Spotlight on Washington Syrah: Charles Smith Wines Skull Syrah 2005

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I could spend time in this post discussing the terroir of the Columbia Valley AVA where the grapes for Charles Smith’s Skull Syrah were grown – but doing so would not be true to what’s going on with this wine.

Rock Star Terroir

Charles Smith is a self styled rock-star winemaker with several brands: from the cheap Magnificent Wine Company bottlings like House Wine and Boom Boom Syrah to the K Syrah bottlings which include many interesting single vineyard Syrahs to the uber-premium Charles Smith Wines bottlings such as this Skull, and also the Heart syrah.

The rock-star moniker does make some level of sense given his years managing rock bands in Copenhagen. Perhaps fittingly, Smith became friends with Christophe Baron, winemaker and owner of Cayuse, who encouraged him to start making wine, as there are no two styles that are more diametrically opposed.

To preempt my criticism of his style of winemaking, I am obliged to also recognize that Charles Smith has perhaps done more for Syrah in Washington than almost anyone, except perhaps Mr. Baron himself. And you have to admit Mr. Smith’s marketing has been outstanding. But what of the wines?

Sui Generis “Wine”

An important caveat here is that this is decidedly not a review of the K syrah bottlings, many of which I quite enjoy. The top end Charles Smith wines are sui generis, that is, unique unto themselves. They are also guaranteed to be some of the most controversial being made in Washington today.

The nose is mind-bending in a non-superlative sort of way. It is very rich and extracted with some heavy volatile acids and obscuring dry extract that makes you wonder what happened to the fruit this was made from.

The palate is outrageously massive and almost astringently alcoholic – I taste soy, tar and ripe but obfuscating tannin. As over the top as this wine is, it does retain a smidgen of promise that it might turn into something fascinating with age. And fascinating must be understood in its Vulcan-like neutral capacity. As Allen Meadows mentioned in one of our conversations, a freak of nature can catch your attention, but might not be compelling or enticing over time.

This is what I would call a food unfriendly wine to the point that I’m not even sure one can or should call this wine. In fact, even after a day of air this tastes more like sweetly flavoured alcohol and extract than fruit.

So how to rate this? It is hard to understand and truly is its own thing. It is also the epitome of Charles Smith’s style, even though in my opinion vastly inferior to the wines from K Syrah.

What does this mean for Washington Syrah? Well, it certainly can play the marketing and points game as much as anyone, and it is certainly fascinating to see what “rock star” winemakers can produce. But let’s hope this is an experimental approach that will eventually be abandoned for a more terroir and fruit driven approach.

Fair to Good
$120 USD, $80 CDN at Everything Wine

Posted in: $60+, Fair, Syrah, Washington Wine


  1. Sean
    October 8, 2010

    I completely agree with you on Charles Smith’s wines… He’s doing the Washington State version of the overblown Aussie Shirazes.

    I’ve got some hilarious video of him from the Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I’ll have to show you.

  2. Shea
    October 9, 2010

    I’d love to see it. I agree with that – though this ‘Skull’ Syrah goes even further than most aussies. I’m not quite sure what to compare it to.

  3. WCVR
    October 13, 2010

    Great review, Shea.

    Is this really cheaper at EWine than the USD price?

  4. Shea
    October 13, 2010

    Yes because it got 98 points from Robert Parker and very few cases were made so the price skyrocketed.

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