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2013 Cabernet has “soul” and it’s Wine of the Week

September 28, 2016

The St. Helena Star chooses the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon as Wine of the Week on September 28, 2016:

Wind your way up to Smith Madrone on Spring Mountain during harvest, and you’ll have a lot to take in: the forested terrain that frames the vineyard plots, the steep degree of the mountain slopes, the deep red, volcanic-based soils, the fancy glassware in the unpretentious tasting cellar, and salt-of-the-earth looking owners.

Take time to look more closely however, and you will notice things. Things such as small fermentation bins which allow for minute, careful fermentations of individual vineyard plots; a diversity of crushed berry and whole berry fermentations so the winemakers can continue to assess and refine the best techniques for their wines; owners who work the land and make the wines, and have done so for decades, so they can answer endless questions on history, viticulture and winemaking.

But one thing in particular will stay with you long after you’ve left. The wines are not only full of fruit, texture, integrated tannins and balancing acidity, but they have something much more: soul. This cabernet sauvignon’s core of black fruits, subtle spice and dried brush are intertwined with the history of the Smiths, their stories, their trials, their triumphs, and their very special place on Spring Mountain.

San Francisco Chronicle calls 2014 Riesling ‘one of the most impressive’

September 28, 2016

In a broad review of Riesling, Esther Mobley at The San Francisco Chronicle writes about the 2014 Riesling:

From the Smith brothers’ high-elevation, dry-farmed vineyard in Napa’s western mountains, these Riesling vines date back to 1972. Petrol flavors and aromas shine through in this savory wine, which tastes of juniper berry, orange blossom and white flower. It opens with a kick of fizziness, dissipating after a second. One of the most impressive California Rieslings I’ve tasted.


Join us and 17 other Spring Mountain District wineries in San Francisco

September 27, 2016

Spring Mountain District Harvest Celebration

Presidio Golden Gate Club, San Francisco

Thursday, November 17, 2016 from 5:00 to 8:00 PM

Please join us and 17 of our neighbors and winemakers from Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District for a tasting and celebration of some of the decade’s most exciting vintages, past, present and future.  Library wines, current releases and barrel samples will all be featured, with those most knowledgeable about them on hand for discussion.

Light hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Tickets can be purchased here:

The other participating wineries are:

Barnett Vineyards

Behrens Family Vineyard

Cain Vineyard & Winery

Fantesca Estate & Winery

Frias Family Vineyards

Keenan Winery

Luscher-Ballard Vineyard

Paloma Vineyard

Peacock Family Vineyard

Pride Mountain Vineyards

School House Vineyard

Schweiger Vineyards

Sherwin Family Vineyards

Spring Mountain Vineyard

Stony Hill Vineyard

Terra Valentine

Vineyard 7 & 8.


WineForNormalPeople: Smith-Madrone makes outstanding wine

September 26, 2016


Our thanks to WineForNormalPeople for taking a look:

September 26, 2016

The Spring Mountain District in Napa and its Shining Star: Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone makes outstanding wine. Obviously I love it for the quality but I also love that it’s not what you’d expect from a Napa Valley wine. Then again, after saying this about more than a few wineries recently I think it’s time to start changing my ideas about “Napa” as a blob and instead think about where in Napa a wine is made before I form an idea about what it’s going to taste like (you’d think that after all that preaching to my kids about not judging a book by its cover, I’d learn! Nope.).

About Spring Mountain District

Some of the most distinctive and finest vineyards in Napa are in places that most tourists who visit the Valley never see. These gems are nestled in the tall mountains that flank the valley on its east and west sides. Wines of these vineyards often defy the ideas that many of us have about Napa, and that’s why they’re so exciting to visit and taste.

Probably my favorite of all the mountain American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) is the Spring Mountain District in the western Mayacamas Mountains. In the 8,600-acre area, less than an eighth of the land is planted. Small vineyards grow on steep parts of mountains and in high meadows. These plots are set far back from the wooded, windy road that joins Napa Valley in the east with Sonoma Valley in the west. Unless you look carefully among the dark, earthy smelling, slightly mystical forests (you could swear you see fairies and trolls in those old trees!) you would never know that some of the best vineyards in Napa are here.

