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Illustration by Jeremy Luther.

Magazine

Vintage Smith

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Posted 11.16.12

Walla Walla–The Lost Weekenders were seated on the lawn, awaiting instruction, when their leader emerged from the house holding aloft a portrait of Bob Wills.

“He comes stumbling out with the Sara Bowersock painting,” said Scott Large. “For the rest of the two days, Bob went with us everywhere. He was the official mascot—on the bus, in the vineyard, the bar, wherever we went that night.

“The spirit of Bob.”

To appreciate how winemaker Charles Smith, his Oklahoma rep Scott Large, Tulsa artist Sara Bowersock, and Texas Playboy Bob Wills go together, you have to understand a little bit about blending. And Lost Weekends.

Smith, Washington winemaker du jour—one of the hottest things in wine since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when the French got their asses handed to them by the Californians—is the force behind K Vintners, whose “Kung Fu Girl” has been making wine drinkers out of beer drinkers and Riesling fans out of most. To reward the biggest promoters of “Kung Fu Girl,” Smith threw a three-day hoedown of food, wine, and controlled mayhem: the Lost Weekend. Oklahoma drank enough of it to earn both Large and Alex Kroblin, his Thirst Merchants partner, spots on the list.

“He started out at 2,000 cases and now he’s at 75,000 cases a year, all of it from the same vineyard, all hand-picked,” said Large, whose Thirst Merchants owes 10 percent of its portfolio to Smith. “And he makes ‘Kung Fu Girl’ the same way he makes his ‘Royal City’ Syrah. You just don’t find that.”

More miraculous, perhaps, is that Smith found us. Tulsa was not on Smith’s radar when Large called and said K wines needed to be in Oklahoma, nor was it when he came to town in the autumn of ’09 for a Thirst portfolio tasting and wine dinner hosted by Lucky’s on Cherry Street. But Smith has a way of taking over a city’s airspace. So after a quick “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” that featured farm eggs, pancakes, lamb sausage—with the 2007 K Viognier, served in a coffee cup—chicken-fried bacon BLT, tuna casserole, cold pizza (in individual “used” pizza boxes) and cold fried quail with sage gravy, Smith and Company went out.

“At some point in the night,” Large recalled, “when we were all at the wine bar (Vintage 1740), Charles decided he wanted to pretend he got hit by a car. We’d been going back and forth across the street from 1740 to the Mercury Lounge, getting pretty crazy. So he said, ‘I’m going to lay in the street and you guys pull your car up like you just hit me and let’s do a photo shoot.’ So now there are all these ‘dead’ photos of Charles at 18th and Boston.”

Before he left town, Smith loaded up on T-shirts at Dwelling Spaces; ate back to back to back at Coney Island, Weber’s, and Nelson’s Ranch House; proposed to the love of his life, a drop-dead Roman named Ginevra Casa, at the Full Moon Café where he, in his words, “proceeded to drink my face off”; and spent some $10,000 at Parkhill on South Lewis. Restocking his cellar from the Lost Weekend.

The idea was to reward 34 wine reps across the country who’d kicked butt in a 2010 “Kung Fu Girl” sales contest. A tireless promoter, Smith uses such opportunities to show appreciation and just plain show off. For their efforts—and their pains—Smith awarded the lucky 34 with a trip to Walla Walla, a multi-course Italian feast on his front lawn, and bag of ibuprofen, water, and phone numbers to the local police and emergency medical units.

“He hit this one guy so hard in the face with his fist,” said Large. “Kind of slapped him a little bit. It was wild.”

A wine drinker of utmost sincerity, Smith keeps about 2,000 bottles on hand, for personal use. In a game called “Raid the Cellar,” a runner from each of five tables ran to the cellar to pick any bottle in Smith’s collection. Two rules: One, there had to be at least one other bottle of whatever you grabbed still on the shelf. Two, no sharing with other tables, not even a smell. Breaking either rule would result in immediate elimination and no more wine.

