I travel to Napa Valley quite frequently, but it was not until recently that I discovered Spring Mountain. It is a thrilling, hilly, twist turning drive up Spring Mountain, just off Highway 29 that runs through Napa Valley. It is perched up above St. Helena on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa and Sonoma Valley. It is in these rugged hills that I fell in love with a part of Napa Valley that is quiet, remote, authentic and rural. My visit to Smith-Madrone Vineyards further validated my love for the wines coming from this very small AVA of Napa Valley.
Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery
The story of Smith-Madrone started in 1971, when Stu Smith brought a breathtaking property on the remotest and highest (1300-2000 feet elevation) part of Spring Mountain. Shortly thereafter, in 1973 Charlie Smith joined his brother Stu. Stu and Charlie were one of the early pioneers of Spring Mountain.
The name Smith-Madrone is a tribute to the Smith brothers and the predominant tree on the ranch. The Madrone is an evergreen with a red-brown trunk and branches. All the wines are made entirely from the winery’s dry-farmed estate vineyards, with soils that are mostly deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam, which are volcanic-based, well-drained and deep for mountain soils.
Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery is truly a family-run operation. Brothers Stu and Charlie, along with Stu’s son Sam, pour their heart and soul into making the greatest Rieslings, Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons from the mountains of Napa Valley. Stu is the Managing Partner and Enologist; Charlie is the Winemaker, and Sam is the Assistant Winemaker. Together they strive to make wines that exhibit elegance, authenticity, simplicity, and individuality.
Charlie Smith – Winemaker
“Winemaking was a hobby that got completely out of control.” – Charlie Smith
During my drive up to the winery, I had images of the property, the views, and the tasting room running through my head. I had read and heard so much about Smith-Madrone that I realized the anticipation was making me drive even faster, not a great idea with the sharp twist and turns on the road ahead. When I arrived at what appeared to look like a barn, I found Charlie Smith waiting for me with a huge smile and an umbrella for me in hand, it has just started drizzling when I arrived. Even with the rain, the backdrop with the hills and the vines was simply breathtaking. There were picture-perfect views in all directions and immediately I got a sense of coming home.
Charlie offered me a glass of Smith-Madrone Riesling and asked me to hop into the jeep for a tour of the property. As we drive, Charlie points out the diversity of the property with many aspects of the hills, the various grape varietals and numerous rows of the vines planted with different sun exposures in mind. They chose specific slopes with different exposures for specific varietals when planting the vineyards: eastern exposure for Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the Cabernet Sauvignon and the coolest north-facing slopes for the Chardonnay.
We drive to a scenic point in the vineyards and the views are just breathtaking as we look down into the valley floor. As I contemplate the peaceful and serene views, I think to myself that today the valley floor is filled with glitz and glamour and highly designed tasting rooms with high-profile wineries. Yet here I am, removed from it all atop Spring Mountain. Don’t get me wrong, I love glitz and glamour too, but there is something very comforting and soothing about being at Smith-Madrone Vineyards.
During our hillside conversations, Charlie revealed that when Stu first purchased the property, the hills were covered with thick trees, and that it was mostly forest. They saw a lot of potential with the terroir and began to clear the land for grape growing. They also came across some stakes of old vines, that indicated to them that grapes had been grown on the property going back to the late 1800’s.
After a chilled glass of Riesling and a gorgeous view, we head back to the cellars. The cellars at Smith-Madrone are also the tasting room, the winery, the wine shop, a home office, a lunchroom, and a board room. So for the purpose of our conversations, the cozy cellar functioned as a tasting room and meeting room; where I had a chance to sit down and formally chat with Charlie. Below you will find highlights of our conversations and tastings.
Me – What made you pick this property on Spring Mountain?
Charlie – “This particular site had great sun exposure, terroir, and soils. When Stu first bought this property it was all a forest, so we needed to carve out land for the vineyards. Everyone thinks, and quite rightly so, that quality grapes are grown in the mountains. We wanted to grow grapes on the mountains of Napa Valley, where the elevation is about 2000 feet. We have Napa Valley at our feet but are still in our own world.”
Me – Why Spring Mountain versus the Valley floor?