Just to make things extra confusing, there is no Spring Mountain peak: It’s a name for the district because the undulating, high terrain happens to have a lot of springs and streams. That said, the vineyards here are uncontestably mountain: the AVA hits a steep ridgeline that reaches 2,600 feet in altitude and dips at 400 feet. Just west of the town of St. Helena in Napa, the vines bask in daytime heat and hoard acidity during  cold nights, giving them terrific balance and structure that (more commercial) Napa Valley floor wines often lack.

To do viticulture right here, you need passion, dedication, and to march to the beat of your own drum. The vineyards and wineries of Spring Mountain District are for true wine lovers and winemakers – the 30 or so properties are run mainly by families and couples, who work hard to farm vineyards that yield dark colored, tannic reds, with earthy and distinctive fruit notes and some flavorful, yet balanced whites.

About Smith-Madrone
There are bigger names on this mountain than Smith-Madrone, but few are its equal. In 1970 Spring Mountain District pioneer Stuart Smith tromped around on a mountain in the District and after clearing the forest trees, including some beautiful Madrone trees (hence the name), Smith planted vineyards and opened the winery. His vineyards are on steep slopes between 1,200 and 1,900 feet, on well-drained, rocky, volcanic soils. Everything is dry-farmed – there’s no irrigation at Smith-Madrone so the vines dig deep to get water and nutrients. The grapes are small and flavor-packed as a result.

Stuart’s brother Charles Smith joined the winery in 1973 and today, the vineyard is 37 acres, mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon with Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Each grape variety is planted on land with a different sun exposure so the whites don’t get flabby and lose acidity in hotter sites, and the reds get ripe enough to make some seriously tasty wine. Stuart Smith is the viticulturist and enologist and Charles is the winemaker. They make about 4,000 cases of some of the most delicious wine in California.

I love them, but they may hate me…the story on vintage
So with this pedigree and with the review I’m about to give, I have to admit that I got off to a rocky start with Smith-Madrone. Because these wines really are small production and handcrafted, unlike other, larger wineries that issue that claim, and because the winemaking isn’t formulaic, some lots and some vintages won’t be as strong as others. It turned out, that for some reason, a few years ago I tasted a wine that was huge, oaky, and like a grocery store Chardonnay. I liked the Cabernet, but the Chardonnay was totally unpalatable to me because it was imbalanced (too oaky). I posted the review and upon reading it, Julie , the PR rep, called and asked if she could send another bottle because what I tasted sounded nothing like what she and others had experienced. Sure enough, the new sample was fantastic. An acidic, perfectly balanced Chardonnay with a judicious use of oak but nothing over the top or nasty. It was an excellent lesson for me in vintage variation and small lot wine, and gave me more respect for Smith-Madrone.

And another note…before I get to the reviews of the wines sent to me, I want to say another thing about Smith-Madrone: they are the best value for Cabernet in Napa. By a longshot. I would challenge you to find a Cabernet Sauvignon of the same caliber as the Smith-Madrone for $48 out of Napa. It isn’t possible. Most of this quality level are well over $60 per bottle. Get this stuff on your radar!

So, to the wine…

Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2013
Pale with thick legs and butterscotch, oak, tropical fruit, lemon, and guava aromas. The fruit and oak (butterscotch) came through on the palate but not in an over-the-top way. With excellent acidity, this wine is a food wine – restrained, bright, medium-bodied and best with something creamy (fancy mac-n-cheese comes to mind).

Drink or sink? Drink. Fabulous and the way oak should be used with the Chardonnay grape.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2012 $48
(I’m doing catch-up on wine samples and sadly, the Cabernet is already sold out from the winery, so you’ll need to look at online retailers to buy this stuff if you’re in the States)
As is common for Spring Mountain Cab – the wine was super dark in color. The aromas are unending – blackberry, blackcurrant with dark flowers, a touch of mint, and savory, sautéed herbs. There’s a distinct mineral note – not soil, but more like natural SPRING water (maybe it’s the power of suggestion?). The wine tastes like black plum, dark raspberry, and strawberry with distinct minerality. The texture is velvety, medium-bodied, and measured — so well balanced! Unlike some Napa Cabs, especially from the mountains, this wine does not have a heavy, hard finish. The tannins are softer making this a Bordeaux-feeling wine with Napa Valley fruit, if that means anything to you!

