Slow Wine Guide takes a look

From Slow Wine Guide, published in January 2018:


Brothers Stu and Charles Smith arrived on Spring Mountain in 1971, when it was mostly still uninhabited though they soon discovered that the site that would become Smith-Madrone was planted to vineyards prior to Prohibition. More than 40 years later, theirs is still a two-man operation, with Stu overseeing viticulture and Charles running the winery. Total annual production hovers around 5,000 cases.

VINEYARDS: Ranging in altitude from about 1,200 to 2,000 feet and planted on steep pitches, the dry-farmed Smith-Madrone span 34 acres in various stages of production. The soils here are the Spring Mountain mix of volcanic and sedimentary rock, and the varietal mix includes 6 acres of Riesling, 10 acres of Chardonnay, 13 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. A majority of these vineyards exceed 40 years of age, and it shows in the profundity of the wines.

WINES: The Smith-Madrone line-up, and especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, leave no doubt that they have been crafted from old-vine, mountain grown fruit.

GREAT WINE: The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is a big, brooding wine with concentrated black and blue fruits framed by iron-shaving tannins and subtle oak spice (and, it should be noted, this powerful red easily outperforms Cabernets twice and three times its price).

The 2015 Chardonnay is 100% barrel-fermented and aged in new oak, boasting deep apple and pear fruit, a creamy texture and refreshing acidity.

The 2014 Riesling is a structured, unoaked, bone-dry expression of white peach, citrus and wildflowers underpinned by wet-stone minerality and bracing acidity. It, like the Cabernet, has shown a capacity for long aging.

Sun-drenched richness + high acidity freshness

Vinography looks at the 2015 Chardonnay:

2015 Smith Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and buttered popcorn. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy flavors of lemon curd, candied grapefruit and a touch of butterscotch are positively electric with acidity. Phenomenally mouthwatering and delicious. There’s oak at work here, but it plays mostly into the silky texture of the wine, leaving the rich fruit and the explosive acidity to shine. This wine is a great example of a middle path for California Chardonnay, one which displays sun-drenched richness but at the same time keeps with the tradition of high acidity freshness that we all expect in our Burgundian Chardonnays.



2015 Chardonnay ‘lovely & complex’

The 2015 Chardonnay is reviewed in the May Wine Enthusiast:


From the exceptional site atop Spring Mountain, this white is lovely and complex, a mix of sharp tangerine, orange and lime flavor that packs within its layers of fruit an undeniable thirst-quenching acidity. The oak is supportive and subtle, playing a supporting role with deft ability.

International Wine Review reviews

2014 Cabernet and 2015 Chardonnay were reviewed at International Wine Review:

Smith-Madrone is a small family-owned and operated  artisanal winery in St. Helena.  It was founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith on a 200-acre ranch, partly planted as a vineyard over a century ago.  The Smith-Madrone estate vineyards sit on Spring Mountain at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet on steep rocky slopes ranging up to 34% incline.  Their soils are mostly volcanic-based  clay loam, and their vineyards are dry farmed.  The winery produces about 4,000 cases a year of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and a Prestige Cuvée, Cooks’s Flat Reserve.   The winery management team, pictured below, consists of  Stuart A. Smith, Managing Partner, Charles F. Smith III, winemaker, and Sam Smith, Assistant Winemaker.

We were delighted to have the opportunity to taste these magnificent wines.  They are well-made and beautifully focused wines with rich flavors and somewhat wild mountain characteristics.  They are for drinking now but will provide pleasure for years to come.

Smith-Madrone 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($52)  The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is nicely integrated and complex with a melange of red and black fruit with noteworthy boysenberry, plum,  savory herbs and notes of underbrush and chocolate.  It is nicely concentrated, round on the palate with firm tannins and a long finish.

Smith-Madrone 2015 Chardonnay Spring Mountain District Napa Vallley ($34)  Medium straw in color, this Chardonnay displays ripe apple and melon on the nose. It reveals prominent wood notes on the palate with orchard fruit flavors and has nice lingering intensity of flavor on the finish with good acidity showing throughout.

Crispness & creaminess

The March issue of Tasting Panel magazine looks at the 2015 Chardonnay:

93 points: Grown at an 1,800-foot elevation on Spring Mountain, these grapes are dry-farmed on red Aiken soil (a result of volcanic materials and sedimentary rock) on the estate property surrounding the winery. Barrel fermented for ten months in 80% new French oak, this Chardonnay is a charmer with multiple personalities and an alcohol level of 14.4%. The nose goes from savory to sweet in 60 seconds, alluding to basil, capers and vanilla pudding. The palate follows suit, with herb-y chamomile morphing from pineapple and mustard seed to orange-lemon drops. The finish pursues both crispness and creaminess, ensuring this wine offers options.

“High elevation hoodoo” and more

 From IntoxReport, March 7:

The Madrone Ranger Rides Again

You have your Lone Rangers and you have your Rhone Rangers, and you probably have Heidelberg Tuns filled with preposterous puns, but as always, rising above them all in the rarefied atmosphere of Spring Mountain, you have Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, the dash in the wineries name does not indicate a partner named Madrone; rather, the conspirators here are Stuart’s enological brohammer Charles F. Smith III and the frugally-named assistant winemaker Sam Smith.  The Madrone in the moniker is a tall and stately species of evergreen tree that lords over the estate’s mountaintop terroir, symbolic of the swagger and the sizzle of its grape juice.

I first fell in love with Smith-Madrone’s Riesling a decade ago, because amid a (then) sea of Left Coast cold-varietal mediocrity, it was a crisp, clean and shimmering stand-alone. Stuart Pigott, the Raja of Riesling, once called the Smith Brothers ‘two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling’—although considering the number of arias I’ve sung about them, I must be perennially off-key.

The wine, then and now, is an example of how this German varietal performs do if the V-shaped river vineyards of the grapes native Germany are flipped over to make California mountainsides. The solar-panel slopes concentrate sunlight and drain water and nutrients, forcing vines to struggle against the natural shocks that grape flesh is heir to, and this creates smaller, richer fruit than valley vines yield, and—because cool air flows downward, night air creates drafts that protect against against diseases, molds and pests. The result, both in Rheingau and at Smith-Madrone, is a dynamic mélange of fat fruit flavors—mango, ripe pear and pineapple laced with lean acids and incisive minerality.

2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain

What’s sauce for the Gau is sauce for the gander, so it stands to reason that the high-elevation hoodoo that produces such righteous Riesling might have something to say about Chardonnay as well. In fact, the sample of Smith-Madrone’s 2015 bears it out. Grown at sun-washed, 1,800-foot elevations and on slopes up to 34% grade, the Smith brothers have been harvesting Chardonnay from their estate for 47 years, and call 2015 ‘the most unusual harvest they’ve ever seen.’

“To start with, there was no rain, and there have been enormous swings of temperature and of course, there have been fires. This was after a mild winter caused early bud break, followed by protracted bloom and cool weather in spring, which contributed to smaller grape clusters and variable crop size.  We started harvesting the Chardonnay on August 27 and completed picking on September 16.  Despite the challenges, the color, flavor profiles and chemistry continue to impress us all.”

#metoo. The wine offers beautiful tones of ripe citrus behind a crisp concentration of peach, candied lemon, and roasted cashew stone and excellent, resonating texture. Get it quick; only 512 cases made.

2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain

Says Charles F. Smith:  “In spite of the drought and the Napa earthquake, the 2014 harvest produced an abundant crop and excellent expectations for the vintage. The 2013/2014 winter was one of the driest on record in California and rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were approximately half of normal. A long-term benefit of the drought is that berry sizes are typically smaller and have more concentrated flavors, which may explain the terrific quality of the 2014 harvest.”

Altitude plays a role in producing wines of potency and nuance, but without a proper foundation, it’s all for naught.  The reddish Aiken soil that predominates throughout Smith-Madrone vineyards is derived from nearby Sonoma Volcanics, and tends to be gravelly, leading to even more radical drainage than elevation alone would account for.  In the Spring Mountain AVA soil depths vary, but tend to be deeper than in nearby mountain terrains, and as a result, so do their red wines. Notable is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is almost inky black in color (high elevation reds seem to tan in the direct UV rays like people) and has a bracing dose of acid that preserves the elusive quality of freshness in extraordinarily rich wines.  The wine displays the pedigree of middle-aged vines; these are in their early forties. It’s juicy with dark, saturated berry flavors—fruit crushed for jam, but not yet stewed.  It’s accented by coffee, spicy plum and crushed peppercorn and shows clarity and precision.

I always welcome an opportunity to circle back to see what the brothers-on-high are up to at Smith-Madrone.  Smith is the most common name in the United States, so it’s gratifying to note that these two are making some of the most unusual wines.

“All the hallmarks of quality winemaking” and more

Chardonnay and Cabernet considered at Winethropology:


Smith-Madrone, King and Queen

If cabernet is king in Napa, certainly chardonnay is the queen.  A sample bottle of each from Spring Mountain stalwart Smith-Madrone arrived recently for review.  I’ve very much enjoyed past vintages and other bottlings from this family-run operation. Though many wineries in Napa Valley remain small and family-owned, few can claim what Smith-Madrone does: 100% dry farmed estate wines.  This is no small feat and absolutely impacts what comes into the cellar.  For those who can pull it off – and pull it off well – the resulting wines ooze authenticity.

A year ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the 13 and 14 cab and chard respectively.  These two below are from the 14 and 15 vintages.  The 2014 and 15 chardonnays are very similar stylistically, while the the 2013 and 14 cabernets exhibit clear vintage contrasts.  Regardless, these remain wines faithful to a certain place, a place worth making a visit to next time you’re in the neighborhood.
2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain Napa Valley $34
Majestic. High quality chardonnay in the classic California style. Intense tropical flavors with glycerine, heavy cream, and solid oak framing. Unapologetically statuesque, bold, and lingering, yet cleanly pressed and bearing all the hallmarks of quality winemaking; nary a stitch out of place. Can be (and best) enjoyed at cellar temperature to appreciate its full profundity.

2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain Napa Valley $52
Oh, lord, the luxurious aromatics coming off this alone are enough to incite instant infatuation. Deep, beckoning black fruit invites more sniffing for those with the patience to not just dive in. The attack, however, sits juxtaposed with its blue-green fruit/vegetable profile and a restraint that is in contrast to the nose. Prominent acidity, combined with its old school cabernet fruit elements suggest longevity. Even after seven hours decanted, drinking this feels like infanticide. Would love to revisit this one in a decade. And then again in another.

“Splendid” and more from Grape-experiences

Grape-experiences looks at the 2014 Cabernet and 2015 Chardonnay:

Elegant and Powerful – Sips from Smith-Madrone Winery

by Cindy Rynning, February 28, 2018

Whenever I open a box that contains wines from Smith-Madrone Winery in St. Helena, California, I’m always thrilled. Why? I’m assured that each wine is crafted with care, is always consistent with regards to quality, and is guaranteed to please even the most discerning palate. Anyone who loves wine will treasure each sip of a delectable choice from one of my favorite wineries.

“Nestled on Spring Mountain Road, a mere 30-minute drive from St. Helena, is Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, a 200- acre ranch partly planted as a vineyard over one hundred years ago. Where California black bears and other wildlife once flourished, gigantic 120-year-old Picholine olive trees now thrive on land that overlooks Napa Valley and Napa Valley State Park. World class vineyards do, too.” For more, please click here to read my article: Fascinating Smith-Madrone: The People, The Place, The Wines.

The grapes in each wine from Smith-Madrone are cultivated in estate vineyards surrounding the winery. Located atop Spring Mountain at an 1800-foot elevation and west of St. Helena in Napa Valley, the vines grow on extremely steep slopes with red Aiken soil from weathered volcanic materials and sedimentary rock.

For 47 years, Smith-Madrone grapes have been sourced from the same vineyards. These historic lands produce grapes that have been pruned, cultivated, and harvested in the same manner… and by the same people. Yet, “Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses, and character”.  As a result, the portfolio of wines exudes artisanal flair and diverse characteristics that are quite unique to the Spring Mountain District.

Now, the talented winemakers at Smith-Madrone have released two selections, both sent to me as samples. With every sip, elegance and power combined to offer two exceptional examples of wines from this fascinating region. Each will be a crowd favorite at your next gathering or perfect for a moment in time with a loved one, your favorite book, or best friend…

Smith-Madrone 2015 Chardonnay – Chardonnay aficionados will crave this latest release. The 2015 harvest began on August 27, a bit early, and was completed on September 16. Because of a mild winter that caused early bud break and a spring season that was cool, smaller grape clusters and variable crop size resulted. Only 512 cases were produced of this beautiful 100% Chardonnay. On the nose, I explored notes of pink grapefruit, bright citrus, pineapple, and tropical fruit. My palate burst with mouthwatering acidity, juicy citrus, a touch of honey and a creamy, yet crisp mouthfeel. The finish, lingering and complex, was remarkable. Aged for 10 months in 80% new French oak, this Chardonnay stuns.

Smith-Madrone 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon  – The 2014 vintage year produced an extraordinary amount of quality grapes. Although the 2013-2014 winter broke records for being the driest in California, grapes cultivated were smaller and boasted high concentration of flavors. This Cabernet is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 7% Merlot that spent 18 months in French oak before bottling. Wafting from the glass were intense aromas of rich red cherries, tobacco, smoke, juicy plums, blackberries, and subtle notes of earth. Bright acidity and satin-like tannins enveloped textured, complex notes of spice and dark fruit on the palate. Elegant and supple, this is a splendid wine that can be aged for twenty-five years…if you’re willing.

“Glorious” and more, when The Armchair Sommelier takes a look

February 22, 2018

The Armchair Sommelier takes a look….


One of the perks of being a professional wine student (that’s what I’m calling myself these days) is that I occasionally get some wine samples to review.  I’m particularly grateful to Smith-Madrone for sending me their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon each year, because they always give me a little nudge to think about something besides just tasting notes.  Today, I started thinking about how each vintage of wine is different (wine people like to call this vintage variation).  Because they are different.  And that snowballed into some thoughts on vintage charts.

The soul of winemaking is farming.  Without grapes, there can be no wine.  The success of a particular grape harvest is entirely dependent on the whims of Mother Nature.  A spring frost can decimate a vineyard.  Too much rain in the spring, and you can lose flowers.  No flowers, no grapes.  Too much rain at harvest can swell the grapes, diluting flavors.  Honestly, I’m surprised more winemakers don’t make sacrifices to Mother Nature.  The Ancients used to sacrifice goats to Bacchus with the hope of insuring a good harvest.  Why goats?  Because goats eat vines.  Fewer goats, more vines.  I know of a winemaker who spreads gopher ashes over his vineyards, which I guess is kind of like sacrificing a goat. I digress.

Mother Nature’s mood swings mean that no two harvests are exactly the same.  Wines that are made from the same vines grown in the same place each year are different each year.  These little differences from one year to another are one of the things that make wine so damn interesting.  But, I certainly can’t remember the growing conditions in Pomerol for 2004, or in Barbaresco for 2012, or in Napa Valley for 2008.

You’d think I’d be all about a vintage chart.

Does anyone actually have one of these in their pocket?

Nope.  I don’t stress much about this vintage vs. that vintage.  When buying wine, I place more emphasis on my own preferences for particular regions, grape varieties, style, and wineries/winemakers.  And honestly, I find vintage charts tedious.  If I want to know the particulars about a wine, I can look them up on my phone in about 13 seconds.  Vintage charts are so generalized, I feel like I’m reading my horoscope.  (Your travel plans are shaping up today, Leo.  Be sure to wear pants!)  Even worse, they’re woefully intimidating and potentially misleading to someone who is just getting into wine.  I still remember the first time I tried to consult a vintage chart (thinking it was some kind of almighty canon), and it made about this much sense to me:

There are exceptions (both good and bad) to every vintage, but that a lot to do with winemaker skill and technology, rather than a “bad” vintage.  Great winemakers will always figure out how to make lemonade from lemons.

[Tangent alert]:  Vintage is more important if you buy a lot of super expensive wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, where ripeness can be a real concern every year.

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was widely regarded as stunning, perfect even.  By contrast, the 2007 vintage was mostly panned as a stinker.  Hmmm.  To satisfy my own curiosity (and to procrastinate working on my WSET Diploma research paper), I took a quick look at pricing, availability, and aggregate scores of two first-growth Bordeaux wines on best vintage chart ever.

The Château Margaux 2005 is $800 (97 points), but the 2007 is $450 (93 points).  The Château Lafite Rothschild 2005 is $1,000 (96 points), and the 2007 is $750 (92 points).  I’m not sure I’d call the 2007 vintage a stinker based on those parameters.  A bargain, maybe (if I ever win the lottery), but certainly not a stinker.

And that is my very belabored point.  One vintage over another isn’t necessarily bad, just different.  Unique.  Distinct.  Interesting.

So what’s interesting about the Smith-Madrones this year?  Honestly, as I looked back on my tasting notes for previous vintages, what struck me the most was the consistency.  Smith-Madrone wines are different each year, but remarkably consistent in structure and quality.

2015 Chardonnay  
100% Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in 80% new French oak.  The second I stuck my nose into this glass, I grinned from ear to ear.  Because I knew it was going to be an acid bomb.  A glorious, mouth-puckering acid bomb.  Laced with flavors of yellow apple, lemon meringue, minerals, and chamomile.  Elegant and edgy at the same time — kind of like Audrey Hepburn.  At 14.9% ABV, I feel like this should be “bigger”, but it’s so well constructed.  Gawd, this is good.  And, it’s only $34.  Seriously.  How is this possible for only $34??

My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2014:  Bâttonage (lees stirring) = toastier, yeastier.
2013:  Clean mountain rain.
2012:  Old World restraint.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon  
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 7% Merlot.  Aged for 18 months in 70% new French oak and 30% one-year old French oak.  If you recall, 2014 was the year of the Napa earthquake.  It was also a drought year for Napa, and according to Smith-Madrone, rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were about half what they usually are.  What does that mean for the grapes?  Well, it means the grapes were stressed out.  And stressed out vines can make great wines.  It also means that grapes were smaller, which produced a more concentrated juice.

A gorgeous, deep ruby color.  Cedar, blackberry, black currant, garden mint, and a big pile of crushed mountain rocks.  The power in this wine comes from its structure.  Despite its youth, this is beautifully balanced with beautifully integrated tannins.  A dense and elegant knock-out.  No doubt this will develop beautifully in the bottle.  13.9% ABV.  $52.

My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2013:  Cigars and lavender.
2012:  Cranberries in a cedar chest.
2011:  Deliciously funky.

Don’t sweat the vintage, celebrate it!





Don’t Sweat the Vintage, Celebrate It (a Smith-Madrone Tangent)


Chardonnay in the Washington Post

Dave McIntyre considers the 2015 Chardonnay in the February 16, 2018 issue:


“….take comfort in a luscious California chardonnay…

3 stars: Some chardonnays whack you in the face with an oak two-by-four. Smith-Madrone wraps you lovingly in a warm blanket.  ”