Which, to Smith, must border on hell’s own kitchen. Large and the other Lost Weekenders drank, between them, 32 bottles, everything from 30-year-old Dom Perignon to great Burgundies and Bordeaux. Generosity is part of Smith’s charm, but the message being served in every glass was one of respect and acknowledgment, of being on the same page.

“The idea is that we didn’t serve my wine with lunch. It wouldn’t be pearls before swine. That’s no fun, right? The trip was very little about my wine. It was more like this is what I do, and this is how I throw a party.”

So right. Nor would it be a Charles Smith show without a road trip. The Lost Weekend began with a party at Smith’s Anchor Bar in nearby Waitsburg, with DJ Howie Piro Intoxica! (the bass player in Danzig, for a stint) spinning records and The Big John Bates Grindshow providing rockabilly and burlesque. Not all of Waitsburg’s 1250 citizens appreciated the invitation, though all were invited.

“I was born and raised in Holland, so nothing shocks me,” said Imbert Mathee, the owner of the Waitsburg Times, who covered the event. “They were more dressed than me when I go to the beach.”

“I sold 200 tickets to the public,” Smith said, in effort to make everybody feel welcome. “So, basically, I created a party around them. It was simply, ‘You guys won, you’re supposed to be having fun.’ Not like some insurance seminar. They got the anti-pitch.”

Best part about the Lost Weekend is how close we were to hosting it. Explaining his concept, aware of how nutty it sounded, Smith cracked a smile.

“Initially, we were thinking about bringing everybody to Tulsa. We really considered taking it on the road somewhere.”

You can see the elements coming together … concert at the Cain’s, coneys and corndogs to soak up the wine, a truck from Parkhill or Ranch Acres, or both, pulled up to the ballroom alongside an EMSA truck, red lights spinning, and a tour bus ready to haul everybody back to the hotel so that the rep from Hawaii who threw up on the guy from Washington wouldn’t end up on, say, Boston Avenue with his pleats around his knees and Tulsa’s finest ready to add cuffs.

Is this any way to run a winery? It is if you’re Charles Smith, Food & Wine Winemaker of the Year, the antichrist of the wine trade, its John the Baptist, at least, waist-deep in a steady stream, drinking mead and tearing the wings off locusts, finding converts around every bend.

“Two different Winemaker of the Year awards, 300 points in a row from Robert Parker for ‘Royal City.’ It’s not in terms of volume,” said Large, “it’s the wake he leaves. The wave he’s causing.”

“He’s very different from traditional winemakers. Not his wines, but the way he markets them,” said Philippe Garmy, organizer of the OSU Wine Forum. “It’s like heavy-metal counterculture. Each of his syrahs is one of Ozzy Osbourne’s children.”

“The guy’s been a big success, and everybody’s realized that, even though he doesn’t do it the traditional way,” said Duane Wollmuth of the very much a mouthful Walla Walla Wine Valley Association. “He’s gained a lot of respect because he has been out there doing it his own way. Charles is definitely making some quality wines. It’s certainly not a ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ type of thing.”

Out there meaning the Smith place in Mill Creek Road, the antebellum home of K Vintners, where the ankle-deep Titus Creek cuts a clear if tiny swath between an award-winning vineyard of stone and bone and the bluegrass lawn that laps at the wraparound porch. Out there, meaning, out there.

Why Walla Walla? Why not!

“I didn’t move to Walla Walla because this is where the action was,” Smith said. “It still isn’t here! It was not my intention to get great reviews. I didn’t run to get the wreath. I ran to run. The wine business is a gauntlet. If you stop, you die.”

* * *

Smith isn’t even the largest winemaker in Walla Walla, let alone Washington. Walla Walla’s Precept Wines owns several brands, among them the Magnificent Wine Co., Smith’s first winery, the one where he launched his now-legendary House label (House Wine, Steak House, Fish House). But with his Modernist Project—a series that includes the can’t-miss labels “Velvet Devil” Merlot, “Boom Boom!” Syrah and, his calling card, “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling, Smith is making new history.