Drink or sink? DRINK.  This is one of the best vintages I’ve tasted from Smith-Madrone. I loved it.

So there you have it! Are you a fan of Smith-Madrone? Have I convinced you to take a look at Napa mountain wines in a slightly different way?

This week’s Spring Mountain District harvest report

September 21, 2016

Stu reports on the harvest for all of the Spring Mountain District each week in the St. Helena Star. Here’s the fifth report:

September 21, 2016

This week has been much more active than the past several weeks. Most of the wineries are very active finishing up their whites or harvesting the spectrum of reds with merlot, cabernet sauvignon or even cabernet franc. It appears that the spring showers, elevation and maybe just plain old chance has created another vintage on the mountain with a goodly amount of diversity. For some, the merlot crop is back up to normal, yet for others it’s certainly larger than 2014 but nowhere near normal.

Elaine Brown for Jancis Robinson tastes the 2012 Cabernet

September 16, 2016

Elaine Chukan Brown reviewed 2012 Napa Valley Cabernets at

Smith-Madrone from the Spring Mountain District is the absolute standout for producing both high-quality wine vintage-to-vintage at an incredible price. For only $48, the Smith brothers consistently deliver wines that express the vintage, the character of their mountain site and the variety. The wine stands out in a line-up for its own sake and then really impresses when the price is revealed.

17.5 points: Notes of dry cocoa, mixed mountain berries and bramble, with an accent of pine and a hint of mint. Ample, persistent tannins are washed through with mouth-watering acidity into a long, fresh finish. There is a sense of rich flavour from the chocolatey notes but acidity and tannins continue to wash and cleanse the palate making this a flexible wine for the table. Really good value here. Drink 2017-2025.

The SF Chronicle looks at tasting rooms and we’re there

September 15, 2016

In California’s Wine Country, tasting rooms are essential

By Esther Mobley

September 15, 2016

The village was empty. Some of the 12th century edifices might have been nearing “ruins” status: former monasteries with no signs of life; squat, stone houses with doors so petite that even a modern-size 10-year-old might have trouble getting through.

This was Vosne-Romanée, a village in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. If any place could be said to produce the world’s best wine, Vosne-Romanée, home of vineyards like Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and Richebourg, surely contends. Yet any casual tourist driving through this village (population: 427) might never have guessed she was standing on such hallowed ground.

Someone better accustomed to the Napa Valley style of wine tourism might have wondered: Where are the droves of thirsty visitors taking selfies? The roadside burger joints? The luxury home wares shops?

Where, indeed, are all the tasting rooms?

OK — there are a few tasting rooms in Burgundy, and several restaurants, even if not in Vosne-Romanée. Still, many Californians would be surprised by the impression of ghostliness Burgundy conveys relative to its heft in the wine world. Even many of the larger-scale, household-name wineries whose equivalents in Napa or Sonoma would have state-of-the-art hospitality behemoths — Domaine Faiveley, for instance, which produces about 60,000 cases of wine per year — aren’t open to the public.

The experience of wine tasting in Burgundy largely exists for the wine trade. It involves standing in dark, chilly, damp cellars, while the vigneron extracts small amounts of wine out of barrels and pipes them into your glass. You clasp the stem precariously between two fingers while furiously jotting notes in your notebook. This is not finished wine: It’s nascent, tannic, brutal Pinot Noir, as girded and reserved as many of the Burgundians themselves. With gums numb from polyphenolic overload, you spit into a drain, trying not to focus too much on the glowing pink mass growing in the wall’s furry mold that must be, you’ve decided, an insect’s egg sac. Whatever precious drops remain in your glass, you pour back into the barrel.

Napa Valley’s Beringer, this is not.

It’s an instructive reminder that we do things very, very differently here. Wine tasting in Burgundy can give the satisfaction of finishing a grueling workout. In California, on the other hand, wine tasting aims primarily to give pleasure.

This contrast has been on my mind a lot lately as I have been visiting winery tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma counties in order to review them. From these reviews, both mine and my colleagues’, we’ve selected an exemplary set of 50 to include in our 2016 magazine guide to Wine Country, which you’ll find in Sunday’s newspaper. Later this fall, we launch a new website, The Press, an interactive online guide to visiting Napa and Sonoma. Both offer recommendations for where and how to go wine tasting, and are anchored in our independent reviews.

