Dorothy Gaiter talks to Stu for GrapeCollective:
SMITH-MADRONE: A NAPA CABERNET THAT’S CLASSY AND AGEABLE, IN ENGLISH OR LATIN
by Dorothy J. Gaiter, March 23, 2017
It’s a wonderful thing to see a business, any business, stay true to its founding principles. Trends come and go; outside factors can impinge; stresses and strains can undermine. It’s all the more amazing when it’s a family-owned business, and a farming enterprise, vulnerable to the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, high atop Spring Mountain in St. Helena in Napa Valley, is such a business. Back in 1999, we had its 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon for Thanksgiving and pronounced it then—15 years old—robust and fruity enough that it could age. We’d paid $25 for that wine on February 28, 1998, according to our notes, a real deal. A couple of weeks ago, we had the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, around $50, sent to us by the winery. It was so elegant and true, with ripe black fruits, cedar, rich earth and minerals that cut through it all like a blade, that we geeked out about it for hours. This wine could easily reach 20 years without breaking a sweat. Smith-Madrone, a pioneering winery 46 years old this year, was still nailing it, and with a finesse that suggested ease.
Duh, you might be thinking. Of course Napa Cabernets are classy and special. We wish that were always true. But over the past several years we have found it increasingly difficult to find a truly classy Napa Cabernet, and certainly not at $50 or less.
Stuart Smith, 68, founded the 4,000-case winery in 1971 when he was 22 with a degree in economics from Berkeley and some enology classes at UC-Davis. While studying for his Master’s at Davis, Stuart was the first teaching assistant for Maynard A. Amerine, a plant physiologist widely considered the father of American wine because he helped revive the California wine industry post-Prohibition, and Vernon Singleton, a trailblazing expert in the chemical compounds, like tannins, that affect a wine’s taste, color and texture. Eager to begin making wine, Stuart left short of his degree and, with the help of family and friends, purchased 200 acres of forest on beautiful Spring Mountain. The land had been part of an original 550-acre homestead that more than a century before had included vineyards. Stuart’s brother, Charles F. Smith III, 73, who also went to Berkeley and had taken classes at Davis, left a teaching job to join Stuart in 1973. Today, Stuart’s title is general partner, enologist; Charles is winemaker; and Stuart’s son Sam, 29, is assistant winemaker.
The Madrone half of the winery’s name is from the Madrone trees, evergreens with red bark, white flowers and, during fall, orange-red berries. About 40 acres of the 200-acre ranch is vineyards. The winery makes three estate-grown, mostly dry-farmed wines: currently, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2014 Chardonnay, $32; and the 2014 Riesling, $30. Smith-Madrone’s inaugural wine was its 1977 Riesling and that wine won a prestigious competition in Europe in 1979, putting the winery on the map in this country. It’s still famous for its Riesling. Charles, it turns out, was extremely fond of German Rieslings, interesting as the family is descended from German immigrants, who came here in 1730. In addition, they grow Merlot and Cabernet Franc (smithmadrone.com). The Smiths also make a small-production Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine called Cook’s Flat Reserve, named after the first owner of the land, George Cook, and a special vineyard. The 2009 current release sells for $200, (cooksflatreserve.com).
When I asked Stuart about working for 46 years with his brother, he said, “It’s like a marriage. It is a marriage. It’s the best of times and it gets a little gnarly at times.” Their dad worked with one of his brothers in insurance so at least they had a model for a sibling professional relationship.
After Stuart purchased the mountain property, he hired a company to clear some of the trees. Some neighbors weren’t happy about Stuart’s logging and another property-owner’s logging and the county quickly passed a moratorium on logging, according to a fine piece on Smith-Madrone in the Napa Valley Register in 2013. But it turned out that the county had overstepped, the newspaper reported, so Stuart prevailed. Other winemakers have followed Stuart’s example, putting their stakes in mountain property. Stuart is now celebrated as an expert on mountain viticulture.
The mountain appealed to Stuart, he said, quoting the Roman poet Virgil in Latin, on Bacchus loving the mountains, the sunny hills. The vineyards in the Spring Mountain district are at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet above sea level, on steep slopes of soils that are volcanic-based with shale and limestone and loam. With panoramic exposures, Stuart chose which direction he wanted for each variety of grapes. All of that thought and care went to ruin when phylloxera hit Smith-Madrone and many of their neighbors in Napa. They had to replant beginning in 2000.
“Once you get over the emotional distress of seeing our vineyard die, you see the silver-lining-behind-the-darkest-cloud concept,” Stuart told me when I called him the other day. “Whoopee! I get to replant with all of the technology that has transpired over the past several years. It’s an opportunity. But you don’t see that in the beginning.”