Smith read the study that said 95 percent of all wine is drunk the day it’s bought. The Modernist wines are meant to be drunk now and are priced for a market that doesn’t cellar wine anyway. They all retail between $12 and $15 and all come with screwcaps instead of corks, which isn’t unusual anymore but still sends a message.

“I’m not trying to trick them,” Smith said of his fans and potential market. “I want them to be able to find the good bottle among the 30 for sale with the labels that say something fake, like something ‘River’ or something ‘Lake’ or ‘Sky.’ Mine bucks the trend by not trying to sell it as something you shouldn’t have access to, like you’re not a member of that club. I want to communicate the language of wine to everybody because not everybody speaks wine. If you use the language that people already have, they’ll have easier access to your wine. You’re doing them a favor and yourself a favor.

“Wine is for everybody. It’s been for everybody forever. It’s like bread. It’s like tortillas or pasta.”

It’s partly this realization—that America is about to embrace what Europe has known for centuries—and partly Smith’s ability as a winemaker that makes Garmy, among others, fans of the project.

“He embraces a spirit—a paradigm of the pioneer in winemaking. He’s very democratic. He has a wine for everybody.”

Even the entry-level wines defy industry standard. Other Thirst Merchant lines, like Owen Roe (“Sinister Hand”) and Orrin Swift (“The Prisoner”), have caught on with consumers in the market for cool. But their entry level is a bit steeper than Smith’s, and they lack his range. “You can either guzzle them, or read them,” said Parkhill’s Milton Leiter. “You can gloss over, or spend an entire evening. His go either way.” Parkhill carries the Modernist line, but not the high-end Smith syrahs—big-sticker bottles better suited to a restaurant menu than a shop rack. “Syrah’s a sticky wicket,” Leiter said. “Especially $100 syrah. People know cabernet. They know what they’re supposed to do with cab.”

Leiter fields more requests for the easy-drinking Middle Sister “Forever Cool” Merlot or “Surfer Chick” Sauvignon Blanc than any of his beloved Costieres des Nimes. It’s still retail, and that’s consumer behavior. And if a wine shop is like a library—lots of titles gathering dust because nobody cracks them—then “some wines are Janet Evanovich and some are Ian McEwan.” Meaning some wines are page-turners, while others give pause. What consumer picks which—the sexy thriller or the think piece—depends on that most elusive of labels: taste.

Smith’s runs the gamut, and his policy of inclusion allows for monster bottles like the rich, red beast he calls “The Hustler,” a syrah so transformed that its aroma of roast pork and flavor of black licorice (Smith doesn’t do red) makes it an enticement, if not a steal, at $140. The Wine Advocate speculates the 2003 “Hustler” will peak in 2035. By then, the Middle Sister should be well into menopause.

“I like him, he knows what’s he’s doing,” Leiter said. “And if there’s growth to be had in the market, it should be there, in that $10-$15 range.”

In America, wine tends to flow east, over the divide and into the middle trough. The bulk of it comes from Napa and Sonoma, but also Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Washington’s Columbia River Valley. It’s there, or in the runoff of there, that Smith set up shop.

Walla Walla used to be known for its sweet strawberries and sweeter onions, Walla Walla Sweets, a bulb so fine they named a minor league ball club after it. Since the arrival of Smith—you might say his rise has coincided with that of the region—wine’s taken over. Washington wine was on the rise, but Walla Walla remained an unknown quantity. Sweetness aside, you can’t build a tourist trade on the strength of an onion. Then Smith bought an antebellum farmhouse on Mill Creek Road and there went the neighborhood. That he slept on the floor his first year and subsisted on Top Ramen and taco wagon is less sexy than his antics, or even his hair.

