Drinking Bordeaux from the '60s with Superstar Winemaker Charles Smith

Winemaker Charles Smith © Dan Dunn
By Dan Dunn Posted October 08, 2014

It turns out, Food & Wine’s 2009 Winemaker of the Year is every bit the rock star he’s widely purported to be.


Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the second in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.

When I met Charles Smith at his expansive tasting room on South Spokane Street in Walla Walla, Washington, the first thing he said was “I hope you’re ready to do some drinking tonight.” I was game—hell, I usually am—though to be honest, I was blown away by the oenophilic orgy that followed.

It turns out, Food & Wine’s 2009 Winemaker of the Year is every bit the rock star he’s widely purported to be.

After tasting through Smith’s portfolio at the tasting room, we made our way to the 19th-century farmhouse where he launched K Vintners in 2001, and still resides whenever he’s in Walla Walla. We hammered a shot of Sombra mezcal before heading down into his ridiculously well-stocked wine cellar.

“Pick anything you want,” he said, as I surveyed rows and rows of rare and aged wines that would give Ray Isle goose bumps. Smith’s generosity is also the stuff of legend.

“If there were some terrible catastrophe here and you could save only one of these bottles, which one would it be?” I asked.

“The biggest one, because I’m thirsty,” he quipped, resting his hand upon an imperial (six-liter) bottle of some decades-old Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

I left the wine selection to Smith, who chose three more easily portable bottles of Bordeaux to take with us to dinner. They were, as follows...

1964 Chateau Pichon Lalande

1966 Chateau-Figeac

1982 Château Cantemerle

Yes, I know. My job sucks!

So let’s just say that dinner—at a wonderful little Walla Walla eatery called Brasserie Four—was special. And by special, I mean that Charles Smith and I got snockered on some of the best wine anyone’s ever poured down their gullet.

We talked some about Smith’s Horatio Alger-esque rise from barely employed former rock band manager to the top of the wine world food chain. And after Smith pointed out that the notorious Green River Killer was interned nearby at the Washington State Penitentiary, there was a great deal of discussion about serial killers. Other topics touched upon included ’80s synth pop, Danish women’s hands and the ins and outs of street fighting. I should probably point out that marijuana is legal in Washington. Very, very legal. I’m just sayin’...

From the sophisticated and highly proficient vintners of the Pacific Northwest, it was off to see some men with a capital MEN. I navigated my Toyota FJ Cruiser some 400 miles from Walla Walla to a dude ranch in Greenough, Montana, called the Resort at Paws Up. That’s right, Montana, where the winters are long, the growing season is short and the sheep are…delicious. Still, the aforementioned MEN (and WOMEN, everyone’s all caps in Big Sky Country) manage to make wine up there.

Recent guests at the fancy estate—which used to belong to Charles Lindbergh—include Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and, most recently, Gwyneth Paltrow. You know, the real Montana. I asked if there’d been any grizzly or moose sightings on property of late, and was disappointed to learn that most indigenous creatures can’t afford to stay there.

So I didn’t encounter any large predators or huge celebrities, but I did make friends with a fellow guest—world-renowned appraiser Timothy Gordon, who appears regularly on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. While I certainly enjoyed listening to Tim expatiate about the value of Chinese cups carved from rhinoceros horns and a recently unearthed trove of Jim Morrison’s poetry, in the end we both agreed things would have been more interesting at the ranch had Gwyneth still been there.

Paws Up food and beverage director Kevin Kapalka has put together an impressive wine list that is chock-full of juice from top producers in California, Oregon and Washington (Charles Smith is a Kapalka favorite). Conspicuously absent from the list are any wines made in Montana. When I asked why, he replied simply, “Have you ever tried Montana wine?”

On the day I was leaving, one of the waitresses at the restaurant regaled me with stories about everything from Sir Paul’s dietary restrictions to how good Brendan Fraser still looks at his age which, I didn’t bother to mention, also happens to be my age. I asked her if she thought that someday people there might be fondly reminiscing about the time the writer Dan Dunn stayed at Paws Up and how well he seemed to be holding up.

“Who’s that?” she said.

They knew exactly who I was over at the historic Murray Hotel in Livingston, Montana. The nice lady at the front desk even upgraded me to a suite where none other than Anthony Bourdain himself stayed when he was in Livingston shooting one of the 17 shows he’s on. I ate alone at two restaurants while there, neither of which carried Montana wine either. When I asked the bartender at the Murray Bar why that is, he replied simply, “Have you ever tried Montana wine?”

A theme was developing.

I managed to find a liquor store in Livingston that carries Montana-made vino, where I bought a bottle of Flathead Lake Cherry Red wine for $12. It’s made of 50 percent Montana–grown Pinot Noir and 50 percent cherries from an orchard at Blue Bay on Flathead Lake. It ain’t an ’82 Château Cantemerle, but it’s not half bad either. Sure, it’s sweeter than a Drew Barrymore rom-com and has the backbone of Jell-O. But dammit, it was made in Montana by MEN and WOMEN who no doubt dream of someday doing great things for their state’s wine industry, just like Charles Smith did for Washington. And, hey, I’ll drink to that. Even cherries.

Next week: Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska

For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber

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