2015 Cabernet to be discussed in Wine Institute webinar

Try to tune in for a good conversation….

Behind the Wines with Elaine Chukan Brown | Ep. 16 – Jamie Goode on Why Less is More in California Winemaking

For the month of July, the California Wine Institute’s “Behind the Wines” video series shifts gears to focus on California in a global context, bringing in thought leaders in wine from across disciplines to weigh in on the state of California wine on the world stage. The goal of these conversations is to lend perspective from the outside in, so that the international and domestic trade audience gains a more comprehensive view of the Golden State’s wine industry – past, present, and future.

Episode description:

In this episode focused on California in a global context, Elaine Chukan Brown will speak with London-based wine writer Jamie Goode.

Jamie came to wine writing by a rather convoluted route, via a PhD in plant biology and several years of working as a book editor. Today, in addition to writing for his own site wineanorak.com, he is the wine columnist with UK national newspaper The Sunday Express. He won the 2007 Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the year award, and contributes regularly to a range of publications including The World of Fine Wine, Noble Rot, Wine and Spirits (USA), Wine Business International, Drinks International, Wines and Vines and Vine Pair and is author of the book Wine Science. Jamie has also made numerous presentations and lectures, conducted many tastings and is an established wine judge (co-chair for the International Wine Challenge, among others).

Featured wines:

2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley

2017 Copain Chardonnay, Les Voisins Vineyard, Anderson Valley

2015 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir, Puerta Del Mar Vineyard, Santa Barbara County

Date: Tuesday, July 21

Time: 10:00 am-10:45 am PDT

Zoom registration link: https://wineinstitute.zoom.us/webinar/register/3215892133735/WN_ZhrNwUAgRcS-1_TAp9KPyw

“Unforgettable wines”

Smith-Madrone: Humble Beginnings, Unforgettable Wines

By Melanie Ofenloch, July 5, 2020

Stu Smith, the Enologist and Managing Partner for Smith-Madrone Winery, didn’t set out to own premium real estate valued for upwards of $400,000 an acre. His goal was only to find a site in the mountains of Napa Valley versus the Valley floor, to make the elegant, balanced, European-inspired wines he enjoyed.

During a Zoom conference with a group of wine writers, he talked about being young and ignorant in a time that Napa was just a small valley, cuisine was not gourmet and people of modest means could afford a winery.  “I lament that today you have to be in the upper percentile to even think about having an operation here,” he said. “That was not the case 49 years ago.”

Smith-Madrone was once a working vineyard in the 1880s, but it was abandoned and became absorbed by the forest land. The 200-acre property on Spring Mountain was named after its predominant tree, the red-trunked Madrone. At the time, the Valley had less than 30 wineries.

It’s a family business. Stu is joined by his brother, Charles, who is the winemaker and Stu’s son Sam, who is assistant winemaker. In 1972, they planted five acres each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The varietals are all still grown, but Pinot Noir, which never fully lived up to the brothers’ expectations and Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot have been added. In 1974, Stu and Charles literally built the winery by hand using over a million board feet of wood.

In 1977, their first Riesling was recognized as the ‘Best Riesling in the World’ in 1979 at an international competition sponsored by Gault-Millau. French oak is used in winemaking except for Riesling. Oak comes from the forests of Tronçais, Nevers and Allier because the oak influence is less obvious in the wine due to how it’s grown.

Stu talked to us about the difficulty of farming in the mountains. “Mountain viticulture is just a lot of work and there’s no easy way of doing it.” But, for almost 50 years not only do they continue to make wines that are unique to the area, they are some of the greatest values in the Valley.

We went through a variety of wines, which included Smith-Madrone Riesling, a wine that was the standout during a Napa Wine Writers Educational Tours Conference in a sea of great Napa reds.

2016 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley—this is an Old World chardonnay style with notes of apple, pear, citrus and buttered toast.

2016 Smith-Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley –It was the 2006 that originally turned my head, but this one was also a standout Riesling. It was dry and had a great minerality with notes of apricot, citrus, green apple and petrol.

2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley—a great value for a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at this caliber for $52. This was a complex wine with black fruit, tobacco, chocolate and herbal notes.

2016 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley—The Cook’s Flat Reserve represents the best barrels from the best lots and is made in certain vintages. It reflects the heritage of the first winery on the property — Cook’s Flat was the name used by locals for the vineyard planted by George Cook. This was elegant and nuanced with blackberry, black cherry, raspberry, tobacco, spice and earth.  At $225, it is a special occasion wine, but worth it.

In talking with Stu and tasting these wines, the word that comes to mind is authentic. As Stu put it, “Mother nature is our stamp and with her comes balance, complexity and elegance that reflects the terroir. Our goal is to play in the dirt and make affordable wines that encourage discussion and make the world flow away.”