But how to evaluate the experience of visiting a winery? The more I tasted in Burgundy, the more complicated the question seemed. Is wine tasting supposed to be serious? What if it feels too serious, as if catering only to connoisseurs? Is it supposed to be fun? Is it possible for it to be too fun — tacky, tawdry, commercial? What if you dislike the Chardonnay but love the patio? Or what if, no matter how precious the Pinot, you just don’t want to spit into drains in a musky cellar with egg sacs growing in the walls?


Because the small and mid-size California winery’s business model depends on direct-to-consumer sales — cutting out the middlemen of wholesaler and retailer, who take sizable cuts of the profit — many of our wineries depend quite heavily on their tasting rooms. This is a different model from what’s found in many of the world’s other wine regions. When visitors come, maybe they’ll buy some wine to bring home, or better yet, join the wine club; at the very least, they’ll recognize the wine later at a restaurant.

The result is that California wineries have invested a lot of resources into creating a leisure sport for us. That’s perhaps nowhere clearer than at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga — a reproduction of a 13th century Tuscan castle (reported construction cost: $30 million) where the wine can feel like an afterthought to the dungeon, torture chamber, drawbridge and moat. (All can be experienced on a guided tour; $40.) You could hardly spot more bachelorette-party sashes if you were at Asia SF on a Saturday night.

“The wine business is a relationship business,” says Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui, which owns Castello di Amorosa. “To sell wine, you have to share a story about where the grapes are grown, how the wine is made. There has to be a connection.”

Evidently, people are connecting. Every year, V. Sattui alone sees about 250,000 unique visitors. (The company would not disclose Castello di Amorosa’s specific visitor figures.) Both V. Sattui and Castello di Amorosa sell all of their wine directly. Zero enters distribution.

A few miles south of the castle, up Spring Mountain, you’ll find Smith-Madrone — or, more likely, drive past it — where brothers Stu and Charlie Smith have been farming their small vineyard for the last four decades. They’re open by appointment, just barely. The brothers are charming when they’re not bickering with each other, and the tastings, which they hold somewhat reluctantly, are about as unfussy as they come, held among their barrels in an old barn. “Hospitality” is not a word you’d imagine passing through the Smiths’ lips. The wine is an afterthought to nothing; it’s the only thought, and you’d better be ready to chime in amid Stu and Charlie’s winemaking debates.

You couldn’t leave Smith-Madrone and not connect with the place, the people, the wines. But achieving that connection requires a little more legwork than moseying up to the castle, moat notwithstanding.

Me, I’d rather sit in the barn than the torture chamber any day. But is recommending the Smith-Madrone experience, categorically, a bit like telling people they should skip the latest “Captain America” movie and go watch “The Seventh Seal” instead?

Maybe. I was amazed, over our recent visits to hundreds of Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms, by how much there was to love at all points on the spectrum. We found lots of scrappy-underdog operations that were easy to want to advocate (see: Nalle, Two Shepherds). We likewise found plenty of big-budget blockbusters that, if you’re willing to spend a little extra, we believe are worth it (see: Quintessa, Larkmead). We found places that offer settings so beautiful you won’t care whether the wine is any good (see: Stonestreet, Artesa). And places that, despite sometimes feeling like tourist traps, are just, we had to admit, a lot of fun (see: Gundlach Bundschu, Robert Mondavi).

As with restaurant reviews, the nexus of quality, service, ambiance and value is complicated. We tried our best to make sense of it in this particular context, keeping in mind that sometimes (most of the time?) you’d rather get a Mission burrito than a reservation at Saison.

The good news is that in California you’ll find the vinous equivalents of both: Whereas a Vosne-Romanée wine can legally be made only from Pinot Noir, here it’s a free-for-all. That means we’re free to flop — and plenty of wineries do; we’ll warn you from those — but also to stake out new methods, new grapes, new styles. We’ve got Tuscan castles and dilapidated barns. And whether they spent nothing or $30 million on their tasting room construction, they’re all in the relationship business. That’s just how it works here.