When a big-haired rock band impresario with a self-declared “kick ass” attitude decides to start making wines it’s only reasonable that motives might be, if not exactly impugned, at least politely questioned. A lot of people with more money than sense — retired attorneys, airline pilots, and even firemen among them — have had an ego-fuelled go at romancing the grape.
California native Charles Smith claims to have been involved in wine “both personally and professionally” his entire life, but when he decided to leave his Copenhagen-based band to make the relationship legal, he didn’t return to the dilettantish hotbeds of Napa and Sonoma, no — in 2000 he high-tailed it to the outback that is eastern Washington state, seduced by the notion of making ball-busting syrah. And so he did, teaching himself to do so by making small lots under the K Vintners label.
That he hit paydirt is clear from subsequent winemaker awards and stratospheric critic’s scores that include a 100-pointer for his 2009 Royal City Syrah. (It features a label that looks more like a biker’s tattoo than the face of an acclaimed wine.) But all the while Smith was also busy turning out wines for the rock ’n’ roll masses under his equally quirky Magnificent Wine Company label. That company and the House Wine brand, with its sophisticatedly crude black and white graphics, have recently been sold, but the goal of offering a “daily House pour that every household can enjoy and afford” remains with the current owners.
House’s white wine is predominately chardonnay, with varying percentages of riesling, muscat, gewürztraminer, and pinot gris. Backed by 78 percent chard, the 2008 white is not a personal favorite, but there’s no denying it’s well-made; with more oomph than ABBA, it’s a deal at $9.99 (even cheaper if you buy two at Twin Liquors). It starts out a touch floral on the nose with some spicy notes, then the muscat begins to take over.
Cabernet typically dominates the House Wine red, but syrah and merlot come on strong, followed by smaller amounts of malbec, zinfandel, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. The 2007 Columbia Valley Red Wine opened with brassy smoke and leather, then yielded to more subtle blueberry and cassis. For all its KISS-like initial impression, it tames down nicely and is definitely one to keep around the house for impromptu back-yard action.
With the sale of the Magnificent Wine Company, Smith did not abandon his well-priced roots. Some wines in the K stable now top $100 and are frequently sold out at the winery, but his Charles Smith Wines “Modernist Project” includes several under $20. Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Holy Cow Merlot, and Boom Boom Syrah are among them; VV tasted the 2009 Velvet Devil Merlot Washington State and the 2008 Eve Chardonnay. All of them are tagged with the distinctive black and white graphics that immediately signal Charles Smith.
More Taylor Swift than Madonna, the Eve ($12.99 at Twin) starts out a little demure, then ramps up into butterscotch and crisp Golden Delicious. The merlot, on the other hand, starts with a diabolical ruby color and a meaty, bacony nose, but the smokiness diminishes and chords of blueberry and blackberry emerged after some taming in the refrigerator, giving merlot back its good name.