HIDDEN NAPA VALLEY | SMITH-MADRONE WINERY
by Johannes Marlena, February 20, 2018
Are we out of line for calling Smith-Madrone a “hidden” winery of Napa Valley, considering it was established in 1971? No, not until the world recognizes there may not be a better $50 Napa Cab for the money than Smith-Madrone’s. Not to mention they also produce one of America’s most essential white wines.
What the heck kind of wine person goes out to California’s vaunted Napa Valley and says, “Yeah, I’ll make a Riesling?” Currently, there’s only 87 acres of vineyard dedicated to growing Riesling in Napa (there’s about 4,000 total acres of Riesling in California as compared to 98,000 of Chardonnay). Well, it happened—at the height of the hippie era, not that this necessarily has anything to do with anything. In 1970, Stuart Smith, 22 years old and armed with a B.A. in Economics from UC Berkeley, looked up to the mountains in the Spring Mountain District and bought the latitude 38.532437 and longitude 122.548480 vineyard property that is still the family’s today.
“Stu” Smith, in 1972, chose which varietals he would plant based on the exposures of the mountainous slopes of the vineyards (the peak height of the property reaches 1900 feet): east would be Riesling; north would be Chardonnay; and south and west would be Cabernet Sauvignon. And happily these grapes would grow among the 120-year-old olive trees, California black bears, and other wildlife that exists on the site. “These vines are our friends,” says Stu.
The vineyards of Smith-Madrone are dry-farmed, and Stu is a pioneer of this farming practice as applied to mountain sites.
Mountain Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley can easily run you into the three-figures. “Handcrafted” is a shopworn term in the wine world, but in the case of mountain vineyards, good luck getting big mechanical harvesters not to tip over up there. What it takes to grow great grapes and make great wine around here is true grit. At $50 per bottle, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet is true grit at true value.
For those interested in tasting how a mountain Chardonnay is different in its expression than an archetypal Napa Chardonnay, the Smith-Madrone mountain Chardonnay is a must-have and, again, a relative steal.
And what about that Riesling? The Smith-Madrone remains one of the most inspirational products in American wine. There’s a retro-trendy belief nowadays that California’s terroir is one in which Riesling thrives. Riesling was actually one of the most popular white grape plantings of the Napa of the 1800s—pre-Phylloxera armageddon—and we are on the cusp of a new movement to define what “California Riesling” means today. But, to have a vision of the future of Riesling’s importance to the identity of Napa Valley in 1972 like Stuart Smith did—well, that makes him a kind of Nikola Tesla of the wine world. The Smith-Madrone Riesling is a contemporary American classic and stands as one of our most essential white wines—that everyone can experience at less than 30 bucks.
The three wines reviewed below—Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon—represent the core of Smith-Madrone’s lineup. And these wine represent what’s best about exploring the ‘hidden” corners of Napa Valley. No train or buses to get here… just go your own way.
Rapturously rich, with ripe tropical fruit (lychee, mango), peach nectar and orange blossom notes and a touch of flintiness and minerality. Grapes are grown on steep hillsides, like they do in Germany and Alsace—home to the world’s greatest Rieslings. Man, this is the sophisticated, structured and vivid stuff of dreams. Dry and focused, but also warm, ripe and finishing on the vibrant acidity of citrus—great mouthfeel from beginning to end. This is Riesling going for character and longevity versus quick-pleasing and obvious, like too many American Rieslings of yesterday. Iconoclastic, singular and fiercely independent expression of American Riesling from a place you don’t expect Riesling to be made.
Mountain Chardonnay that’s vivacious, rich and footloose and free. Its color is a brilliant goldenrod, its character broad, buttery smooth, full-bodied and overflowing with flavor, with notes of jackfruit, ripe pineapple, wax, lemon verbena and toffee. Just a ton of personality. Impressively big and bold while structurally solid and high class. The wine’s finish is lengthy with broad tannins—stone fruit notes linger well into the next sip. A Napa Chardonnay that far, far exceeds in quality to its price point.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2013
When you find mountain Napa Cab that doesn’t run into the three-figure dollar amount and is this good, you celebrate. Yes, you celebrate by opening a bottle, but more importantly, you celebrate that this kind of gift exists for mankind. Oh, that great mountain nose of rich, fleshy plum, wild dark berries, violets and lavender. These notes carry through onto the palate—again, rich, sumptuous and fleshy—with additional notes of coffee, dark chocolate and black pepper emerging. Smooth, oily texture and super-fine tannins along with that familiar mountain Cab savoriness. Loads of character here, and a quiet, rugged passion behind the wine is palpable.