“Balance is everything”

With our appreciation for Martin Redmond’s take:

A Splendid Virtual Tasting with Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith

By Martin Redmond, July 7, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, we’re all getting a little (ok maybe a lot) quarantine fatigued. But the multitude of challenges presented by the pandemic has also created opportunities for wineries to sell wine and engage with its customers in diverse ways. Initiatives like low or no cost shipping, contact-less pick up, interactive tastings, and even virtual winemaker dinners have emerged as meaningful and fun ways to sell wine and engage customers.

I was recently invited to a virtual tasting with Smith Madrone Vineyards & Winery Managing Partner and Enologist Stuart Smith.

Our Zoom chat covered a variety of topics, including the history of Smith-Madrone, their Spring Mountain property, how the property is farmed, and of course, their wines.

Stu is a plain-spoken man in the best way, whose commitment to his beliefs is impressive. Here are a few of my take-aways from the chat:

The “goal was always to be in the mountains” because Stu believes that’s where the best fruit is grown.

Smith-Madrone’s commitment to Riesling in the Napa Valley is awe-inspiring. For 15 years they were the only winery in America to label it “Riesling” rather than “Johannisberg” Riesling.

Selling Riesling is a challenge, he told us he feels like Sisyphus, who is condemned by the gods for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top.

The Cook’s Flat Reserve is modeled after first-growth Bordeaux. Stu told us that he and his brother Charles believed “we can do that and we can do it better.” 

The Smith brothers are one of the longest tenured winemakers in the Napa Valley.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards is a family run, estate-bottled winery located in St. Helena, California was founded in 1971 by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith who are the Managing Partner/Enologist, and Winemaker respectively. Stuart’s son, Sam Smith, is the Assistant Winemaker. The name of the winery is a tribute to the Smith brothers and the Madrone trees on the ranch.

When the Smith brothers purchased the 200 acre ranch in 1971, it included a vineyard that had been planted over a century before. But the forest had reclaimed much of the land. The brothers had to call in loggers to clear patches of land that would become vineyards. There remain numerous historical sites on the ranch, as well as the huge array of natural beauty and wildlife.

All their wines are produced exclusively from their 34 acres of hillside vineyards planted by the Smith brothers. The vineyard is planted to 6.25 acres of Riesling, 10.25 acres of Chardonnay and 13 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, with the Merlot, and Cabernet Franc available for blending.

The vineyard sits high atop Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena in the northern Napa Valley. The vineyards sit at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet, on steep slopes which range up to 35%.

Smith Madrone offers five wines, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rosé and a special Cook’s Flat Reserve bottling, which represents the very best of which they are capable in a given year.. The wines are available for purchase at the winery or on their website. They produce about 4,000 cases/yr.

The Wines

Disclosure: I received the wines as a media samples. I received no compensation for this post, and all opinions presented are my own.

Smith Madrone currently produces five wines from their Spring Mountain estate. We were provided media sample of four of their five wines. The wines were tasted in the order of my tasting notes that follow.

2016 Chardonnay -USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Pale yellow color with yellow apple, ripe pear, honeysuckle, lemon puff pastry, and crushed rocks aromas. On the palate it’s medium-bodied with mouth-watering acidity and very appealing texture with yellow apple, quince paste, ripe white peach, lemon peel, clove and a hint of white tea flavors accented with a kiss of minerality. Long lemony finish. This outstanding wine is delicious and structured, with vibrant acidity that keeps you coming back for another sip. 100% Chardonnay that was barrel fermented. Raised 9 months in 80% new French Oak.831 cases produced|14.4% abv| Remarkable value for a Napa Valley Chardonnay! (92 pts.)

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon– USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
The wine is opaque garnet with billowing cassis, blackberry, black cherry, violet, tobacco and a hint of graphite aromas. On the palate it’s medium-bodied, complex and fresh with well integrated firm tannins. It shows black cherry, cassis, a bit of red plum, graphite and a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Cabernet Franc raised in 65% new French oak, 35% one year-old French oak for 18 months. 1,192 cases produced|14.3% abv|. It’s approachable now with a good decanting, but it has you’ll be rewarded for aging. This is an Ole Skool Napa Valley Cab that is complex and balanced and drinks well above its price point (91 pts.)

2016 Cook’s Flat Reserve -USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Opaque garnet with effusive aromas of black and blue fruit, cassis, tobacco and spice. On the palate it’s medium-bodied, elegant, and complex with a supple texture and well -integrated polished, sweet tannins. It shows rich black cherry, ripe black and blueberries, and spice flavors with a long, and very appealing delicious finish. A blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon (46%) Cabernet Franc. The wine is made in very limited quantities from the best vintages from their best blocks. 130 cases produced|14.3% abv| This is an exceptional wine that is approachable now, but will handsomely reward cellaring.