Charlie – “The best grapes come from the mountains. Going back thousands of years, Virgil said it and so did Bacchus; they both loved the hills for wine. You can only make the wine quality as good as the grapes. The best grapes come from the mountains, as the grapes have to struggle more than the valley floor. That struggle gets translated into the wine.”
Me – If you had to pick one wine of Smith-Madrone as your favorite, what would that be?
Charlie – “Well that would be the Cook’s Flat Reserve, but there are some days that I prefer Riesling over the Cabernet. Some of our older Rieslings are extraordinary.”
Me – What is so special about Cook’s Flat Reserve?
Charlie – “Our Cook’s Flat Reserve is a completely different wine, it is made on a best barrel basis. We taste through 150 barrels of red wine and then we choose only the best barrels to make a best barrel blend. It doesn’t matter what the red grapes are, it is what barrel is best. Only limited bottles are produced in exceptional years. The 2013 is 46% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 21% Merlot. It very much like a right bank Pomerol/St Emilion in style. We really like Cabernet Franc a lot, and this wine clearly shows it.”
Me – Have you thought of building a separate tasting room for visitors? ~ I already knew the answer but wanted to see his reaction.
Charlie – He laughs out loud and emphatically says NO. “The winery and tasting room are congruent. We have a very targeted and interested client base, they enjoying coming to this tasting room. Everyone who comes up here wants to buy our wines. Cook’s Flat Reserve is sold here, right out of our cellars.”
Vertical Chardonnay Flight
Charlie pointed out that their Chardonnay comes from the block right outside the cellars where we were tasting. He very generously pours three vintages, the 2012, 2014, and 2016. It was wonderful to taste these wines side by side and see the evolution of these wines.
The age-ability of the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay is remarkable, and the wines are definitely cellar-worthy. Winemaking for Charlie is also about consistency year in and year out, these wines clearly exhibit quality through the vintages. The 2014 was plush and rounder than the 2012, but the 2012 was incredible too. Charlie and I both were obsessing over the 2014. It was delicious on the palate and showing very well right now. The 2014 did not remind me of a Napa Valley Chardonnay, it was undeniably Burgundian in style.
I won’t bore you with tasting notes on each vintage, but I will make general observations regarding the Smith-Madrone Chardonnays. All three vintages were exceptional wines, each having a nice balance of oak. I was blown away with the generous fruit, stony minerality, and zesty acidity. Smith-Madrone wines are a classic example of a cool climate Chardonnay. The mouth was supple and rich – not rich in oak but rich in texture and flavors.
Tasting the Iconic Red Wines of Smith-Madrone
I was blown away by the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. An exceptional wine, at an exceptional price point. Charlie jokingly says, “we are the low-cost alternative at The French Laundry.” Their Cabernet Sauvignon is also the cheapest Cab on Spring Mountain. Don’t let the price decide whether or not you like the wine, give it a taste. This is hands down a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. I can smell the mountains in this wine, and there is a distinct note of cedar and evergreen popping out of the glass; a true terroir-driven wine. It is a Cabernet that is balanced, finessed, and yet powerful. The oak is well-integrated, the tannins are refined, and the acidity is bright and lively.
The Cook’s Flat Reserve is one of my all-time favorite Napa Valley wine. I have had the honor to taste the 2012 and the 2013. Charlie very generously opened a bottle of 2013 for me, and I had the opportunity to try the 2012 last year with a group of fellow wine writers. The Cook’s Flat Reserve is a wine that will appeal to all Bordeaux lovers.
The 2013 that Charlie poured in my glass, is a blend of 46% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 21% Merlot. It is an exceptional wine with rich red fruit and spice. There are hints of blackberry, currants, black pepper, dark chocolate, nutmeg, leather, and tobacco. The wine is powerful with silky tannins. Its precise balance is reminiscent of an old-world style wine.
Visit Smith-Madrone Vineyards
My time with Charlie at Smith-Madrone Vineyards was very humbling and grounding; he epitomized what all winemaking should be like. The wines are world-class in every way – real, authentic and beautiful. The vineyards atop Spring Mountain are magical, an untouched part of Napa Valley. A bit off the beaten path, Smith-Madrone is definitely a winery that needs to be explored by all Napa Valley wine lovers.