With a mane of gray curls and an inveterate swagger, Charles Smith comes off as a middle-aged rock star rather than a winemaker. “He looks like Sammy Hagar,” says Tom Kundig, comparing his client to the former singer for Van Halen. But the onetime band manager has parlayed his unlikely affect—and talent for marketing it—into an international business selling award-winning but affordable wine with a punk aesthetic. He acts as chief spokesperson for his “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling and “Velvet Devil” Merlot, among several varietals. Smith brands them all with black-and-white labels that look like photocopied rock-show fliers, more suited to the sides of telephone poles than wine bottles.
In the decade since he opened his winery, Smith, 51, has emerged as a leading producer and an unrelenting provocateur in the valley that surrounds Walla Walla, Washington. The region has become increasingly known for its vineyards and has begun to draw wine tourists to its hilly landscape in the southeast corner of the state. As his profile rose, Smith started looking for a storefront where visitors could stop in to sample his handiwork and where he could host events. He also wanted to upgrade his office. “I needed a workspace for my team and a cellar door for the public,” says Smith. After seeing photos of Olson Kundig Architects' Chicken Point Cabin in Idaho, he approached the Seattle firm to convert a 5,000-square-foot auto-electric garage, dating from the 1920s, in downtown Walla Walla into a “world headquarters” for Charles Smith Wines. “He needed a stage,” says Kundig. “For the wine, but also for himself.” Despite the project's modest scale, with some creative design decisions and many moving parts, the space embodies the brashness of the brand and the impresario who leads it.