The proprietary name “Cook’s Flat” is an homage to George Cook, the first owner of the property. ‘Cook’s Flat’ was the local old-timers’ name for the eight-acre plateau-like vineyard block which was replanted in 1972.(93 pts.)

2016 Riesling -USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Very pale straw color with green highlights with aromatic white peach, nectarine, lemon, honeysuckle, wet stone and a hint of petrichor. On the palate it’s dry and very fresh with white peach, nectarine, honey, Meyer lemon flavors accented with a wet stone minerality and citrusy long finish. 1,199 cases produced|12.8% abv| (92 pts.)

My Take Aways

Stu told us during the tasting that “balance is everything.” That winemaking aesthetic is evident in each of these world-class wines proudly crafted from the Spring Mountain District’s distinctive terroir.

If you’re a fan of Riesling, look for their soon-to-be released 6 year vertical (2014 – 2019). I’m looking forward to it!


“When is a Cabernet fun?”

Our thanks to Rick Dean for his reporting:

Smith Madrone Vineyards and Winery

By Rick Dean, July 2, 2020

Legendary Boutique Napa Valley Winery

I first met Stuart Smith, Founder and Managing Partner of Smith-Madrone Winery at WWET 2018 in Napa Valley. He was a presenting winemaker at a couple of seminars sharing his POV, his wines, and his history in the Valley. If you are from Napa, I will venture that you know Stu, as he is known. After the conference, Gary and I stuck around for a couple more days. We intended to make our way up Spring Mountain, where the winery resides. But the road can be treacherous during inclement weather, and the clouds were not in our favor.

Since he would be coming down the mountain to head home, he met us after we finished a tasting at another winery tasting room near his home. I had tasted all his wines during the seminar, so this was a conversation about his winery, the Spring Mountain AVA, and Napa Valley.

The time flew by even though we sat there for almost two hours. But it was closing time, and we all had places to go. I will never forget the comment the tasting room employee said to us after Stu departed. With eyes wide open, he announces to us, “That’s Stu Smith! He is a legend in this valley.” We smiled with a nod and headed on our way as well. 

The Smiths of Smith-Madrone

The vineyards and winery were founded in 1971, by Stu Smith. The current team includes Stu, as managing partner and enologist, his brother Charles F. Smith III is the winemaker. His son Sam Smith is the assistant winemaker. Oh, and as far as the Madrones go, they are the primary trees that blanket the ranch, so they need no introduction.

On Spring Mountain

Napa, the AVA, is mostly a valley, but it also includes some of the mountain slopes that surround the valley. The vineyards on the valley floor range from sea level to a range of 200 (Yountville) to 1000 (Oakville) feet above sea level and everything in-between. Then there are the mountain vineyards that climb up slopes that start at 600 feet above sea level and go as high as 2600 feet above sea level.  The benefit of being this high up is that the vineyards are above the fog line, which provides warmer nights and cooler days. The vineyards of Smith-Madrone sit at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet on steep slopes.

The estate is on a 200-acre ranch, partly planted as vineyard over a century ago.

All wines are made entirely from the winery’s dry-farmed estate vineyards surrounding the winery on top of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley. Stu Smith chose specific slopes with different exposures for specific varietals when planting the vines: eastern exposure for Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the coolest north-facing slopes for the Chardonnay. They make approximately 3,000 cases a year.

Tasting the Four Wines of Smith-Madrone

I last tasted and wrote about Smith-Madrone wines in the Spring of 2018. So when I asked to be on a Zoom tasting with Stu Smith and their latest releases, it was a heck yes! I mean, come on, the 2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon was one of my top 4 wines of 2018. Any chance to taste newer vintages and the answer is quick and emphatic.

2016 Estate Grown Riesling

If you see or hear the word Riesling and you think sweet German wine, then think again. The only thing this has in common with the German wine is the grapes used. This Riesling is Alsatian in style. It sees no oak, only stainless steel. The style is dry and is made to be a pure expression of the grape. 

Like all Smith-Madrone wines, acidity is key. It starts out bright and lively and ends with a mouthwateringly juicy finish. The nose is a blend of floral notes, citrus peel, and early peach and stone fruits. It has a creamy center. The palate is consistent with the nose with notes of stone fruits, including peach and apricot, lime citrus, and a tad of minerality and spice.

I generally drink Riesling with spicy food, and this wine would be a great pairing with that. But do not limit yourself to spicy and savory of any kind will also make a great pairing. It will even “pair” with itself on a hot summer day as you sit on the porch, watching the sun cross the sky.

