Winemaker Charles Smith on Wine, Music: "You Don't Fly in Jerry Lee Lewis and Get Cheap on the Piano"

A chat with the celebrated rock star of Washington wine about the connection between music and the vine
| Updated: March 10, 2017

Winemaking has been Charles Smith’s passion for nearly two decades, but it was within the music world where Smith first began professionally, managing rock bands and concert tours for the likes of the Raveonettes. Music and wine have since lived side by side in the celebrated vintner's conceptual vision, from his uniform of black jeans and band t-shirts to wines inspired by musicians like Sixto Rodriguez and Serge Gainsbourg.

Last month, I stopped by Smith's urban winery in Georgetown to talk more about the connection; he was hosting a charity holiday concert featuring a lineup of local bands from Mike McCready’s HockeyTalkter label, and one act, Star Anna, was's featured band that week. I wanted to follow up about Smith's relationship to music, how it factors into his professional life, and how, now a Seattle resident, the city's music scene and legacy inspires him.

Keeping Smith company this night (in addition to a magnum of Pierre Paillard shared with a rotating cast of visiting friends and family), was Sune Rose Wagner (from the Raveonettes) and producer Craig Leon (Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie), in addition to other figures from Smith's wide circle of musician friends. As the crowd filed in, Smith talked about his punk and DIY ethos, his love of Jerry Lee Lewis and how it all relates to wine. 

Seattle magazine: Let’s talk about your background in music and start with Raveonettes, as half of the band just happens to be here.

Charles Smith: Sune is one of my best friends. He’s known me since he was 18 and I was 31, going back to Denmark. I was always interested in music and I fell into music because I needed a job. I started working at a bar, and started a live music program there. Sune’s band was the first band of the month, he played every Tuesday, which meant you got 500 kroner which is about 80 dollars, and you got dinner and all the beer you could drink. I cut the all-you-can-drink beer out really quickly because this is Denmark and they can drink themselves dry.

SM: How did you find yourself in Denmark? 

CS: Like many people, I met a girl. We met in America, and moved over there.

SM: Tell me about your interest in music, where did that come from?

CS: I think it was a very fortunate time to be a teenager. I was 14, 15 in 1975. You’re at the end of early days of rock-'n'-roll, you hear the whispers of that. You’re just on the other side of the '60s and '70s, it was hard rock, it was melodic rock and everything else, the onset of punk rock and new wave. If you had an ear for music whatsoever, it was pretty much was the ripest time to be around. So, I gravitated to music very young.

When I was 19, I moved to Los Angeles. I lived in Redondo Beach, I worked in the produce district of Los Angeles, where I was delivering oranges from 2 a.m. to noon. I slept on the beach or in an apartment with a buddy I went to high school with. Weekends, we put on our new wave and punk rock gear and saw all the shows. You can pretty much name anyone, I saw them all, back in the '80s.

SM: Do you play an instrument yourself?

CS: Funny thing was I was in the marching band when I was in high school and played football at the same time. Kind of an odd combination of deals. I play all the horn instruments: sousaphone, tuba, trumpet, baritone [horn] everything except the trombone because it has the slide.

SM: Still play?

CS: No. It’s been a long time. The tuba, the baritone's not a very rock-'n'-roll instrument.

SM: Tell me about being on the road with the Raveonettes. You were managing other bands as well.

CS: This goes back to the early '90s with Sune and his other bands. Essentially, you create something out of nothing, which is kind of what I did with my winery. I started with $5000 I borrowed and a van. So it’s really not much. Same thing with bands. You start with nothing, some ideas. I think I was familiar with that practice when I started my winery. Back then it was simply, you get out on the road and see what you can do. I had the fortunate situation where I got to travel all around the world and meet a lot of interesting people and see a lot of great shows. You’re talking about the early '90s. Think about what great music there was. A lot of great experiences. In a lot of ways, it ties into what I do now. I’m fearless, because, you know, when I started my winery, I had nothing to go back to, so I could only go forward. What do you have to be afraid of? Nothing.

SM: How did you get here from there? According to your press bio, “wining and dining while on the road became a catalyst for your passion of wine.” Did you always have an interest in food and wine? Was it something that evolved?

CS: It evolved. It first came about when I worked in hospitality and in restaurants. That was when I was really exposed to food and wine in that regard, eating and drinking and the whole deal. But somehow, it communicated to me during the holidays, particularly during the holidays, when my mother would make Christmas meals. My parents weren’t together, but my mom would gather a lot of friends. This was the late '60s, with the great hairdos, everyone's dressed up really nice. The house smelled very savory, very warm and cozy, everyone was very celebratory. I think the idea of working in restaurants brought the cozy memories and savory aspects and carried forward to my winemaking days.

