Smith's downtown tasting room a vision realized

Smith's new home for several of his labels harkens to Walla Walla's past.

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Winemaker Charles Smith opens one of two 5,000-lb steel and glass doors on his new tasting room at 35 S. Spokane Street. The building, originally an auto repair garage, has been cleaned and left in tact with only minor additions to create the space for Smith. Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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Charles Smith (left) looks for input from friend Jim German (right) as they discuss plans for finishing work on the new Charles Smith Wines tasting room on S. Spokane Street. Smith and German stand inside the tasting room in front of "the raft," two rolling platform linked together with seating on top. Almost everything in the tasting room is mounted on wheels to allow for adaptability for a wide range of events. Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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Turning the wheels of change, winemaker Charles Smith spins a small wheel to open one of two 5,000-lb steel and glass doors on his new tasting room on S. Spokane Street. Designed by Olson Kundig Architects, the doors open the space completely to the street with the easy rotation of a handle and leave the rest of the building in its near original form. Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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Charles Smith nuzzles one of his small dogs before putting it in the car outside his new tasting room on S. Spokane Street. Wednesday, April 6, 2011

WALLA WALLA -- The worldwide headquarters of Walla Walla's "rockstar winemaker" weren't so much built up as they were stripped down.

Charles Smith, the winemaker who's been making a mark on the industry over the last decade since leaving a career managing rock bands in Scandinavia, said the focus of his latest project, which opened today, is the building itself.

New touches as grand as the mind can conceive have been added to the property at 35. S. Spokane St. Smith worked with renowned architect Tom Kundig of Seattle's Olson Kundig Architects on the renovation. The result is a design that maintains the integrity of what had already existed for decades and integrates what's new: offices, tasting bar, furniture and two 5,000-pound, steel-and-glass doors that lift in the front to create an open-air space, Smith said.

Old stains on the concrete from the days when the building housed Johnson Auto Electric still exist. Gouges in the brick have been left. A good powerwashing on the bricks and rafters with crackled white paint refreshed the property from its years of closure.

Smith considers the remodel into a new destination that serves both as a tasting room for his numerous brands and a public gathering space for wine, music and food as the next chapter in the building's storied history.

"This building kind of lives and breathes," he marveled, throwing his head back to look at the triangular skylights casting the afternoon's rays into the building.

If you don't know Smith by name, you're likely to know who he is. Recognized by his signature mane of big curls, Smith's likeness greets visitors to the Valley through black-and-white billboards harkening to his 2009 coronation as Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine. He's the guy who drives the Bentley along Walla Walla's rural roads from time to time. His wines are often recognizable for their black-and-white labels -- Kung Fu Girl, Boom Boom, Eve and Velvet Devil among them.

Though his Mill Creek Road property has been the home of his K Vintners brand over the last decade, Smith said he had no real home for his other wine ventures: Charles Smith Wines, Charles & Charles and the Magnificent Wine Co.

The Spokane Street property, which he bought in 2008 for about $575,000 according to county records, not only offered an opportunity to build a home for the wines but also to invest in the local community and expand the growing downtown culture.

Smith, who celebrates 10 years in the industry this year as well as a 50th birthday, said he's been approached about opening a tasting room in Woodinville, as many other local wineries have done. But the idea wasn't for him.

"I didn't want to open a Charles Smith outlet 350 miles from here," he said. "I wanted to contribute and invest in the community where I live."

When it came to designing his new tasting room he knew of a couple of other things he didn't want.

"I didn't want a faux Tuscan villa or a koi pond with a pagoda," he said.

He began asking friends about architects, which is how he became familiar with Kundig's work.

Everything in the 5,000-square-foot tasting room is mobile. If it doesn't already have wheels, it can be easily dismantled or transported so that the space can be transformed for any type of event. And, make no mistake, Smith expects to host events. Today's noon opening of the space will continue into a weekend celebration with a dance party at 9 p.m. Saturday. L.A. DJ Howie Pyro will spin his rare collection of '50s and '60s rockabilly vinyl. A mega sound system is being installed. (Smith won't say how much he's invested in all of the work.)

Wines at the new location will be available for consumption by glass or bottle. Seventy-five wines from a library dating back to 2001 will be available initially. That selection should jump to 150 within just a couple of months, Smith said. The business will operate seven days a week.

Smith hopes the work that's been done in the space will inspire others to invest, too. Maybe even across the street at the old Odd Fellows Building. He hopes people will see the care that's been taken in bringing the old space back to life.

"I didn't want to do a building that said, 'Look at me,'" he said. "I wanted a building that said, 'Look at this.'"

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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