2016 Estate Riesling, Spring Mountain AVA, Napa Valley, CA 12.8% ABV. This wine is widely distributed, so ask your local wine store to carry it. Here is Charleston you can pick this wine up at Edmund’s Oast Exchange. Call first to check on availability. It may also be purchased directly from the winery.

2016 Estate Grown Chardonnay

I used to be an ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) wine drinker. That is until I discovered wines like this 2016 Estate Grown Chardonnay.

The aromas of this wine are lush. I smell both vanilla and toasted almond on the nose. I also got citrus, specifically lemon. The acidity is so juicy, making my mouth water as it should. The palate also brings a hint of vanilla, some tropical fruit as well as apricot. While lush and fruitful, the wine is weighted without being heavy and round, easily integrating with the pleasing acid.

I noticed on the wine spec sheet that it barrel-fermented and spends nine months in 80% new oak. I had to ask, “How does a wine that spends so much time in new oak not become overly oaked?” What I learned is that not all oak trees and thus, the barrels from which they are made are not the same. Smith-Madrone buys its barrels, which have a tight grain structure—thus limiting the ability of the innate flavors that come from oak to be more restrained. Well done, Smith-Madrone, well done!

2016 Chardonnay, Spring Mountain AVA, Napa Valley, CA 14.4% ABV. This wine is widely distributed, so ask your local wine store to carry it. Here is Charleston you can pick this wine up at Edmund’s Oask Exchange. Call first to check on availability. It may also be purchased directly from the winery.

2015 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon

I was super excited to taste this wine, given that I loved the 2014 vintage so much. The first sentence on the spec sheet said that the 2015 harvest was unusually small, unlike the abundant 2014 harvest. Oh, how fun it would be to taste them side-by-side.

Smith-Madrone Cabs are unlike most any Cabernet Sauvignon you will find in Napa. First and foremost is the wine is sold when it is ready to drink, which you can do the day you bring it home from the store, or you can cellar it for years and watch it mature. It is structured yet unpretentious, sophisticated, but easy. It is a stand-alone wine, or it will pair with almost anything.  This wine is delicious. Secondly, unlike other Napa Cabs, it is the price. At $52.00, I dare you to find a quality, Napa Cab, as impressive for so little cash. Yes, I am a big fan.

This wine is 84% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Cabernet Franc. It spends 18 months in barrel 65% the same tight-grained new oak, and 35% in one-year-old oak.

The nose is vibrant and bountiful with a mix of dark fruit like plums, some dried and some fresh—also blackberry and currants along with notes of licorice and spices. The palate is similar yet restrained in its intensity. Savory and herbal notes also come through. It is silky and smooth with a nice boost of acid in the finish.

When is a Cabernet “fun”? This wine is fun.

2015 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain AVA, Napa Valley, CA 14.3% ABV. Here is Charleston you can pick this wine up at Edmund’s Oast Exchange. Call first to check on availability. It may also be purchased directly from the winery.

2016 Cook’s Flat Reserve

The only other time I ever tasted Cook’s Flat Reserve was during the WWET Napa conference in 2018. It was the 2012 vintage during the first seminar that day, starting at 8:30 am. I dug through my notes to try and find what I wrote. Just as well, I guess, mornings are not my favorite time of day, so who knows if I could even read what I wrote at that ungodly hour. So moving on… to the not yet released to the public 2016 vintage of Cook’s Flat Reserve.

This is a special wine, a labor of love.

It is created from a small group of the best barrels of the vintage. We are some of the first to taste the 2016 vintage. Since every vintage is different, you can expect the blend also to be different. The 2013 Cook’s Flat Reserve, which is the current vintage for sale on the website, is a blend of 46% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot. The 2016 blend is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Cabernet Franc. Both are aged 19 months in new French oak barrels.

This is an expensive wine. A precious gift for the person(s) who want more than just a great glass of wine, but an immersion into the 1,800 feet elevation slopes of Cook’s Flat as well as the winemaking skill of the maker. Someone who drinks and contemplates the wine. They admire how it changes from the first glass to the last. I am not sure when the 2016 vintage will be released, but even in its youth, it is an incredible sip. I can only imagine what will transform in the years to come.

Dark blue and black fruit aromas waft out of my glass. Black currant, plum, even prune intermix with earth and vanilla. The palate offered similar flavors and so much more, including a tad of dark, dark chocolate. We drank this bottle over two days. I wish I had documented the differences on day two. Shame on me. Both days were magical. This was special.

2016 Cook’s Flat Reserve, Spring Mountain AVA, Napa Valley, CA, 14.1% ABV. It is only available for purchase directly from the winery.


