Sommelier Karl Kazaks profiled the winery in the July issue of Wine & Craft Beverage News:
Smith-Madrone pursues pioneering spring mountain style into fifth decade
by Karl H. Kazaks
Spring Mountain District, an AVA on the northwest side of Napa Valley, is named after its natural springs.
One of those springs is located near the bottom of the parcel of land purchased by Charlie and Stuart Smith in 1971, where they established Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery.
“It began as a hobby and got completely out of control,” said Charlie. The brothers had discovered wine while in college at Berkeley in the 1960s and decided to make their own.
“For the first ten years, Stuart and I did all the work,” Charlie said. “We pounded the stakes in, we put up the wire, we did the whole nine yards. There is literally nothing in the vineyard that we do not have extensive personal experience with. One summer we spent picking up rocks. We were clearing a two-and-a-half-acre field. We’d rip it, pick up the rocks, cross-rip it, pick up rocks. That pretty much cured me of wanting to pick up rocks.”
The Smiths started planting vines in 1972 and made their first wine in 1977 — a Riesling.
In 1979, their Riesling was entered in a wine competition sponsored by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. Matched against Rieslings from around the world, Smith-Madrone’s was selected as the Best Riesling. Second place was awarded to a wine made by Schloss Vollrads, a winery from Germany’s Rheingau region which has been making wine for 800 years.
“Back then, our Rieslings were sweeter,” Charlie said, with a residual sugar level of around 1.5 percent. Today Smith-Madrone’s Rieslings have a residual sugar level closer to 0.75 percent.
“Their Rieslings are well-balanced,” said Mike Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill, a winery lower down on Spring Mountain.
Like all of the wines made at Smith-Madrone, the Rieslings show an abundance of individuality while displaying a consistent house style of vintage-appropriate structure, never lacking the backbone to permit some length of aging.
A comparison of the 2013 and 2014 Rieslings shows how the wine differs across vintages. The 2013, which has a fragrant nose of tropical and stone fruit, also has a strong aspect of wet stone. The vintage is fatter than the 2014, which has keen acidity and a pleasant lime peel quality.
“The key thing with our Rieslings,” Charlie said, “is the pH is really low in the 3.0 – 3.15 range.”
Though Rieslings aren’t much associated with Napa Valley, in the early 1970s, Charlie said the variety “was common as dirt. It was one of the recommended varieties — Riesling and Chardonnay for whites, Cabernet and Zinfandel for reds.”
If you put Smith-Madrone’s Riesling in a lineup of Alsatian Rieslings, you’d be hard pressed to pick it out. Its alcohol percentage — between 12.5 percent and 13 percent — might be the biggest giveaway when compared to some grand cru Alsatian Riesling, which often come in between 13 percent and 14 percent.
At Smith-Madrone, which experiences cooler days and warmer nights than the valley floor, Riesling is planted on eastern slopes. Chardonnay is planted on northern slopes. Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot on southern and western slopes.
Some of the slopes are steep, up to a 34 percent grade. The soils are mostly red Aiken Stony Clay loam on top of the Franciscan Assemblage, found in California’s coastal ranges and consisting of a collection of various rock types.
There is a flat parcel, known as Cook’s Flat, named after the first person to plant grapes on this part of Spring Mountain. In the late 19th century, George Cook planted olive trees and grapevines.
The olive trees remain today at 130 to 135 years old but the vines he planted were dead by the early 20th century.
“We found old wooden grape stakes in what had become forest,” Charlie said.
Cook’s Flat is home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The vineyard is surrounded by a mixed forest of Douglas fir, redwoods and madrone — the tree with the peeling, reddish-orange bark. The forest provides dappled sunlight in the vineyard, which the Smiths like.
Cook’s Flat is also the name of Smith-Madrone’s reserve red, which the winery first introduced in 2007. The second release was the 2010 vintage and the third was the 2009 vintage. 2012 will be the fourth release of Cook’s Flat Reserve.
