By Andy Perdue of Great Northwest Wine
SEATTLE – In a move that could change the course of the Seattle wine industry, Walla Walla’s Charles Smith has landed in Georgetown in a huge way.
On Saturday, Smith opened his Charles Smith Jet City winery near the north end of Boeing Field. The 32,000-square-foot facility is in a 51-year-old former Dr Pepper bottling plant – ample room for him and his crew to produce upwards of 40,000 cases of premium Washington wine.
Smith, who launched K Vintners in 1999 east of Walla Walla, bought the building in the blue-collar Georgetown neighborhood in early 2014 and spent the next eight months completely refurbishing and preparing it for the 2015 harvest.
“Everything that’s been produced in Walla Walla will be produced here,” Smith told Great Northwest Wine. “All of our small-batch winemaking.”
That includes K Vintners, the high-end Charles Smith wines (including Royal City Syrah), Super Substance, Sixto and Casa Smith. The core of Smith’s team, led by winemaker Brennon Leighton, has moved to Seattle from Walla Walla for the winery’s transition to the west side of the state.
This move does not mean Smith has forsaken Walla Walla. He still owns 150 acres of land in the region that is a five-hour drive to the east. He still has two tasting rooms in Walla Walla, and he still owns a home there.
“I needed a bigger winery,” Smith said. “I didn’t have enough space in Walla Walla. If you’re going to build a 32,000-square-foot building, it makes a lot more sense to put it in Seattle. As much as I enjoy living in Walla Walla and make my home there, it makes more economic sense (to be in Seattle).”
Smith has been farming grapes in Walla Walla since 2001 and now has 48 acres planted.
Leighton, former white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle and head winemaker for EFESTE in Woodinville, lived in Walla Walla for three years. He told Great Northwest Wine that it was important for him to spend that time amid the vines, though he is happy to be back in the Seattle area.
Earlier this year, Smith and Leighton hired Katie Nelson as assistant winemaker and viticulturist. Nelson, who lives in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, worked for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates for several years as a roving winemaker. She was the winemaker of record for O Wines, one of Ste. Michelle’s labels.
Now with Leighton living west of the Cascades, Nelson will be an integral part of the team because she will oversee much of the winemaking for Smith that still takes place in the Columbia Valley.
Smith contracts about 2,800 acres of vineyards throughout the vast Columbia Valley, producing in the neighborhood of 650,000 cases. This makes him the third-largest wine-producing company in Washington, after Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Wine.
Much of his wine is produced in custom-crush facilities throughout Eastern Washington (a strategy most large wineries use), though the winemaking is carefully directed and produced by Smith and his staff.
Georgetown is a hardworking section of south Seattle. Smith said he likes the vibe of the neighborhood, and he named his new winery Jet City to honor the location near Boeing Field and the area’s aviation roots.
“I picked Georgetown because it’s an area in the greater Seattle area where people make things,” Smith said. “That’s the only part of Seattle that I’d ever want to put my winery. I’m an industrious person. I’ve made something out of nothing, and I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and work hard. It’s that working person’s mentality.”
He said the neighborhood and the city will stimulate his team.
“For a winemaking team, we need to come up with new ideas, new feelings and new passions and enthusiasm for the process of growing and making wine,” he said. “Living in a city such as Seattle, which is right on the edge of nature, makes all the sense in the world.”
Smith pointed out that unlike Woodinville, his location is easy to get to for city dwellers.
“It’s a heck of a lot easier to get to Georgetown from downtown Seattle than it is to get to Woodinville during the summer,” he said. “Woodinville is still a destination. Georgetown is part of the city of Seattle.”
He’s especially thrilled to be so close to CenturyLink Field (home to the Seahawks and Sounders) and Safeco Field (home to the Mariners).
“That’s the cool part,” Smith said. “I like sports, and I have season tickets to see the Mariners. Everyone wants to go see football these days because of the Seahawks. What’s really great about Georgetown and where my new winery is, I’m 2.5 miles away from the ballparks.”
Next year, Smith plans to have a sports wine club. Fans will be able to come to his winery, pre-function with some wine, perhaps stop at a local bar or restaurant, then head to the game.
“It opens a lot of possibilities for visitors to do multiple things,” he said. “You’re a 10-minute Uber ride from downtown Seattle. You catch I-5, and you take the Albro exit. We’re halfway between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac.”
If, as expected, Smith’s presence in south Seattle takes off with consumers, it could forever change winemaking here. Already, there are more than 20 urban wineries, all of which are small producers. About a half-dozen are in or near Georgetown, and they will undoubtedly benefit from Smith’s presence, just as the magnet that is Chateau Ste. Michelle managed to create a major wine industry in Woodinville.
Smith said he has no preconceived notions about how many visitors he will attract. But the fact is that Smith also is a magnet. He makes delicious wines that are broadly available and in all price ranges – from $10 to $140.
“People think we’re going to be absolutely jammed,” Smith said. “I hope people like the place and want to visit.”
Don’t bet against Smith to do anything except succeed. That’s all he’s done so far.