Wine and the Rock Star

A good many brash and successful winemakers in recent years have been tagged "rock-star winemakers" in trade publications. Charles Smith probably deserves the moniker more than most and in more ways than one.

Before Smith started turning out a remarkable string of high-end syrahs out of Walla Walla, Wash., eight years ago under the K Vintner and Charles Smith labels, he spent a decade managing rock bands in Scandanavia.

"I moved to Denmark when I was 29 years old," Smith said from a cell phone as he boarded a plane for Lexington, Ky., out of Dallas last week, part of a trip that will bring him to Tulsa for next week's Wine for Wishes charity event and a wine dinner at Lucky's restaurant.

"I followed a Danish girlfriend who wanted to go to med school over there. I wound up hanging around a club, then booking bands for the club, then signing up to manage the bands. I was based in Copenhagen, but I booked some bands worldwide.

"It was a great experience, but there was no real money in it. I was creeping up on 40 and had to decide if I wanted to stay there or go back to the U.S."

Smith said he took a three-month trip back to the States and spent a lot of time visiting a friend of his, a French winemaker in Washington. He said that experience coupled with working at fine-dining restaurants in his 20s in northern California and trips he took to the wine regions of Europe persuaded him to pursue a new career in winemaking.

"I never got any formal training from anybody," Smith said.

"I never read a book, never took a class. I just learned by watching and asking questions and trying it on my own. Isn't that crazy? But I did it."

Although Smith makes a variety of wines, it is his syrahs that have captured most of the honors. Smith specializes in single-vineyard wines under the K Vintner label. They usually cost about $60-plus a bottle. The labels are in black-and-white, often with avant-garde drawings.

His 2006 Royal City syrah recently received 100 points from Paul Gregutt of Wine Enthusiast.

The Charles Smith label wines include several varietals (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, etc.) and generally sell for about $20 or less.

Wines under a third label, Magnificent Wine Co., which includes the highly popular House Wine (a red blend), are about $10.

Smith said his Scandanavian adventures also played an added role in becoming a winemaker.

"As a pseudo Viking, I learned how to really drink," he said. "Truth is, I drank my way into this business."