“Paying homage to a place” and more from TheSwirlingDervish

We thank Lauren Walsh for her detailed look:

The Folks at Smith-Madrone: My Kind of Wine People

By Lauren Walsh, July 1, 2020

As a wine blogger and perpetual wine student, I receive invitations to a fair number of events: winemaker lunches and trade tastings, for example, as well as the chance to review sample bottles sent out by PR companies. I’m always grateful for these opportunities to broaden my knowledge and expand my palate.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret about the wine world: some invitations are more coveted than others. And it has nothing to do with wine critics, 100-point scales, or impossibly small allocation allotments. What it boils down to is authenticity; in other words, old-fashioned, honest winemaking.

A few weeks ago I received just such an invitation.

Tasting with the Cool Kids

When I received the email inquiring whether I’d like to participate in a virtual tasting of Smith-Madrone wines, I could hardly believe my good luck. These wines are highly respected by folks who aren’t so easy to impress. But year after year, they agree that these wines are special. I couldn’t wait to taste alongside them, hear what they had to say, and compare their observations with my own.

I RSVPed YES without a moment’s hesitation!

Formidable tasting line-up. So excited!

A Virtual Tasting with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery

I’ve listened to my fellow wine bloggers wax rhapsodic about these wines for years, but I’d never tasted them. As a point of reference, most of these folks are rather reserved when it comes to describing wines, using clinical wine terms and assessments of quality. Yet, somehow, the wines from Smith-Madrone inspire these same stoics to share unabashed praise for what’s in their glass. They talk about experiencing the wine rather than what it tastes like, putting the wine in a context that includes food, family, and friends.

And, yeah, the wine also happens to taste really friggin’ good!

About Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery

Smith-Madrone was founded in 1971 by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith. The estate boasts 200 acres, a small portion of which is devoted to grape growing. Surrounding the vineyards are native flora like centenarian olive groves and a species of evergreen known as Madrone. The winery name hints at the collaboration between humans and nature. Yes, it’s about the wines; but it’s also about so much more.

The vineyards take up 34 acres in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, one of the region’s cooler spots. Vines lie on steep slopes ranging from 1,300 – 2,000 feet in altitude, offering different exposures for ripening a wide array (especially for Napa) of grape varieties: Riesling occupies the east-facing parcels, giving it full morning sun; Cabernet Sauvignon soaks up the warmth on the flatter expanse looking south/southwest; and Chardonnay looks northward, enjoying the coolest plots.

Production is a scant 3,000 cases per year, prompting me to feel even more grateful to have been invited to taste four of their wines. Such generosity extends to the Smith-Madrone philosophy in general:

At Smith-Madrone our goal is to make artisanal wines which are distinctive and are an expression of both the vintage and us, as vintners, but above all else, are wines which bring pleasure to the senses. Every year our wine is made from the same vineyards, pruned by the same people in the same way, cultivated in exactly the same manner and harvested at similar levels of maturity, yet Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses and character. Vintage dating is a celebration of that uniqueness and diversity.

My Kind of Wine People

After spending an hour with Stu Smith and a handful of fellow wine enthusiasts, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. (Tasting notes on the four wines are in the next paragraph.) There was such a refreshing vibe to the conversation. Stu talked about why they make wines the way they do:

“Because, ultimately, wine belongs at the dining room table, with family and friends.”

The folks at Smith-Madrone aren’t out there chasing points or trying to develop a cult following. They’re making honest wine that is delightfully expressive; it pays homage to a place – an inviting place where we’re all welcome to pull up a chair, sip something delicious, and speak our minds.

These are definitely my kind of wine people.

Note: I received these wines and an invitation to participate in the chat courtesy of Smith-Madrone. I wasn’t compensated for this post, and all opinions expressed herein are mine.

2016 Smith-Madrone Estate Grown Chardonnay (14.4%abv)

100% Chardonnay that was dry-farmed, barrel-fermented, and aged in oak (80% new French barrels) for nine months. Only 831 cases made, which is a pity, because I could sip this rich, refreshing wine every day. I live in Miami and am always on the hunt for crisp, white wines to bring the temperature down. Napa Chardonnay doesn’t usually come to mind.

Great pairing with white pizza topped with peppers, salami, and mushroom.

This one, however, is a beauty. It hits the Goldilocks spot for me: lots of ripe white peach, apple, and pear, tons of zippy citrus, and lively, medium+ acidity. As Stu mentioned during the tasting, a good wine needs to dance across the palate, and acidity is the key. If you think you don’t like new world Chardonnay, I dare you to try it – if you can find a bottle.