“I can’t say I’ve always done the right thing. Maybe I drink too much and say the wrong words in front of the wrong people sometimes, but the idea is at least I’m authentic. People look at me like I must be cheating. A lot of people love my wine, and that’s awesome. But, as with any business, if you stick your neck out, you’re going to get a few lumps and bruises. But, if you stay in your shell, you’ll get nothing.”

* * *

Walla Walla is that weirdest of places, so familiar, so not. You’ve heard of it, imagine you can … imagine it, only to find that it’s hiding in a middle of nowhere more stuck than your own. And if you’re coming from Seattle, it’s even stucker.

Washington has two uneven sides, green and blonde, the Seattle side and the Other side. The coasts get the traffic and the press, but it’s the rest with its Columbia River Valley and wheat fields that run to Canada that’s throwing up dust in the world of wine. To get there from Seattle, you cross the Yakima River Valley, where the Rattlesnake Hills rise and the Cascades fade into a lush memory. Further on, toward the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, the land flattens and the hills become round, routine, and endless. There is a suggestion of Big Sky country as the Blue Mountains lay a backdrop over the Tri-Cities area, where the roads and rivers bend.

Walla Walla is a Nez Perce term meaning “place of many waters.” And some of the waters turn to wine.

Thirteen miles west of Walla Walla sits little Lowden, home to L’Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon, two respected wineries in the region. Ten years ago, the local wine industry consisted of 30 wineries and 800 acres of vineyards, according to an association timeline. Now it’s more than 100 wineries and nearly 2000 acres.

On a billboard there, the new poster child of Washington wine lurks behind a pair of shades and more hair than all of Winger combined. Welcome, says Charles Smith, a California escapee who rides the golden hills around Walla Walla on his 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, hair pulled back in a five-pound knot (unleashed, it swells and falls like the Gardens of Babylon), the summer sun raspberrying his Ray-Banned face—the pariah and pretty boy who puts his money where his oversized mouth is.

“You gotta spend some to get some,” Smith says of his $8400 roadside attraction. “Eventually they’ll come here. Maybe.”

Here is a place far removed, especially for a guy like Smith, who left his west Seattle wine shop to come make wine, and before that left Copenhagen, where he’d followed his Danish girlfriend, where he hung out in night clubs managing rock bands, where everybody had really long hair, wore rock ’n’ roll clothes and was good-looking, Smith claims, “because they’re Danish.”

“I moved here to do what I do, and I didn’t know it would turn out like it did. Come on … Copenhagen, Denmark, to Walla Walla, Washington? I moved here because this is not for the faint of heart.”

Smith set up shop in Walla Walla ten years ago, but his evolution in wine goes back to his youth, when he slaved in restaurant kitchens as a 19-year-old. As a busboy at the Palm Springs Hilton, he dumped a tray of orange juice into the lap of Roger Smith, then-chairman of General Motors (and soon-to-be subject of filmmaker Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

“The head chef chased me out of the kitchen with a large knife,” said Smith, who turned 50 in August. “But he weighed 300 pounds and I was a skinny, poor 140, and I ran backward giving him the finger. Until I fell, then I got up and ran really fast.”

When he stopped running, he came to his senses.

“You work in a kitchen you work the longest hours, doing the dirtiest work to get paid the least. That sucks. I realized that the guy who had the best job was the guy who bought the wine. He gets to come in later, leave earlier, and he gets to drink all night. I’m like, ‘That’s my kind of job!’ I excelled at that.”

A Sacramento native whose dad sold used cars until he starting cutting hair under the sobriquet “Mr. Andre,” Smith embraced his calling and honed his chops. He lined his mouth with the yeast and must of untold vintages, starting in his own backyard.

“I learned in Napa Valley,” he said. “And I don’t mean sitting in the tasting room listening to Windham Hill. I’d be in the cellar, the music’s cranked, and you’re drinking wine from a barrel. That’s where it’s going on.”

Smith got his first glimpse of Washington not in a winery but from the front seat of a Chevy Astro van. He and one of his charges—Sune Rose Wagner, lead singer of The Raveonettes, a Danish indie rock duo—were on a three-month road trip doing what rockers do best.