I have this feeling it has to come from the heart, it has to be honest, it has to be real. I think that’s how I came to wine. Directly from working in restaurants, and from an early age, emotionally, from my mother. That's a combination of me in a nutshell and what I’ve become as a winemaker.

SM: Was there an "a-ha" moment on tour, on the road with bands and in the music industry for 10 years that you knew you could jump from music to wine?

CS: It was purely accidental. Actually, Sune and I were on the road for three months in America. I was trying to decide whether to stay in Europe, maybe open a little bar, or move back to America. It was a trip of discovery, and I discovered that I should come back here. So I quit working with him and started my winery.

SM: Do you find that a love of food and wine is common with bands, artists and musicians?

CS: I don’t think in the beginning. You’re talking about the days of top ramen, right? Later on, they [bands, touring artists] have experiences with different cultures where they make different food. When you’re on the road, getting a nice meal in a warm place and something good to drink is a luxury. There wasn’t really an aha moment, it just sort of came over me.

SM: Now we’re sitting in your 32,000 square foot wine warehouse. You’ve been called the rockstar Washington wine. What is the connection to you between music and wine?

CS: I really think the reason they call me that is visually because the way I look. I think also my enfant terrible behavior from my early days plays into that as well. But the correlation to rock-'n'-roll music and winemaking is the DIY thing. I came up punk rock. If you want to have a band, convince other friends to start a band with you, get a guitar, figure out how to play it, even poorly. And now you’re a musician. When you want to make wine, it takes grapes, it takes the nerve to ferment them and eventually get them into a bottle. So the idea for me is, why not me? Why can’t I do it? 

[Smith excuses himself for a moment to work on crowd control. There's a bottleneck at the door and guests are lining up. He calls to his winemaker, "Hey Brennon, there’s a very long line out there to get tickets. Is there a way to get a few other stations to get tickets for drinks? It’s really fucked up. See if we can do a line for just cash. Everybody only has credit cards, not cash." ]

SM: Was the scene like this when you tapped Jerry Lee Lewis to play your grand opening?

CS: That event was free. But [deciding to hire Lewis] was kind of like Jeff Spicoli at Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he wins a surfing competition and then he hires Van Halen to play his birthday party. All of a sudden you find yourself in Seattle with the largest urban winery on the west coast and you’re going to open the doors, what would I do? Well, I’d have one of the absolute legends of rock, Jerry Lee Lewis, play; he really goes back to the beginning of my life in music. To have him come here and play was incredible. It’s like, you've got to be fucking kidding me, how cool is that?

SM: What was the performance like?

CS: First, it was really nice, he's a really pleasant guy. It was really great to meet him. Secondly, it was fun. He’s lived a life, this guy. Typically, when a person like him and goes out and does some shows, they bring their own music director and hire local musicians and play the charts. But I wanted the real Jerry lee Lewis, including his guitar player of 45 years. So we flew his entire band out, the real band. That was fantastic.

But you know, physically, it’s a challenge for him, to get up the steps; he walks with a cane. But then he sat down at the piano and it was all in the hands, all in the fingers. He’s a live wire.

It's funny, too, when he finished and his assistants tried to help him up, he pushed them away, gets himself up, turns around and says “fuck it!” and kicks his stool over and walks off stage. He’s 80 years old! You still got it. When you got that thing, you got that thing.

SM: Did you fly his piano in too?

CS: We got his favorite piano, a full concert grand piano, about 12 feet long. We found it, his absolute favorite piano to play. I think it was a huge Yamaha. On his list was a bunch of pianos he would have played, and he would have played the short ones, but I was like, what are you going to do, have Jerry Lee Lewis come in and be cheap on the piano? The piano tuners came in that day and he played it that night.

SM: Did you have any other local performers in mind to play that night? Obviously, you have Pearl Jam connections.

CS: We contacted Heart. One of the first concerts I saw was at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, it was Sammy Hagar, Heart and Bob Welch. I remember seeing Heart in 1977. I was like, oh my god, I have a winery now, I have to have them play. But they were on tour so it wasn’t really possible. My first thought was regional, local. My next thought was iconic and forever.

SM: Having travelled the world as a member of the music industry, what's your impression of the Seattle music scene?

CS: Right now, I’m not really sure. I moved here in 1989 from Sacramento. I was here for the music explosion. I was here for that. It was amazing. When you get a little bit older and you have a business, and you're very busy, I don’t go out to as many shows as I used to. Not that I don’t stumble out and see something at Chop Suey and Neumos. Trust me, I find myself stumbling out seeing shows every now and then. Not like I used to, now that I have more responsibilities. It’s hard. Now I have to be responsible for a lot of things and back in the old days, I was only responsible for having a really good time, and I was good at it. I’m still really good at it.