2015 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (14.3% abv)

An enticing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (84%) and Cabernet Franc (16%), this wine is the product of fruit grown at the top of Spring Mountain (1,800 feet) on weathered volcanic soils mixed with sedimentary rock. The wine was aged in French oak barrels (65% new; 35% one-year-old) for 18 months.

Stu called this wine a throwback to the Napa Valley of yesteryear: a wine with pure, clean Cabernet Sauvignon character. I happen to love that it’s blended with a healthy dose of Cabernet Franc, a variety they expect to plant more of. You can get just a hint of it on the palate, where it adds an attractive, peppery note.

Greek salad and grilled steaks – and Cabernet Sauvignon!

As opposed to many varietal Cabernet wines from Napa, this one strikes a rather modest pose: medium+ acid and tannin, medium+ intensity black and red fruit aromas. There are spicy notes of cigar box, earthy scents of forest floor, and kirsch and vanilla. It’s clean and fresh and a perfect partner with grilled steak. I would actually enjoy drinking this wine on its own – something I can’t say of many Napa reds.

2016 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve (14.3% abv)

Made in preciously small quantities only in superior vintages, Cook’s Flat Reserve is modeled on the world-famous first growth wines of Bordeaux. Always a blend of the finest barrels, the 2016 brings together Cabernet Sauvignon (54%) and Cabernet Franc (46%) in a medley of ripe black fruit, tobacco, baking spices, and sun-warmed earth. Exquisitely balanced with moderate acidity and tannin, this wine is a hedonistic pleasure to drink now but would reward the patient oenophile who can put it away for a few more years.

A simple meal of grilled steak and baked potatoes allowed the Cook’s Flat Reserve to shine.

Only 111 cases of the 2016 were made, and each bottle is individually numbered. Available only via the winery (for now) count yourself among the lucky few if you manage to score a bottle. I’m still thinking about this wine two weeks after tasting it.

Yeah, it’s that good.

2016 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Spring Mountain Riesling (12.8% abv)

I have to admit: this was the wine I was most looking forward to tasting. Remember how I described my fellow wine bloggers who went crazy for all the Smith-Madrone wines? The most effusive praise – across the board – was for the Riesling.

A bit of an outlier in Napa, Riesling more often calls to mind the steep slopes of the Mosel in Germany or perhaps the sun-warmed slopes of Alsace. Spring Mountain? Not so much. But this wine makes you wish Riesling were more prominent among the plantings; and that it all could be made by Smith-Madrone.

Sweet and spicy bahn-mi pizza was a nice match with the Riesling.

100% Riesling, this wine smells like a beautiful fruit salad: apples, pears, passionfruit, and mango spritzed with a few drops of lemon juice and sprinkled with lime zest and ginger. It is unapologetically ripe and exuberant, lightly restrained by tart acidity that keeps all that personality in check. Reminiscent of Alsace but with even more pizzazz. Hands down, my favorite wine of the tasting.

If you haven’t yet tasted the wines from Smith-Madrone, I highly recommend them. Especially if you’re gathered at the table with loved ones, telling tales and passing plates. Or any time you’re knitting the fabric that connects family and friends. That’s exactly what these wines were made for.

Old World or New World?

JVB Uncorked, June 27, 2020:

I recently had the opportunity to join in a live tasting of four wines I’d highly enjoyed a year ago. The winery, Smith-Madrone, is one of the best under-the-radar labels you can find. I’m still surprised their prices have not sky-rocketed, but their wines are selling out faster every year and their value is among the highest found in Napa Valley. Here are my thoughts, to share with you- in finding the best wines for you to enjoy daily, or for special occasions. Cheers! –JvB

2016 Riesling, 12.8% ABV

It is more Alsatian than German in style: superbly dry; with a honeyed nose but dry palate and body. On the palate are green apple, bosc pear, and a solid key lime base layer. Capable of pairing with rich and savory food, this is ideal for Thai, Burmese, Sushi and a Spanish gazpacho, but can handle everything from a salad to steak tartare, from carpaccio to mussels, from meringues to chocolate lava cake.

If you ask me for the best rieslings from the USA, it is a very short list. I will offer you Dr. Konstantin Frank from Finger Lakes, New York;  Teutonic from Willamette Valley, The Columbia Valley collaboration “Eroica” from Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen, and Smith Madrone’s Riesling. That short list is incredibly high praise.

2016 Chardonnay, 14.4% ABV

Pale gold with green tinge, the nose offers apple, lemon pith, vanilla. On the palate, a beautiful lemon-lime with solid acidity. Excellent mid-palate that surpasses the normal California chardonnay default. Designed to be great by itself, and amazing with food. This is brilliant with blue cheese on a whole wheat cracker; I paired it the following night with baked chicken, greens and baked potato, and again the third evening with sashimi. In every instance, the wine excellent and left my palate desiring another glass, another bottle. Bravo. Smith-Madrone Chardonnay is among my top choices in the under $50 chardonnay from Napa.