“That’s how I found it. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t even know I was going to make wine. I had $5000. I could hardly make anything.”

* * *

A high-plains drifter of sorts, Smith came to Walla Walla not to blend in but to stand out. Walla Walla is known for its cabernet and merlot, but Smith wanted to be known for something else. He made his name with K Syrah, a cheeky play on words but more a brand, like the kind you iron into a screaming calf. A head-high, white “K” greets you at the winery entrance on Mill Creek Road east of town.

“I was tired of the stupid Euro stories behind American wineries. Some faux chateau thing. I live in America and I wanted my winery to sound like it. You don’t even have to be able to fuckin’ say it and you’ll be able to buy it in a wine shop. It’s got a fuckin’ K on it!”

When I met him, in his spanking-new tasting room that used to be a garage, the fire-red Bob Wills T-shirt wrapped around his trunk seemed to have shrunk a size. “I was home 23 days between January 12 and June 21,” he said, “and weigh 23 pounds more.”

Smith does nothing like you’d expect a winemaker to do it. He drives a car in the Walla Walla Fair demolition derby—a big, black sedan called the Battle Wagon, whose roof has a white skull with a black sword thrust through it. He calls it his day in the dunk tank. Hanging from the steel-and-wood rafters of his tasting room are four 90-pound woofers, for rocking the hard way when a dinner party or wine event calls for it. Cases of wine sit on pallets next to minimalist furniture. Light pours in like golden chardonnay. A menu of the available vintages is cut-and-pasted on a large wall in that graphically compelling, black-and-white K Vintners way. A six-glass “maximus” runs you $5.

“They’ll get loud,” Smith says not of the wines but the woofers, “but in a way that just sort of envelops you. It’s a real, even sound.”

To prove it, he cranks them and the air in the room begins to hum slightly. Your ears don’t shrink but your chest swells. An older couple doing a tasting begins to swing dance. Napa seems a world away.

A few nights earlier, he’d thrown out the opening pitch for the Sweets, Walla Walla’s representative in the West Coast League, where they play the likes of the Bend Elks, Bellingham Bells and Wenatchee Applesox. He’d been using his spacious tasting room as a bullpen.

“I actually have a great knuckleball,” he said. “When I was 14, I was a pitcher. My knuckleball floats and then drops … kaboom! Then I get to the park and they hand me an onion.” So he threw a fastball. “A strike.”

Not all of Smith’s pitches find the plate. A few years back, he bought the Pastime, an Italian mom-and-pop that had been serving Walla Walla for 100 years. The move did not sit well with some of the locals, who view every move Smith makes with suspicion.

“He told me he’s known around town as the guy who killed a pastime,” said record-store owner Jim McGuinn. “But the guy was going to sell it to somebody.”

McGuinn runs Hot Poop, one of those now-lost record shops that reek of incense and independence, where fans roam the stacks in silence beneath Beatles and Clash posters, concert fliers and a garage-like assortment of rock ’n’ roll bric-a-brac. McGuinn, whose long hair has grayed from the rock of ages, was the town mystery man, before Smith came to town.

“I compare him to Levi Strauss,” he said, meaning Smith left the safety of the city for the gold in the hills. “There are rumors— he gets his money from dealing heroin, he’s a rich boy whose parents set him up. None of which is the truth.

“I like him. He took the edge off me being an eccentric.”

“I got here at the right time,” said Smith. “The economy was bad. People weren’t buying plane tickets but they were still buying wine. The ones who were buying $40 bottles started to buy $20, and the ones buying $20 were buying $10.”

