“To Life” with Charles Smith

It was the first time I had seen my friend Kevin since April, when we were at a house party hosted by Pioneer Wine Company and Charles Smith Wines.  This time we found each other at the same house for a an after-party for Pioneer’s portfolio tasting.  I reminded him about the night before I flew to Walla Walla, Washington and saw Charles Smith’s newly opened downtown tasting room.

“Oh yeah,” Kevin said, “how’d that go?”

“Well,” I responded, smiling, “I wasn’t able to coordinate my flight to get a ride with him from the airport.”

“What about that party?”
“It was awesome.  So much fun.”

Charles Smith began producing wine in Walla Walla in 1999, and released his first vintage under the K Vintners label in 2001.  Since then, he has developed other labels and projects, and opened a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla when I visited in April.

The tasting room was a simple and spare lounge, a few couches and tables, boxes lying around, lots of open space, and a bar for pouring with his signature graphic design behind it, alerting people to available products.  It felt like a place to relax and drink wine, rather than stop, taste, and purchase, as is the goal of many tasting rooms.  Having spent four years in Walla Walla as a college student, it gave me a sense of how the town has been changing over the last five years, and how people from my younger demographic were becoming part of the wine scene in Walla Walla.

That evening, the relaxed lounge became a vibrant bar for its opening dance party.  A giant pan of paella with the most refreshing flavor of saffron stood in the back while Danzig’s former bassist pooled through his vinyls and played old school rockabilly and the staff popped and poured, plowing through some of Smith’s finest fermented juice.  Smith’s entire library of wines was available that evening, everything since 2001 by the bottle, with a selection by the glass I had never seen in a tasting room.

Former bassist of Danzig spinning


I first met Charles Smith years ago, when I was walking my dog and dropped by the tasting room where I worked to say hello to my co-workers.  After a few glasses of wine, we went to the K Vintners tasting room to hang out after closing time.  Charles sat on his porch, and my dog was becoming noticeably thirsty.

“Um, is there any chance she can get some water?” I asked.

“Yeah man,” Charles responded, and came out with a pot full of water.

Charles Smith has a reputation for being big in every way.  Big personality; highly concentrated wines; in-your-face labels; long curly hair; a rockstar lifestyle both in his past and now selling wine.  He also possesses a down-to-earth friendliness whenever I have spoken to him, which I venture to say is the actual foundation of his bold traits; he is a promoter of the spirit of life in wine.

When we encountered each other at the party in Dallas, I reminded him of the story when he gave my dog water, knowing he wouldn’t recall it.

“Oh, was I nice about it?” he asked.

“Yeah, man.”

Just as the smell of a wine can influence the flavors on my palate, my memories of someone such as Charles Smith evoke pleasant memories of fun and friendship.  While they remain fresh in my mind ever time I look at one of his labels, it is a challenge to convey these intangible tastes to those unfamiliar with Smith’s charisma.  A common challenge, and perhaps the linchpin for anyone selling, promoting, and serving wine; a fine opportunity to reminisce about these anecdotes.


Second two photos by Adam Sachs


Chateau Musar, Tasting What is True at TexSom 2011

“When you are a winemaker you have the luck to work with something that is alive and you should never kill it.”

-Serge Hochar

The final seminar of this year’s Texas Sommelier conference was “A Vertical Tasting of Chateau Musar,” a Lebanese producer I had tasted a few years ago during a D Magazine Supper Club event at Samar by Stephan PylesI remembered it tasting like a straightforward and refined Bordeaux blend, and was about to discover much more.

Master Sommelier James Tidwell explained the special significance Cheateau Musar held for him and Drew Hendricks, MS, and why they chose it as their first seminar focused on one producer.  He then introduced the presenters of this seminar, Chateau Musar’s owner and winemaker Serge Hochar, and Paul Grieco, owner of Manhattan’s Hearth and Terroir.

“I do not like to speak of my wine without drinking it,” Serge explained slowly.  “So, I ask you to try the wines first, and then we talk.  First, we taste the 1998 and the 2003 reds.”  Volunteers were still pouring the wines.  I had my 1998, and I swirled and sniffed in my usual manner, jotting notes: “earth aroma, sediment and orange hue, aroma of fermented raspberry.”

“Paul, would you like to say something?” he asked Grieco.

“Let me explain something to you,” Grieco began.  “This tasting will not be like any other tasting you have done.  You will learn why tasting with Serge is one of the most amazing and the most disconcerting things at the same time.  He wants you to ask him questions in order to talk, and when you ask questions, he proceeds to ask you questions, or provide completely unrelated responses.  You will notice flaws in these wines, but these wines represent the true smell and feel of a beautiful country far away.  With Serge, you must listen to these wines in order to learn from them and learn from him.  And sit at the front of your chair, not the back.”

I put my pen down for a moment and sat forward, trying to approach the seminar differently.  I had found the first post to my blog, and was trying to figure out why we gravitate toward wine in all its manifestations.

Chateau Musar was founded in 1930 by Serge’s father Gaston, who eventually told Serge he would take over the business.  Serge studied at the University of Bordeaux, and returned to Lebanon where he has been making wine since 1959.  It was because of Michael Broadbent that these iconic Lebanese wines were sitting in front of us, due to his chance encounter with them at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair.

We concluded our tasting of the reds with a 1975 vintage, from the year before the Civil War began in Lebanon.  When making the trip to harvest the grapes, Serge explained, they had to take an alternate route because roads were laden with bombs on their usual path.  The next year was the only year they bottled no wine due to the country’s war-torn status.  (1984 is also regarded as a missed vintage, but only because Serge considered its quality too low.  He actually opened a bottle during James, Drew, and Paul’s visit to Lebanon, and is supposedly considering its release; “I say ‘maybe’ because I don’t want to say ‘no’ to Paul,” he remarked).

After a number of questions and responses, Serge and Paul noticed my hand raised, and I stood up.

“You’ve addressed a question about the relationship of you to your wine,” I began, “and you’ve answered a question about the relationship of your wine to your country.  And, forgive me if I am ignorant, but in this industry we do not tend to think of Lebanon as a culture of winemakers or wine drinkers.  So, why wine?  How did that become your profession?”

Serge looked right at me, and answered as he had answered other questions: “Ah, well, let me tell you…”  He explained that Lebanon had been producing wine since the beginning of their civilization, that the indigenous grapes Obaideh and Merwah used in his white wine were 800,000 years old.  His father forced him into this tradition, but, he explained “if I make wine, I told my father, I go to Bordeaux to learn about winemaking.”  Soon his children will be taking over the foundation he laid in 1959 upon his first releases as winemaker.

I am now looking through the pamphlet from the conference about Cheateau Musar, searching for insight into what made this tasting so inspiring.  Serge, like no other winemaker I have heard speak, exhibits reserved exuberance for winemaking, because he sees vibrance in the practice, a holistic reflection of life.  As we consume and consider these libations, many in this industry ask about the technical details of what sits in the glass.  But Serge focused on the intangible results of those technical details, reminding me of how wine can shape our consciousness.