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.3% ABV

A blend of 84% cabernet sauvignon with 16% cabernet franc. The wine shows a ruby color with purple edging, and offers a luxurious nose, expansive with floral and fruit notes, menthol, with a hint of young leather. The palate features black currant, blackberry, forest floor, and fresh herbs. With a fruity, old world mid-palate, heat lingers gently across the mid and back palate, with a lengthy and complex finish. My next reaction is: “this can pair with almost anything.” Absolutely, unlike some cabs which are really large (some even too big in my opinion), this is a medium-sized cabernet that is delicious by itself as well as able to complement food well. As a result, you can drink this start-to-finish with salad to grilled meat to dessert, knowing it can also pair nicely with salmon, soup, and fresh fruit, a task that many cabernets are unable to accomplish. Kudos to the 16% cab franc, a secret popular in France and often ignored in California cabernet.

This wine has a nod to the historic Napa cabernet style, with old world approach.  Far from the modern California Cab, Smith-Madrone is a rare winery that bridges multiple styles, crafting wines of wide appeal from a singular location and focus.

2016 Cook’s Flat Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.1% ABV

Have tasted the 2009 and the 2013, the 2016 is posed to be very popular. The 2016 blend is comprised of 54% cabernet sauvignon, and 46% cabernet franc; it is aged 19 months in new French oak barrels.

Featuring an expansive and glamorous nose, the palate experiences intense full fruit: red plum, blackberry, and black plum with a touch of cassis. Secondary and rich savory notes of tobacco, potting soil, aged leather, forest floor and vanilla tantalize the side and top palates, as the luxurious mouthfeel expands and bathes the tongue, offering greater enjoyment. An extended finish on this blend is more than satisfactory- I immediately began formulating food pairing and a wine dinner based around this bottle.

When I contemplate Cook’s Flat Reserve (which one does, with such a lovely glass of wine) this wine is about a winemaker crafting top quality wine for intense enjoyment. What is fascinating about this wine is how delicious, enjoyable, and intense it is in its youth, for a world-class red blend that has old world styling. For similar styles from Bordeaux, a wine would have to age considerably longer than four years to have any similar balance- but Cook’s Flat Reserve demonstrates great balance and structure along with the ability to age and still retain quality fruit, acidity and tannin. With a decade of age, that intensity evolves into refined structure with even greater complexity- so either youthful or fully aged, you maximize enjoyment with this bottle.

Should you be looking for a top-flight California red blend that speaks of the best of both the old world and new world in great winemaking, this is the bottle you will want to seek out. Like me, once you’ve had it, you’ll want to have several from each year in your cellar, to age and enjoy, while knowing you can still drink them young for an exceptional experience without having to wait 10-20 years. However, those with patience will reap the benefits.

Superb value

With our thanks for the kind words about the 2016 Chardonnay:

“A brilliant vein of acidity that keeps the wine exciting”

Nancy Brazil at PullThatCork takes a look:

Smith-Madrone: Elegant Wines from Spring Mountain District

By Nancy Brazil, June 26, 2020

Stuart Smith knew he needed to look to the mountains of Napa Valley, not the valley floor, to find a site that would allow him to make the elegant, balanced, acid-driven wines he enjoyed drinking. He found what he was looking for in a 200-acre property on Spring Mountain. The property had been home to a small vineyard in the 1880s, but by the time Stu purchased the property in 1971 the forest had reclaimed the acreage. He took back only a portion of that forest to establish Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery.

Replanting a Mountainside Vineyard

The first plantings included 5 acres each of (Johannisberg) Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. His brother Charles joined the effort in 1973 and in 1974 the brothers built the winery building themselves. During a recent Zoom conference with a group of wine writers, Stu told us that he always wanted to be in the mountains, but, of mountain viticulture he said, “It’s just a lot of work and there’s no easy way of doing it.” Clearly, hard work has never deterred the Smith brothers.

Stu and Charles have learned many things in the nearly 50 years they’ve been working their Spring Mountain District vineyard. Pinot Noir is no longer among the varieties planted, it’s just not right for the site. Erosion control is essential in mountainside vineyards and gone are the days of discing between vine rows in favor of site appropriate, year-round cover crops and no-till practices. 

Erosion control is now so effective that row orientation needn’t closely follow hillside contours. It is possible to orient rows down a hillside, except on the steepest parts, to capture the desired sun exposure. Canopy management and by extension trellis design have been a focus to protect grapes from sun damage while promoting even ripening.