“People do the same thing with speakers,” said McGuinn, who sold Smith a piece-meal stereo system when he hit town. He credits Smith’s success to the mystique he removes from the traditionally reverent wine trade. “The only brands I usually buy are Annie Green Springs and Red Mountain. But my wife and I were in Bayside, Maine, one Fourth of July and we pulled into a little roadside shop for provisions. They had fireworks, watermelons and both the ‘House Red’ and ‘Kung Fu Girl’ Riesling. I thought, ‘Wow.’ ”

For all the notoriety, K Vintners comes not from a plan but an impulse. When he first got to Washington, Smith fell in with another transplant, Cayuse Vineyards’ Christophe Baron, the first Frenchman to establish a wine estate in Washington. Baron begged him to come to Walla Walla, and sweetened the pot with enough fruit for 15 barrels of wine.

“He said I’ll give you the grapes and you can pay me when you sell the wine,” Smith said. “He was from France and he wanted somebody else who was no-bullshitting, tough, Euro-centric, knew about food and travel. He was my partner in crime.”

“They each had capes made,” said Large, “and they would walk around Walla Walla in these capes and I guess that’s when people around there started to hate Charles. Nobody can keep up with him.”

Or them. Baron and Smith were the “Toxic Twins,” known for entering a restaurant with seven bottles of wine between them. “They’d say, how come you guys bring so much wine? We’d say, ‘In case one of them’s corked.’ We’d drink six bottles of wine at dinner. We were the passionate ones.”

Thus emboldened, Smith walked into a Seattle bank in June 2001 to ask for a line of credit. He’d been making wine for two years. He flipped through his business plan—an underwhelming three-pager with a spreadsheet and a couple of flowcharts—and explained away his odd job history. He spoke Washington wine with enough authority to get a sit down.

“They said we really like your idea and the people you’re working with all look really good. I said, ‘But I have no collateral.’ They said, ‘We’d like to taste your wine.’ ”

They all met, Smith and some bankers, at a wine bar the following day, he with a range of anonymous bottles—he had no bond and, hence, no winery name; he had no license and therefore no label.

“I filled their glasses, and they swirled it around, smelled it, tasted it, then the guy reaches out his hand and says, ‘You got a deal. We’re going to give you $250,000 and this wine is your collateral.’ I’m like … ‘Awesome.’ ”

With the line of credit, he was able to find a property, create a label, buy a house. The latter dates to 1860. Coyotes roam near enough to keep the Shih Tzus under wraps. Behind it is the building that houses K Vintners. There’s a temperature-controlled warehouse lined with barrels, and a tasting room he used before opening the one downtown. On the back of the house, down a rickety flight of steps, is his personal stash. It holds a couple of thousand bottles. Smith grabbed a French one and led the way.

* * *

Upstairs in the living room, a stray cat padded across the floorboards. The master sat back against a sofa, sipping at his glass, oblivious to the toy dog licking on his bare feet. Feet that soon will crush 120 tons of grapes—7000 cases worth. He’ll climb into the 5-foot deep crusher and pound 4 feet of fruit into submission. He’s looking forward to the exercise. “I can’t wear most of my shirts and pants,” he said, resting the glass of Chateauneuf du Papes on his belly. “A Domaine du Caillou. Pretty good, huh?”

Of course. It was good enough for popes. But I wanted to sample some of the house wine. He went to the cellar and brought up a pair of bottles: a 2005 vintage of “The Deal,” from a place called the Wahluke Slope, and a 2007 version of “The Hustler.” After the Chateauneuf, they were a mouthful. Like a dose of Jack Kerouac after a diet of Victor Hugo.

Smith, I learned from several videos online, would rather drink than talk, masticate than pontificate. Wine notes are a slippery slope, and he can talk tannins and balance and structure with the best of them. But he’s better at just talking.

Smith does a wine called “Old Bones,” a syrah that the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker gave 99 points and deemed “hedonistic.” Its label (black-and-white, always) depicts a sword fight to the death, pitting against each other two crowned skeletons who can’t and won’t be killed. The story behind it goes:

When the house on Mill Creek Road was homesteaded in the mid-19th century, there was a log cabin there. In it lived a Native American who led a band of Indians out of the Blue Mountains. His name was Old Bones, and he befriended the man who owned Smith’s house. Together, they would make trips to trade with the Indians of the Columbia River.