He told me he used that do-over opportunity to change the direction of some of the vineyard’s rows, spacing and trellising to better take advantage of the sun and the cool of the evenings, to better help the grapes ripen.
The 1984 Cabernet that John and I had in 1999 was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “That was a lovely vintage, a lovely wine,” Stuart recalled, adding that the 1984 Riesling, which they most recently tasted last year, was “equally good.”
Beginning in 2000, with the replanting program, Smith-Madrone’s Cabernet Sauvignons have been blends. The composition changes depending on what type of vintage they experience. The Smiths are proud of their emphasis on terroir, putting in the bottle what Nature gives them without manipulation, sometimes with no filtering and fining, and trying to do it in an environmentally sustainable way. The 2013 Cabernet is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, which gave it real edge, and 6% Merlot, aged in French oak.
Looking back, with all of the wisdom of his 46 years making wine, what advice would he give a winemaker starting out, I asked him.
“Follow your passion,” Stuart said. “There’s always room for a new idea in the wine business, always ever-changing. But the fundamentals of wine are unassailable: Good wine can only come from good grapes. The best grapes, we think, come from the mountains.”
Ryan O’Hara chooses 6 California Chardonnays You Can Count On Under $40 and the 2014 is one of them:
Score: 93 points
From one of my favorite family-owned and operated boutique producers perched high atop Spring Mountain, the wines of Smith-Madrone always have soul and sense of place, at refreshingly accessible price points. Produced from 100% estate-grown Chardonnay from hillside vineyards ranging in elevation from 1,400 to 1,900 feet, it is barrel-fermented for nine months in new French oak. It pours a light straw yellow in the glass. Fragrant aromas of green pear and wet stone mingle alongside white flowers, buttercream and tangerine oil. In the mouth, the juicy core of crisp, bright fruit flavors are carried alongside an undercurrent of stony minerality. Medium-bodied, it benefits from lively acidity and finishes long and clean, with lingering hints of buttercream, tangerine oil and spices. A gorgeous, impeccably-balanced example of Spring Mountain Chardonnay that effortlessly punches above its weight.
Cathy Huyghe considers the 2014 Riesling at intrepid.MEDIA:
This wine arrived just in the nick of time. It was a Friday night, my husband and I were home alone, our twin boys having been invited to a sleepover elsewhere. It was a long and exhilarating week of work that we both love but lordy, by that point, exhaustion had won out.
We didn’t want to cook, we didn’t even want much to think. It was an order-in night for dinner — Thai food, in our case — and it was the sustenance kind of dinner that you expect to fuel you with calories and, honestly, not much else. But then there was this wine.
It had arrived earlier in the week, along with bottles that this particular Napa producer is frankly better known for, namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But my husband and I are both suckers for Riesling, and spicy Thai food was on the way. We pulled the cork, casually poured a few measures of the wine into our glasses, and took our seats.
To be honest, I didn’t even smell it first. I know I should have; it’s something “wine people” do, but this producer is familiar and I respect their wines and their process. They want to make wines that express their place on the earth, they say, and they also want to make wines that express themselves as people and as winemakers.
That, I get. As winemakers in Napa for more than 40 years, certainly Stu and Charles Smith are keyed into what the market wants and what their land is best suited to produce. By and large, for them on Spring Mountain, that means Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
But then there is this Riesling.
This Riesling says that they have their independent streak. It says that they listen hard enough to their land (and its steep hillsides) that they know it is suited, too, to produce the grapes for this wine. It says that they know this wine will be good.
This Riesling IS good, and refreshing, though in a way-beyond-sustenance kind of way. You get oranges and white flowers and fresh acidity. You get the desire to take another sip and then another.
It’s the kind of Riesling that reminds you to be grateful that wine, and this wine, is part of our life. It’s the kind of wine that makes you grateful that your kids have a friendly and active social life, and that you have this time alone with the person who loves you most in the all the world.
It’s the kind of wine that I’m hungry to drink, with Thai food for dinner or many other things too. It was just the right thing at just the nick of time, to pull us back from the far edge of everyday life.
Isaac Baker at Terroirist takes a look at three of the wines:
When it comes to old-school, time-tested Napa producers, I have so much respect for Smith-Madrone. And on top of being an historic piece of the Napa wine puzzle, this winery continues, vintage after vintage, releasing exciting, even thrilling wines.
Founded in the early 70s, (the first vintage was ’77) Smith-Madrone’s winery is located on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena. The operation is run by brothers Stuart Smith, managing partner and vineyard manager, Charles Smith III, winemaker, and Sam Smith, assistant winemaker. Their estate vines cling to steep slopes between 1,300 and 2,000 feet in elevation on soils of red, stony clay. A pioneer of dry farming in Napa, Smith-Madrone produces about 4,000 cases a year of dynamic and lively wines, which consistently show a sense of refreshment, purity and minerality, in addition to that deep, mountain Napa fruit. And, perhaps most exciting of all, the prices are so reasonable when compared with many other Napa wines of this quality and provenance.
