This Airport Winery Is Powered by Jet Fuel and Big Hair

One eccentric Washington State vitner is working on democratizing wine, and he's starting with a winery located next to an airplane tarmac.

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Aug 8 2015, 2:00pm

When I introduce myself to Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub Pop Records, he leans in to say something to me but—after gesturing with his left hand so expansively that he knocks over an extremely full glass of red wine onto his DJ equipment—he stops short.

Pavitt is playing to a packed house at the opening party for the Jet City Winery, the latest project from the long-haired, black denim-clad self-appointed bad boy of Washington winemaking, Charles Smith. Smith, who has won Winemaker of the Year awards from Wine Enthusiast and Food & Wine, and whose bottles regularly score in the 90s, has billed Jet City as the "largest urban winery on the West Coast." It's a 32,000-square-foot warehouse across the street from a functioning airfield in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. At the party, the wine is free, as are the various food trucks parked outside, as is the current entertainment—Pavitt, plus burlesque dancers (some male/bearded, most tattooed), who are jimmying, presently, to the tune of AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long." Later on, Dead Moon and Mudhoney will play.

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Jet City Winery's founder, Charles Smith, left, and Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records.

For a moment, we're all agog, watching Pavitt's red wine lap up against, and then over, the edges of his mixing board's fader slots, clearly en route to the motherboard. I run to a nearby catering table and return with a stack of cocktail napkins, which a reasonably flustered Pavitt uses to sop up the remaining juice from the surface of his mixing board and MacBook Pro. Later, Brennon Leighton, the director of winemaking and viticulture at Charles Smith, imitates the way I ran for the napkins (bouncy and tippy-toed, so as not to spill my own drink), and relishes, good-naturedly, perpetrating the rumor that I spilled wine all over Bruce Pavitt's DJ gear. Pavitt will tell me later—after Mudhoney has played and Mark Arm has chugged 750 ml's of Kung Fu Girl Reisling straight from the bottle on stage—what he was going to say to me when the wine spilled: "You have a great mustache."

Brennon and I decide that this could make a pretty good T-shirt—maybe we could even sell it at Urban Outfitters?—"BRUCE PAVITT COMPLIMENTED MY MUSTACHE."

We're joking of course, but for a moment it seems we've struck on a marketing coup on the level with those that have made Charles Smith famous. Smith's single-vineyard wines deliver quality at any price point, but it's big moves like Jet City that set him apart—or his iconic black-and-white labels (e.g. the Periodic Table-looking ones), or his memorable names (Kung Fu Girl, et al), or the billboard he rented in wine country near Walla Walla, or his blue jeans, dark sunglasses, and T-shirts, or his unmistakable hair style—a forceful melding of Sammy Hagar and Sideshow Bob that's deserving of its own branding accolades. To a man, friends and associates are quick to praise Smith's shrewd marketing sensibilities.

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A scene from Jet City Winery's kick off party.

It might otherwise seem like an odd choice to open a winery within city limits—particularly one directly across the street from an airfield. (One UPS plane flying in for repairs is so low to the ground, the meniscus of my glass of Syrah shook like that scene from the first Jurassic Park.) But Charles Smith clearly knows what he's doing. Jet City is a winning mix of low (it's a former Dr. Pepper bottling facility across the street from an airfield in an industrial neighborhood) and high (Smith hired renowned Pacific Northwest architect Tom Kundig to reimagine the space, it's a stone's throw from Fantagraphics and a new craft brewery—the neighborhood is clearly gentrifying—and don't forget, it's a winery for crying out loud).

Plus, Smith produces some decent juice. Among the library wines I taste at the party, notes on Smith's 2009 K Vinters Merlot ("impressive acidity, aged beautifully") and his Syrahs ("smokey," "good minerality") stand out amid the chicken scratch in my tasting-stained Moleskin. With the amount of units Smith is moving, he's still able to guarantee quality this side of Two Buck Chuck. All of Smith's wines are single-vineyard-sourced, from the ground up. Kung Fu Girl is a classic dry Reisling, and a far cry from most of the cheap sugary pap you could get for $11.99 at BevMo! (Where you can also find Smith's Wines of Substance—the ones with the Periodic Table-looking labels—and other hits like Boom Boom Syrah, all for under $20/bottle.) And since Smith says Jet City's location won't affect the quality of his wines (grapes travel the same distance to Jet City they would from his vineyards to other processing facilities, and besides, it's mainly a cultural decision, a way of bringing wine to the people), it would seem imprudent to disagree.