Cabernet Franc and Merlot have been added over time, and 2019 marked the first harvest of Petit Verdot. Additional Cabernet Franc will be planted in 2021 with an eye toward making a varietal Cabernet Franc. Phylloxera infested the vineyard near the end of the 1990s and two blocks remain to be replanted. Learning and adaptation continue.

With the exception of Riesling, French oak is used in winemaking. The Smiths prefer oak from the forests of Tronçais, Nevers and Allier because it is slow growing and tighter grained, which means the oak influence is less obvious in the wine. 

In general, they pick earlier than their neighbors on Spring Mountain. Harvest generally begins with Chardonnay, then Riesling (though it may overlap with Chardonnay), followed by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Some later blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon may follow and sometimes Cabernet Franc comes last. The Smiths’ experience with Petit Verdot is just beginning.

Officially, Stu is managing partner and enologist, Charles is winemaker and Stu’s son Sam is assistant winemaker. Smith-Madrone is very much a family winery. Annual production is about 3000 cases and the Smith-Madrone name combines the family name with the Madrone tree, a common tree on the hillside estate.

2016 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley — golden yellow in the glass with aromas of citrus, cedar and toast. Generous flavors of pear, crisp apple, and citrus blend with notes of cedar and are supported by bright, juicy acidity. The wine is a bit round with a very long finish. 14.4% abv.

Fermentation begins in stainless steel to preserve the fruit flavors of mountain Chardonnay. Part way through the wine is chilled to slow fermentation it is moved to barrels to complete fermentation. This vintage was fermented in 80% new French oak, but 100% new French oak is used in some vintages. It is always inoculated for malolactic fermentation, but the Smiths don’t test for its completion. And the wine benefits from lees stirring. 

With all of that winemaking, this Chardonnay has generous fruit flavors, roundness in the mouth and juicy acidity. If you are looking for a fat, buttery Chardonnay you will be disappointed.

2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley — light ruby in the glass with complex aromas that include dark fruit and dried tobacco leaf. Layers of flavor begin with red fruit, then dark fruit, leather, dusty earth and tobacco. Tannins are a bit grippy, but well integrated. The wine is medium bodied with a long finish. 14.3% abv. 

This Cabernet is light on its feet, with very good complexity and bright acidity. It’s elegant, balanced and leaves me wanting another sip. 

2016 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valleymedium ruby in the glass with generous aromas of red and dark fruit, dried tobacco leaf and dusty earth. Flavors are darker, but still with a bright red fruit character, along with cigar box and earth. Medium in weight with more texture and well-integrated tannins and a very long finish. 14.3% abv.

The Cook’s Flat Reserve represents the best barrels from the best lots and is made only in the best vintages. The proprietary blend varies by vintage and is made using 100% new French oak.

Cook’s Flat is the name used by locals at the time to identify the 8-acre vineyard originally planted by George Cook in the early 1880s. This vineyard location was replanted by Stu in 1972.

2017 Smith-Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley — medium yellow in the glass with generous aromas of stone fruit, dried pineapple and a hint of petrol. Complex flavors of white peach, pineapple guava, stony minerality and bright acidity. The flavors taste like fruit, but the wine doesn’t taste sweet. The finish is very long. 12.9% abv.

Even over-refrigerated this wine has amazing aromatics. Winemaking takes place in all stainless steel to preserve the gorgeous fruit aromas and flavors of Riesling. It is a pure expression of the variety that will age well for 30 years. In Stu’s view the rewards for aging Smith-Madrone Riesling are worth the wait.

Stu told us that not only does he especially appreciate white wine, but that Riesling might be his favorite. “Riesling is something we have done very well from the beginning,” Stu said, because he and Charles take it so seriously. In fact, they won the German Wine Division of the Wine Olympics in 1979, an accomplishment Stu remains very proud of. The only down side is that Riesling is so hard to sell.

Interestingly we tasted the Riesling after the red wines. I was amazed at how well this bright, complex Riesling followed the heavier, complex Cabernet-based wines, and that was the point. Complex, intense flavors are truly hallmarks of this Riesling’s character.

Every one of these wines has a brilliant vein of acidity running through it that keeps the wine exciting. Nothing sticks out in these wines and they do exhibit an Old World style of winemaking.

The goal at Smith-Madrone has always been to be a European-style estate that grows all their own grapes and strives to capture the nuances of terroir which Mother Nature provides every vintage. No two vintages will be the same, but the wines will always be balanced, elegant and complex.

See the Smith-Madrone website to purchase wines online and to arrange a visit when tastings resume after being closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We visited in 2016 and found the mountainside vineyards to be one of the prettiest we have visited.