A small vineyard now sits between the house and the big K that marks the entrance. Smith was going to name the vineyard “Old Bones” in honor of those who’d come before him. But in the year the first vintage was ready for release, his neighbor died. He was an Indian named Phil Lane. And now, he has a vineyard named after him, with a clear-running, half-foot deep stream that separates it from the bluegrass lawn that surrounds Chateau Smith.

* * *

Tulsa and Walla Walla share two things, anyway—both sound more Indian than they now are, and both are seeking to be known for something by somebody from somewhere else. Smith found a sweet spot on the nowhere side of Washington to make his wine, an “oasis in a sea of wheat,” a fellow transplant called it. But the middle of nowhere is a state of mind. Who knew that, when the wine revolution came, it would be led by a pig-tailed warrior girl pitching a sleepy German varietal? Who knew America, and Tulsa in it, was ready to take Riesling and like it?

“I was told it was going to be my kind of place,” Smith said of our town. “I didn’t go there because I was selling a huge amount of wine there. They liked what I was doing and embracing it and I wanted to come. Size-wise, for what I do, Oklahoma is an over-performer for its category.

“It’s like me—I’m an over-performer for my category.”

Smith could have stayed in Seattle, could have stayed away from Tulsa, could be 23 pounds lighter and however many pence none-the-richer. That’s just not how he sets the scale.

“I had to give up a lot to come here, and I didn’t give up that to get the jackpot. I got sleeping on the floor making 15 barrels of wine. What I have now is something different because of what I put into it, luck and timing and everything else.

“This is kind of the frontier, for people willing to risk it all.”

We’re in his Suburban, driving north, through so much waving wheat that I begin to get sea sick. The landscape has lost its scope. We could be anywhere, and nowhere.

“There’s a camel,” he says, interrupting a conversation on his cell. Another time he points out a pioneer cemetery, its crosses glowing bone white in the western sun. “I tried to buy that,” Smith said, pointing to a cinema. “I wanted to do Sunday matinees, you know, for kids? Because there’s nothing to do here.”

Here is nowhere fast. Waitsburg, a little ’burg on the eastern edge of Washington, so far below Spokane that even Idaho is closer. Here is where the Smith ethic of pick yourself up by your bootstraps takes on significant meaning.

“I got $460,000 in the town,” he tallies. “It gives this place value—value to me. You have to contribute to the community, to invest in it somehow.”

One way would be to buy the defunct American Legion Post No. 35 and paint a big, black-and-white Stars and Stripes across it. Which is what Smith did, calling it the Anchor Bar, inspired by American naval prowess and, well, a lot of grog in an airport bar. The locals crucified him for it, but Smith is on a crusade undeterred.

“My business is wine but I make my life rougher by doing some of this other shit. I mean, I make over 200,000 cases of wine a year. So,if I make over $10 a case…”

Which is his way of saying, put up or shut up.

“It keeps me busy. I’m not doing this other stuff for the money. I’m doing it because it’s what I want to do. Turns out that it’s work too. I want to contribute and do something. If it doesn’t exist, stop complaining and do it yourself. I don’t want to listen to anybody complain. So I said, screw it, I’ll do it myself.”

Smith’s sounds like one of those stories that only happen in Danish fairytales. He got the girl, he got the millions, he’s never lost the hair. When all’s said and drunk, Smith will have had it his way—like Sinatra, emerging from the pack, but more like Sid Vicious, all bloody and shitty, in skinny jeans and rock ’n’ roll tees and riding Harleys to nowhere and back. If only you could bottle it, whatever’s fueling him.

“The only problem is if your success implodes you and you become a jerk. You have to be willing to do everything and risk everything to do it. To thine own self be true. That’s my thing.”

Editor’s note: This story was first published Oct. 24, 2011.