2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Light gold color. Complex aromas of white peach, lime and banana, along with white tea, floral perfume, notes of saline and crushed rocks. Plum fruit (nectarine, peach, lime) but it’s pure and zesty with a dry profile and focused acidity. Lovely mix of chalk, mountain stream, minerals, nettle, cut flower stems. Super clean and refreshing but lots of staying power for the cellar. One of the most consistently inspiring Rieslings from California, Smith-Madrone has been putting out high quality Spring Mountain Riesling since the early ’80s. I’d love to see how this beautiful wine ages for a decade. (91 points IJB)
2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Light gold color. Bursts with aromas of lime, orange, peach, dusted with chalk, and there’s definitely a good amount of wood in here, some nougat and honeycomb. Medium/light-bodied (12.8% alcohol) with lovely creaminess and precise acidity. Tart lime and nectarine mixes with yellow apples and rich peaches, and the fruit blends wonderfully with notes of chalk dust, mineral, white tea, and the toasted wood and almond cake notes are woven in very nicely. Long, lingering, delicious finish. This is always a very good Chardonnay, ditto for the 2014 vintage. Fermented and aged 9 months in all new French oak. (92 points IJB)
2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon – California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Deep purple color. Gorgeous aromatics of black cherries, dark plums, saucy but fresh, with complex elements of tobacco, graphite, charcoal dust and vanilla. Full-bodied but smooth, structured tannins but fresh acidity, and the texture is wonderful. Black cherries, black currants, juicy plums, the fruit mixes with loamy earth, wet leaves, gravel, charcoal. A significant amount of coffee, wood and vanilla, but there are enough other elements that these flavors don’t overwhelm. Long life ahead but not inaccessible now. All estate fruit from 1,800-foot elevation slope, includes 12% Cab Franc and 6% Merlot, aged 18 months in 75% new French oak. I feel like you can spend twice this price and not get nearly as much Napa Cab awesomeness. (93 points IJB)
Honored by Fred Koeppel’s review of the 2014 Riesling:
The Smith-Madrone Riesling 2014, made by Charles and Stuart Smith high in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, is a wine of unimpeachable authority and integrity. Fashioned from 42-year-old vines grown on steep slopes, the wine features piercing limestone and flint minerality, softened by notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, lime peel and lychee, gently spiced pears and lightly roasted peaches, all encompassed by the grape’s signature element of petrol or rubber eraser. Incisive acidity, like some energy source from deep in the earth, animates and etches the wine, keeping it brisk and lively in the mouth, though the texture embodies an ineffable and fabulously appealing talc-like softness; the tension between the chiseled nature of its mineral and acid components and the ripeness and allure of its fruit and mouth-feel is exquisite. This quite dry wine concludes in a finish that glitters with limestone and crystallized yellow fruit. 12.8 percent alcohol. If you know of a better riesling made in California, tell me (or send it to me). Drink now through 2020 to ’24, though I suspect that the wine’s tensile structure will sustain it to 2030. Production was 1,551 cases.
Frederic Koeppel reviews the 2013 Cabernet in the March 10, 2017 BiggerThanYourHead:
Brothers Stuart and Charles Smith don’t fool around. Their Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Spring Mountain District, made from 41-year-old dry-farmed vines 1,800 to 2,000 feet atop Spring Mountain, is built to last. The wine is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc and 6 percent merlot that aged 18 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a magenta rim; you feel the steep mountain pedigree in the wine’s elements of graphite, iodine and iron, walnut shell and dry, austere herbs and heather; black cherries and currants are plumped with cloves, black pepper and mint, while the wine layers briery, underbrush and slightly raspy, leafy notes through the dry, granitic finish. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $50, a bargain considering the present roster.
Need to stock up on your stash of Smith-Madrone?
We’ll save you a drive up Spring Mountain or a trip to the website purchasing page….
Come find us at the SF Vintners Market on March 11 and 12 at the Festival Pavilion at Ft. Mason Center in San Francisco.
San Francisco Vintners Market is the first and only farmer’s market in the U.S. created especially for wineries. It was founded in 2010 as a way for winemakers to sell wine as the tasty outcome of a shopping experience.
We are honored to be one of a number of small family-owned wineries who will be offering tastes and the opportunity to buy on the spot.
Look for us in the Reserve Room.
The tasting on Saturday runs from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. On Sunday it’s from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.
You can purchase tickets here.
As a friend of the winery, we invite you to use the promo code “vendor” when you buy your tickets, and you’ll receive 50% off the price.
Hope to see you soon in San Francisco,
Stu Smith, Charlie Smith, Sam Smith