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Outside Jet City.

And I don't want to disagree with Charles Smith, a man known for his outsize and sometimes confrontational personality. Smith, who managed rock bands in Europe for years, has been said to act more like a power-fueled front man. On the official Charles Smith Wines website, in copy ostensibly vetted or perhaps outright written by Smith, the woman who inspired his move to Europe is referred to only as a "hot piece of a***." Even these more untoward character traits seem to have propelled Smith further into the limelight.

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It all seems part of a project to broadcast a kind of rock'n'roll recklessness more associated with the style of music made famous in Seattle 25 years ago than the farm-to-table cuisine that defines the city today. Smith tells me that people find his "classic-style wines" approachable "because I speak 1999," and it strikes me that he might think of this year as basically contemporaneous with present day. When I meet two local food people over lunch, they recommend about two dozen restaurants and give me the name of a couple local sommeliers to talk to—but neither of them has drank Smith's wines, nor have they heard about his project down in Georgetown. (They do recognize his iconic labels.) During the best meal I had in Seattle—at wood-fire seasonal restaurant in Pioneer Square that felt worlds away from Jet City—I ask my server what she thinks of Smith's wines. Her response is Seattle-nice. "It's like we are speaking different languages."

I'm guessing Smith wouldn't find these details troubling. He's a broad-strokes guy. All big, bold gesture—650,000 cases of it last year, which makes him the third-largest producer of wine in the state.

Perhaps the larger point Smith is trying to make, with his calculated rock n' roll aesthetic and focus on scalable, affordable product, is that he is trying to democratize wine. I put this idea to Smith, and he nods in agreement. While his wines range widely in price, he tells me the one he is most proud of is the one he sells the most of, his Kung Fu Girl—a throwback varietal with a catchy name sold in great numbers at chain stores for a low price point. Further to this, Smith is visibly tickled by a comparison he draws between himself and a character in Quentin Tarrantino's From Dusk Till Dawn, a brothel employee who advertises the great variety of options available to passers-by on the street. (While Smith bowdlerizes the quotation, he lays into it with such bawdy emotive force that it bears repeating here in full.)

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"We got white pussy, black pussy, Spanish pussy, yellow pussy, we got hot pussy and cold pussy, we got wet pussy, we got smelly pussy, we got hairy pussy, we got bloody pussy, we got [snap-fin?] pussy, we got silk pussy, velvet pussy, [unintelligible] pussy, we even got horse pussy, dog pussy, chicken pussy. C'mon, you want pussy? Come on in pussy lovers! If you we don't got it, you don't want it!"

Smith feels like it's an apt analogy, given his diverse portfolio of wines, and also one that my readers might appreciate. I realize that he is trying to give me an angle for my story. "I like the pussy thing," he says. "If you can't find something in my portfolio of wine you like—you don't want it." And with that, Charles Smith leaves me.

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With the straggling last few writers who remain in the upstairs tasting room at Jet City in the wake of a media luncheon to further celebrate and promote the winery's opening, I gaze out the tasting room window, which has a vantage on the parking lot and also the Boeing Field tarmac across the street. Plane after plane flies in low overhead to touch down on the runway, drawing my eye in a one-point perspective toward the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Rainier. I watch a few planes land and sip on a glass of Charles Smith Wine of Substance Sauvignon Blanc poured from a magnum. I like Jet City. It's possessed of its own particular kind of natural beauty. And it's a darned near perfect place to get a mustache compliment from Bruce Pavitt. Another reporter will tell me later that Smith left the luncheon in a rush to head for a Seattle hotel, where he'd planned a "staycation" with his girlfriend, amid Jet City's flurry of opening events. I sip my wine, and I watch as Charles Smith—who, at least several glasses of Charles Smith wine deep at this point—drives off in a black SUV, in a hurry to make check-in.