When Charles Smith was 12 years old, he snuck into his Aunt Penny’s pantry and filtched a bottle of riesling. “It was probably a Piesporter Goldtröpfchen,” Smith said, referring to the renowned vineyards along the Germany’s Mosel River. “I remember loving it!”
Smith may appear a rebel. And with his reputation for stealing wine, managing punk rock bands in Europe in the 1990s, wearing leather and riding big, loud motorcycles, it would be easy to make that mistake. In reality, Smith is a thoughtful, charming, American winemaker. He only looks like a troublemaker.
I caught up with Smith on the phone while he was poolside in Palm Springs, Calif. The owner of K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines, which makes some of the most highly regarded syrahs and cabernet sauvignons in Washington state, had a few choice words for American riesling makers.
“Most rieslings are the most drinkable wines in the world, but most Americans don’t know that because producers keep dumbing it down instead of smartening it up,” Smith said. What Smith means by “dumbing down” are riesling wines with little or no character that are slightly sweet. Smith’s idea of “smartening up” this noble grape is Kung Fu Girl Riesling, his $12 wine that gets its name from a scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
Kung Fu Girl has gobs of tart green apple, lime and fresh apricot flavors. If this wine has any residual sugar (and it does have a tiny bit), it is counterbalanced by scintillating acidity that makes for a balanced wine full of character.
“When people come to winery, they say they don’t like riesling, but they like this riesling,” Smith said. “I tell them: ‘No! You like rielsing. You should like riesling. You’ve just never had any well-made ones.’”
Smith became the most animated when we got down to talking price.
“Kung Fu Girl is a great wine and all that, but it’s only 12 bucks. Who can’t afford that? Most people can’t regularly drop $20 or more on a bottle wine. That’s like paying 10 bucks for a loaf of bread, something you’re going to eat everyday.”
Smith sees no reason why other talented, high-end winemakers can’t make interesting wines in abundance that regular people can enjoy. “I make 60,000 cases of Kung Fu Girl,” Smith said with a note of pride. “And I can’t make enough.”
When Smith is not in Walla Walla making wine, he’s on the road promoting his wines. He talks to a lot of consumers and believes there’s hope for domestic riesling, but other producers have to realize its potential. He hopes the success of Kung Fu Girl will encourage other producers to follow suit.
Smith left the rock-n-roll business in 1999 for a simpler, small-town lifestyle that could be supported by making a few thousand cases of wine every year. Now, he’s the leader of the band promoting wines made for simple folks living in those small towns (and big cities) across the country.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog