Blogger Cortney Roudebush drove up to see us: here is her account:
Spring Mountain is one of my preferred sub-appellations of the Napa Valley (along with Howell Mountain and Stag’s Leap District) and there are many wineries worth visiting up there. If you only have time to visit two, I highly recommend Terra Valentine (a long-time love of mine) and Smith-Madrone (a new favorite), which provide two totally different experiences.
I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Smith-Madrone founders and brothers, Stu and Charlie Smith.
The tour starts in the vineyard with Stu. Perched 1900 feet above the valley, the sweeping views from Smith-Madrone are amazing. The rows of Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon zigzag over the landscape. As Stu explains, they have been laid out to maximize sun exposure for early ripening. He discusses the challenges that come along with growing grapes on a steep hillside and the difficulties they had clearing the space almost 40 years ago. They now have a total of 38 acres planted to vines; the rest of their property is still covered in forest, densely populated with Douglas Fir, Manzanita, and oak trees.
Stu points out the large single madrone tree in the middle of the young Riesling vineyard and explains that this tree was the inspiration behind the name of the winery. He and Charlie wanted to put their name on the label, but they also wanted something more original than “Smith Winery” and “Smith Brothers” was already synonymous with cough drops. So they settled on Smith-Madrone (admittedly, it has a better ring to it than Smith-Douglas Fir or Smith-Manzanita).
From the top of Spring Mountain, the valley below looks so peaceful and quiet below, which is not really the case at least this time of year. Most wineries are currently in the throes of harvest right now, with traffic congesting sections of Highway 29, but the Smith brothers are calm and relaxed—they have already picked the last of their estate-grown grapes and they don’t source additional fruit from any other vineyards.
Stu leads us back down to the winery and inside the barrel room, where we are handed wine glasses and introduced to his older brother Charlie. An old oak barrel turned upright serves as a table as we taste through the estate-bottled current releases.
The 2006 ($45/bottle) Cabernet Sauvignon is a dark, brooding beauty. Blended with 9% Merlot and 6% Cab Franc, it is still very youthful with tight tannins and the promise of more to come. Smelling this wine is like sticking your nose into a bag of dark chocolate-covered cherries! Yum. On the palate, flavors of bright red currant, cherry cola, and black plum are complemented by savory notes of tar and exotic spice. The finish is ripe and brimming with impressions of blueberry and juicy black fruit.The 2009 Chardonnay ($30/bottle) is a refreshing delight (it was about 95 degrees the day of our visit). It is crisp and clean despite going through 100% malolactic fermentation. No buttery or popcorn flavors in this glass! A pale straw hue, this wine has mouthwatering acidity with zesty citrus and tropical fruit aromas. The entry is alive with flavors of Meyer lemon, pear, and minerals while the mid-palate offers richer notes of crème brûlée, sweet cream, and stone fruit. This Chardonnay, although particularly light in body, would pair nicely with many types of foods.
With lower alcohol, the Smiths design their wines for longevity. The 2006 Cab has only 13.9% abv, which is relatively low compared to most Napa Cabs. That being said, I found the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (to be released soon!) very approachable. With blue and black fruit aromas and a velvety mouthfeel, I would probably drink the 2007 sooner than I would the 2006. I was surprised to hear that Charlie had recently tasted their 1984 Cab and it was holding up very well.
There wasn’t an extra bottle of that vintage around for us to sample, but we did try one more wine. The 2011 Riesling ($27/bottle) at 12.6% abv, is a terrific wine to enjoy at lunchtime or as an aperitif. The perfume is effusive and reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum with kumquat, mandarin and grapefruit. Light and delicately flavored, this wine would be the perfect pairing for Asian cuisine, salads, and on its own!
For what started as a hobby, the Los Angeles-born Smith brothers have achieved great success in crafting unique small-production wines from their Spring Mountain estate vineyards. You won’t find an art-filled tasting room or chef-endorsed food pairings at Smith-Madrone; the experience is rustic and replete with old-Napa charm—and that’s what makes it so wonderful. Like most of the wineries on Spring Mountain, make an appointment first. And enjoy the drive!