Charles Smith’s Jet City Winery is located across the street from historic Boeing Field in Seattle’s gritty but hip Georgetown neighborhood.
The building started life as a Dr. Pepper bottling plant. The public spaces reflect both the structure’s mid-century roots and Charles Smith’s signature aesthetic, with lots of glass, metal, and recycled wood. The cellar is sleek, efficient, and spotlessly clean.
Sue and I met up with veteran Wine Economist research assistants Bonnie and Richard a few weeks ago at Sisters and Brothers, a hip little restaurant that makes delicious Nashville hot chicken, fried green tomatoes, and other memorable southern fare just steps from the winery. The food was great, but that wasn’t why we were there. Our mission, following up on last week’s column, was to learn what Charles Smith and his team are up to now and where they are headed in the future.
I became curious about Jet City Winery a year ago when I read an article about it in Wines & Vines that focused on the technical aspects of the winery. The author, Andrew Adams, interviewed Brennon Leighton, director of winemaking, and reported on many of the innovations and special features of the Jet City facility.
One innovation that especially caught my attention was a set of design features that minimized some of the “heavy lifting” aspects of cellar jobs so that women would not be disadvantaged relative to men. “It’s a pretty male-dominated world on the cellar floor,” Leighton told Adams, “and a lot of that has to do with lots of fairly vigorous, high-labor jobs. I really wanted to cut that labor down so anyone could do any job at any time.”
Our team found that this is just one example of the extreme attention to detail that is everywhere at Jet City.
Brennon Leighton is one of Washington’s most respected winemakers. He was in charge of making the white wines (including some spectacular Eroica bottlings) at Chateau St. Michelle before moving to rising star boutique Efeste. Charles Smith lured Leighton away, first as consultant and then as director of winemaking and viticulture, responsible for a dynamic array of wines. It was a successful move judging by the results.
It is a good thing that Leighton has a lot of energy, because his workload is pretty fierce. Although Constellation Brands has purchased the Charles Smith Wines portfolio that includes Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Boom Boom Syrah, for example, Smith, Leighton and the team are still hands-on involved and will help Constellation scale up production while maintaining quality.
A Winery with a Lot of Wines
There is a lot going on here (and lots of wines to taste at Jet City). The current Charles Smith lineup ranges from the Vino line of “modernist” wines made with Washington-grown Italian grape varieties on up to the iconic and collectible K Vinters single-vineyard wines.
It seems like Charles Smith is always up to something new and with the sleek Jet City Winery facility the pace of innovation seems to have accelerated. We found ourselves especially intrigued by three relatively new wine labels: Sixto, B.Leighton, and Wines of Substance.
The Sixto wines are in part a response to the criticism that Washington has not produced very many great Chardonnays. Sixto Chardonnays highlight great fruit from a handful of carefully managed sites along with precision winemaking to produce surprising and distinctive wines.
B.Leighton is Brennon Leighton’s distinctive personal wine line. Bonnie and Richard were charmed by Gratitude, which is inspired by the wines of Bandol, and a Petit Verdot that we tasted from barrel (Richard left with a magnum).
The Wines of Substanace caught me a bit off guard. Charles Smith has sold wines brands before (House Wine to Precept, Kung Fu Girl and the others to Constellation), but this is the only brand he has ever purchased. Leighton explained how it is developing into something special. He casually suggested that we try to Sauvignon Blanc from the Sunsent Vineyard in Ancient Lakes and … wow! … what a great wine. More France than Washington. Unique.
A Lot of Wine in the Wines
Then he poured the Cabernet Sauvignon, which sells for $17 at the winery (I saw it for less at Costco) but tastes like a lot more. He talked about the special efforts that are made in the vineyard and the careful cellar work, too. A lot of time and trouble for a $17 bottle of wine but, Leighton explained, a lot of people can’t afford to spend $50 or $100 on a bottle of wine. They ought to be able to get a really good bottle of wine at a relatively affordable price.
Not everyone can afford to pay $17, of course, but if they can then this is the real deal. Or as Leighton commented, “There’s a lot of wine in our wines.”
Winemakers (like artists and authors) often have big egos, and while Brennan Leighton has strong ideas, there is an appealing humility to the way he operates. His idea of wine is to work diligently in the vineyard and then let the wines express themselves in the cellar. His success with both large production projects like Kung Fu Girl and small lot wines like Sixto and B.Leighton speaks for itself.
So what’s ahead for Charles Smith’s wine universe? We’ve got new projects in the works, Leighton told us. But I can’t tell you what they are. So I was only a little surprised when, a couple of weeks after our visit, Charles Smith announced a major re-branding. “Wines of Substance” is now the name of the umbrella company that includes K Vinters, Sixto, Vino Casasmith, Substance, B.Leighton, and Charles & Charles.
Is this the new direction that you couldn’t tell us about, I asked Brennon, or just part of it? “Part of it,” he said, without offering any hints. Hmmm. It will be interesting to see what is revealed when the next Charles Smith shoe drops!
Thanks to Brennon and everyone at Jet City Winery for your help and hospitality. Special thanks to Bonnie and Richard for their incisive questions and analysis.
Here’s a video where Charles Smith talks about his Jet City Winery project.