SM: What are your favorite venues here in Seattle?

CS: I think my favorite venue is the Showbox downtown in the market. It works, it’s a big stage. It’s big enough to get the bigger touring acts that aren’t huge. You get a great sound, and you can always get a drink easily. It’s the most easy venue to see a show where it sounds really good. The Showbox for me, is number one. I like Chop Suey and Neumos because they’re smaller venues. They're the smaller, local clubs where I can always hear some good music.

SM: One thing that rock clubs and venues aren’t known to have on hand is good wine. Where do you go to see live music and get a good glass of wine?

CS: My house right now. Currently, I have Craig Leon who produced the first Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Suicide, he’s actually at my house right now recording with an artist named Elizabeth Harris, she records as this solo, atmospheric noise thing called Grouper.

Craig Leon, who's Pavarotti's vocal coach, and his wife, Cassell Webb, were coming to visit and write some music with this girl and I said they could just do it at my house. I got a couple extra rooms. I brought in stuff that it would take to work on it. They set up a studio. Right now my house is a place where live music is being recorded right now. So, I guess with my wine cellar and what’s going on in the next room, I guess it the best wine and live music venue that's not open to the public. Or you could just come here, you can get a great glass of wine and hear a bunch of great bands.

SM: You’ve expanded your brand a lot over the years, have you considered starting a record label yourself?

CS: No, but I do have one wine called Broncho. It's a malbec that's so badass I thought it should have its own band. Actually, there’s a band in Norman, Oklahoma called Broncho. So, I have a single vineyard malbec called Broncho, and that's my direct relationship to rock-'n'-roll music. I also have a K Vintners wine called The Boy, and it's a direct reference to Serge Gainsbourg, and the song where he sings, “I’m the boy who can enjoy invisibility.” It’s single vineyard grenache, a white label with the little tiny word "the boy" at the bottom.

SM: Grenache because Serge is French.

CS: Exactly, and at the time I was listening to a lot of Serge Gainsbourg. When you look like me, living in Walla Walla, it's like that Sesame Street song, "one of these things is not like the other," that would be me. One of these things just doesn't belong, and sometimes walking around Walla Walla and having a lot of visitors from out of town coming for wine, you almost like to be invisible. You can get a meal without stopping and talking to somebody. I really appreciate people loving my wine. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. Like boo hoo, poor me, people like my wine and tell me that they like it. But sometimes you want to be invisible and go about your business. Sometimes you want to be out with people and not be known.

SM: You have another wine, Sixto, also influenced by a musician, Sixto Rodriguez.

CS: Two weeks before my daughter was born, I was in an arthouse cinema watching Searching for Sugar Man, my daughter's mother had a really difficult pregnancy, she had really swollen legs and swollen feet. There was one set of stairs to go up, and no elevator to get in the cinema. I was helping her up and I remember this, where she’s carrying our child and not doing that well and the tenderness and care that we shared for each other through this process and sitting down and watching the film. I found it very inspirational.

For the wine, there’s a couple of things it’s about. Sixto is my sixth project, sextus in Latin means the sixth. Secondly, it’s about resurrection and self discovery. Sixto Rodriguez made a couple of records and basically faded away and there were rumors that he died and worked as a day laborer. He was always great, but people had to find him again. Cold Facts is an amazing album. So there are themes of resurrection, rebirth. The vines for Sixto are old chardonnay vines that were not cared for and were used for very basic wine. We found these vineyards and brought them back to life. It’s about a new life, and rebirth and resurrection. And integrity and beauty and tenderness of that evening at the cinema correlated to the birth of our daughter, Charlotte. When the lights went up in the theater, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Not because it’s a sad movie, it’s because it’s a beautiful movie! When do you see a movie that’s so moving because of its beauty, that you’re moved to tears? I was deeply inspired by him and that movie and that experience and the fact that the cork of the wine carries a spiral which is an old symbol of rebirth and resurrection in mankind.

SM: What else do readers need to know about Charles Smith, music and wine?

CS: For me, let’s say there are Post Its on the wall and there’s a thousand occupations, and you can pick up the one and you’re going to do that. And there’s a chance that there’s one that you’re supposed to do and one of those Posts Its said winemaker. And I picked that off of the wall out of a thousand. I really think I was meant to do this. For me, doing my work is like a dream and being able to do this for a living is a dream. It's the one thing I do with every inch of my body and every part of my heart. For people to see me and see us here, because I did it for them, I did it for you. I make my wine for the people. People should come and discover what I made for them. I picked the one thing off the wall I was meant to pick. Later in life, I may need to be someone else, but right now, I’ve found my thing. And the gift I was given, I want to share. I do it with every bottle of wine I make. 

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