Ten-Buck Chuck

Walla Walla winemaker Charles Smith loves a party, even when he's paying. The local trade would probably have been happy to turn out to taste his 2003 releases if the event had taken place in an unheated concrete garage, so it was more than generous of Smith to hold it instead on an off-night at Capitol Hill's great restaurant Monsoon, and accompany the eight wines on offer with roast suckling pig and abundant sides from Monsoon's marvelous kitchen. As a winemaker, Smith is something of a Janus: He made his considerable national reputation with great, big, luscious, expensive syrahs and syrah blends, and three of the new bottlings, all single-vineyard productions priced from $25 to $45, carry on that tradition. I can't say my palate is sensitive enough to sense much distinction between the Milbrandt, Seven Hills, and Morrison Lane versions. Smith's penchant for fruit and fleshy flavor dominates more subtle qualities. Much the same goes for top-of-the-line, $55 cabernet sauvignon– syrah blends from, respectively, the En Cerise and Chamberlin vineyards. The Smith style dominates all. Leaner and spicier, his experimental "El Jefe" (also $55), blending tempranillo and cab in a 2-to-1 ratio, does stand somewhat apart in flavor profile, but it would surprise no expert to learn that Smith was responsible for its production. Smith likes to get a little cute with his descriptors. The "En Cerise" blend sports not just pencil lead, for instance, but "No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil lead" at that. If a blend of bacon fat and candied violets sounds appealing, Smith recommends the Milbrandt syrah. But his descriptors for the only white in the lineup are maybe a little too right-on for comfort. Along with passion fruit, pear, and star anise, Smith claims his 2004 Columbia Valley viognier is also redolent of Chanel No. 5. And sure enough, after sipping it, you feel like you just kissed someone wearing too much perfume. "Chanel?" mused on old hand in the trade: "Back in my day, we called that 'volatile acidity,'" which in wine-speak is definitely not a compliment. But on the other side of his Janus face, Smith smiles on us. He may make a good many pricey wines, but he also makes, under his Magnificent Wine Company label, House Wine, which delivers almost everything you could want from a red wine for everyday drinking without socking you in the wallet. It retails for a cool $10. It's fresh tasting and fruity but with enough weight to keep it from cloying. It's definitely lighter bodied than Smith's other wines, lighter than most Washington reds, in fact. But is weight what you're looking for in an everyday quaff? rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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