Much of the production of Cook’s Flat Reserve is sold from the winery, Charlie said. “We pour it for people who come and they like it and buy it. We think that’s nice. It makes us happy.”
The 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Cabernet Franc. Its fruit profile is mainly dark fruit, including plum. The Cabernet Franc adds width to the center palate, a nice complement to the wine’s richness. The 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve has a special snap and vibrancy and life, no less substantial but not quite as brooding as the 2010.
Smith-Madrone didn’t release any red wines in 2008. The smoke from fires that year particularly affected their high-altitude vineyard. They sold their production that year to a bulk buyer.
Another challenging vintage was 2011, which was wet. But thanks to its mountaintop location, the vineyards at Smith-Madrone dried out more quickly than did some valley floor vineyards.
“The hillsides are different from the valley floor,” Charlie said. “Not just a different microclimate, but a different climate.”
Chelini concurs. “It’s fairly cool on Spring Mountain, frankly,” he said.
Smith-Madrone’s 2011 cabernet sauvignon does have a bit of a pyrazine green pepper quality, but it also has good fruit flavors and good tannic presence, as well as the structure to allow it to mature for at least a couple of decades.
The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon has a riper, more accessible structure, very fruity and lively. Charlie calls it a “light heavyweight — not a real heavyweight but not a middleweight either. It makes me cheerful when I taste it.” The current release of the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon is the 2013 vintage.
All of Smith-Madrone’s wines are made to mature in bottle. The sweet spot for Chardonnays, Charlie believes, is the six to eight-year window. A typical Cabernet will show its full potential in the 15-20-year range, with good vintages capable of lasting 50 years.
For example, Charlie has a strong affinity for Smith-Madrone’s 1979 Cabernet. “We knew that was a great wine from the very beginning. We just loved it from the start. Some wines, when you finish fermenting, you just go, ‘Wow, this is really good stuff.’”
Chelini finds Smith-Madrone’s Cabernets “very, very civilized, approachable even when young but capable of aging well too.”
One of the reasons Smith-Madrone is able to make wines of such distinct character and ageability is its sorting of grapes and wines into many different lots.
First, grapes from any one particular vineyard can be harvested in multiple passes. For example, the relatively compact five-and-a-half acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in Cook’s Flat is usually harvested in three stages.
To determine when to pick, the Smiths “take a close look at the grapevines. It’s very helpful to know your own vineyard. What we do is custom picking at its most picayune.”
In the winery, different fermentation techniques are used. Some of the reds are fermented in tanks, others in small open containers.
“We keep very close track of what comes out of the vineyard and how it fermented,” Charlie said. “We have a lot of different barrels — some are new, some a year old — and put portions of everything into those barrels. We have a lot of different barrels.”
“When you make a blend, go through and grade the barrels, then put the best foot forward.” Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of the best barrels from the vintages in which the Smith’s choose to make a version of that wine.
For weed control, the Smiths cultivate every other row to keep some amount of ground cover at all time. With the exception of new vines, all the vineyards are dry farmed.
In the winery’s early years, the Smith even propagated their own vines in a mini-nursery. Today, they buy vines from a commercial nursery.
The layout of the winery was specifically made to be efficient.
“It’s not something you want to do day in and day out but in a pinch one guy can handle the operation,” Charlie said. In the “old days” he sometimes had to do just that, making the wine while Stuart was out selling and marketing it.
Today, the brothers have the help of Stuart’s son, Sam, who has worked at the winery for several years after some apprenticing elsewhere, including at Dr. Loosen winery in Germany.
For all of the wines, no bottling occurs until everyone agrees.
“We make a joint decision,” Charlie said. “Everybody’s got to be happy. We push and we push until everyone agrees.”
Chelini remembers first meeting the Smith brothers, when he took them a piece of equipment to borrow.
He’s impressed with what the Smiths have built over time, giving them the highest kind of praise for a Spring Mountain vintner.
“They’re mountain boys, no doubt about it.”