degrees and stare down Boeing Field’s north runway to the splendor of Mount Rainier, which looks over the winery like a friendly neighbor.
The first floor of the Tom Kundig–designed building is classic Northwest decor—
concrete, steel and wood (also common materials used in wine fermentation and aging)—and its tasting area will feature wines from the Charles Smith and Substance brands. The second floor celebrates Seattle’s aviation history (back when it really was Jet City) by evoking an early-1960s sky lounge, including a large Lucite tasting bar with a base painted in 1961 Ford Fairlane blue, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of plane after plane alighting on Boeing Field. Wines from K Vintners, Sixto and B. Leighton (a new venture for Smith and Leighton) will be poured here.
The second floor also contains a full commercial kitchen, which will allow the winery to host harvest lunches and fully catered events. During non-harvest seasons, the 8,000-square-foot production floor can also be turned into an event space, and music business veteran Smith, who used to manage bands in Scandinavia, is keen on bringing concerts to the winery (capacity: 800). The roof of the building is not currently being used. “Not yet,” says Smith, mischievously, suggesting plans are afoot.
The opening of Jet City will provide a fascinating test case to see whether the industrial district (SoDo and Georgetown) can provide an alternate winery center of gravity to the crowded Woodinville scene. While a number of wineries are already here (Cadence and Kerloo Cellars), as are breweries and distilleries, there has never been a project as ambitious as Jet City. But that’s Charles. When he’s confident about an idea, he’s comfortable pushing all his chips to the middle of the table. And he is confident that this is the right time for a move, and the right place. “Georgetown feels like the Seattle I knew in the ’80s,” he says. “It’s the part of the city where people make things.”
Paul's Picks from the Charles Smith Family of Wineries:
2013 Wines of Substance Cs Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Smith purchased the Wines of Substance brand (with its brilliant black-and-white labels evoking the periodic table of elements) in 2014 and relaunched the brand with this outstanding effort; a Cabernet that punches well above its price class. From Goose Ridge and Frenchman Hills vineyards, it offers a nose of crème de cassis, espresso and violets. Lovely mineral complexities arise on the palate, and feature terrific concentration and silky mouthfeel for the price tag. PAIRS WITH: A great medium-rare cheeseburger. (Tips for burger greatness: 1) Start with great meat; 2) don’t salt your patties until seconds before they hit the grill or cast-iron pan.)
2014 Kung Fu Girl Riesling ($12)
The farmers at Evergreen Vineyard have been planting vines as quickly as possible to keep up with the voracious demand for Smith’s outrageous-value Riesling. Production levels are now north of 200,000 cases, and yet the quality remains excellent, offering Evergreen’s undeniable minerality to go with a mixed bowl of citrus and stone fruits. Between the moderate (12 percent) alcohol and the just off-dry levels of sugar, this is an eminently chuggable Riesling. PAIRS WITH: A mango lassi is delicious, but the Kung Fu Girl is a superior pairing with chana masala or chicken korma.
2012 Sixto Uncovered Chardonnay ($35)
Sixto is a recently introduced label inspired by the story of musician Sixto Rodriguez (featured in the acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugar Man) and focused on resurrecting old-vine Chardonnay, mostly from sites abandoned by Ste. Michelle after natural yields fell too low. Uncovered is a blend of the three sites that go into Sixto’s single-vineyard Chardonnay bottlings: Moxee, Frenchman Hills and Roza Hills. The wine saw 20 percent new French oak, which imparts a subtle nuttiness that partners beautifully with the lemon-curd and nectarine fruit. Complex, rich and delicious. PAIRS WITH: Crab cakes nestled on a late-summer salad of fresh corn cut from the cob and the last of the heirloom tomatoes.
2013 K Vintners Milbrandt Syrah ($30, not shown)
This Milbrandt bottling is the most accessible Syrah from the label that started it all for Charles Smith. Before there was a family of brands, there was only K Vintners. This particular wine is a testament to his long grape-growing relationship with the Milbrandt brothers on the Wahluke Slope, and this vintage comes from two Milbrandt-farmed sites: Northridge and Clifton Hill. It offers a rich, powerful core of mixed berry fruit (blueberry, blackberry). Subtleties of earth and flower ratchet up the complexity of this hedonist’s delight. PAIRS WITH: Truly this is more of a “cocktail wine” than a traditional food wine, and it needs big flavors to compete. Something like a mixed barbecue plate of rib tips, brisket and sausage would do the trick.
Jet City Winery, Georgetown, 1136 S Albro Place; 206.745.7456; charlessmithwines.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday and by appointment on Monday and Tuesday.