Wednesdays with Winemakers – Charles Smith
Charles Smith is the winemaker and general factotum for Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery. His brother Stuart Smith is the vineyard manager and general partner. Also in the family attic is the Fetherolf family, German farmers from the Palatinate who came to America on The Good Ship Thistle in 1725 and settled in Pennsylvania.
After graduating from Santa Monica High School, Charles went to school at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University. In his “wild oats” days he worked as a probation officer, a furniture mover and a taxi cab driver in San Francisco. In 1971 he acquired a K-12 teaching credential. After teaching for a while he joined his brother at the vineyard in 1973.
Charles has been a top level croquet player, representing the United States a number of times in international competitions. Until recently, he held the dubious distinction of being a co-participant in the longest single game in the history of the World Croquet Federation. The game was played against the Japanese champion in England, in the 1992 World Championships, and lasted 7 hours and 35 minutes. Thankfully, he won.
Charlie’s son Alec, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech, and his wife Ericka and their two daughters live in Blacksburg, Virginia.
He has lived in St. Helena for more than 40 years.
Why did you become a winemaker?
It’s simple: I was obsessed with wine.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
Probably a teacher of history or literature, both subjects that I love.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
Perseverance, humility, and a partner, my brother Stuart, who can be relied on in all things.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
I get used to doing things a certain way and can be resistant to change.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
I once failed to vent a tank before racking and nearly imploded a tank. Fortunately I was nearby and the sound of shrieking metal caught my full attention just before the worst occurred. Lesson learned.
What is your proudest achievement?
I always wanted to make truly great wine and at this stage of my career I’m satisfied that Stuart and I have done it more than once.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
I’ve never had a vintage I would describe as scary but I sure wish I could take back the 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon. What a crummy vintage!
What is your favorite word or saying?
An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered; an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.
What is your most prized possession?
Probably my U.S. passport.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
It might be that I belong to both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
What song best sums you up?
A single song just won’t do. Way too narrow. I’d like to hold out for Miles Davis and Johann Sebastian Bach.
What is your favorite memory?
The birth of my son. The entire delivery room, including the doctor, was giddy with happy laughter. It was tremendous.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
I like to think I have a discerning nose for B.S. The wine business is full of it.
What is your biggest motivation?
The continuing pursuit of excellence.
Which bottle of wine would you choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Something in a really large format, like a salmanazar of our 1979 Cabernet. Now there is a bottle of wine to help keep you warm on a cold and lonely night.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
A good wine is a pleasure to drink and will give repeated satisfaction. A great wine, to quote the magazine The World of Fine Wine, is a thing “of spell-binding beauty and resonance, leaving the drinker with a sense of wonder.”
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with.
Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain were friends and both liked a tipple now and then. Add Benjamin Franklin and maybe Abigail Adams for good measure and you would have an evening of serious fun.
Who is your winemaking hero?
André Tchelistcheff. He was a wonderful guy and his great wines at Beaulieu, especially the great Cabernets of the late sixties under the Georges de Latour Private Reserve label remain an inspiration and a model of style and elegance more than 50 years later.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
It’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
I’d like them to remember to buy another bottle or two when the current stash is drunk up. After all, wine is still a business.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
Negative criticism has never been easy to absorb and because I don’t handle even a mediocre review very well I’ve always tried to avoid getting too involved with reviews of our wine, positive or negative. Recently, though, The Daily Meal an online food and wine magazine, described Smith-Madrone like this: “Quite simply one of the very best wineries in the world. Everything they do is top shelf.” My feet still haven’t quite touched the ground after reading those lines. We have always been ambitious, in our own way, but that kind of praise is humbling.