Pioneers on the mountain

Sommelier Karl Kazaks profiled the winery in the July issue of Wine & Craft Beverage News:


Smith-Madrone pursues pioneering spring mountain style into fifth decade

by Karl H. Kazaks

Spring Mountain District, an AVA on the northwest side of Napa Valley, is named after its natural springs.

One of those springs is located near the bottom of the parcel of land purchased by Charlie and Stuart Smith in 1971, where they established Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery.

“It began as a hobby and got completely out of control,” said Charlie. The brothers had discovered wine while in college at Berkeley in the 1960s and decided to make their own.

“For the first ten years, Stuart and I did all the work,” Charlie said. “We pounded the stakes in, we put up the wire, we did the whole nine yards. There is literally nothing in the vineyard that we do not have extensive personal experience with. One summer we spent picking up rocks. We were clearing a two-and-a-half-acre field. We’d rip it, pick up the rocks, cross-rip it, pick up rocks. That pretty much cured me of wanting to pick up rocks.”

The Smiths started planting vines in 1972 and made their first wine in 1977 — a Riesling.

In 1979, their Riesling was entered in a wine competition sponsored by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. Matched against Rieslings from around the world, Smith-Madrone’s was selected as the Best Riesling. Second place was awarded to a wine made by Schloss Vollrads, a winery from Germany’s Rheingau region which has been making wine for 800 years.

“Back then, our Rieslings were sweeter,” Charlie said, with a residual sugar level of around 1.5 percent. Today Smith-Madrone’s Rieslings have a residual sugar level closer to 0.75 percent.

“Their Rieslings are well-balanced,” said Mike Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill, a winery lower down on Spring Mountain.

Like all of the wines made at Smith-Madrone, the Rieslings show an abundance of individuality while displaying a consistent house style of vintage-appropriate structure, never lacking the backbone to permit some length of aging.

A comparison of the 2013 and 2014 Rieslings shows how the wine differs across vintages. The 2013, which has a fragrant nose of tropical and stone fruit, also has a strong aspect of wet stone. The vintage is fatter than the 2014, which has keen acidity and a pleasant lime peel quality.

“The key thing with our Rieslings,” Charlie said, “is the pH is really low in the 3.0 – 3.15 range.”

Though Rieslings aren’t much associated with Napa Valley, in the early 1970s, Charlie said the variety “was common as dirt. It was one of the recommended varieties — Riesling and Chardonnay for whites, Cabernet and Zinfandel for reds.”

If you put Smith-Madrone’s Riesling in a lineup of Alsatian Rieslings, you’d be hard pressed to pick it out. Its alcohol percentage — between 12.5 percent and 13 percent — might be the biggest giveaway when compared to some grand cru Alsatian Riesling, which often come in between 13 percent and 14 percent.

At Smith-Madrone, which experiences cooler days and warmer nights than the valley floor, Riesling is planted on eastern slopes. Chardonnay is planted on northern slopes. Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot on southern and western slopes.

Some of the slopes are steep, up to a 34 percent grade. The soils are mostly red Aiken Stony Clay loam on top of the Franciscan Assemblage, found in California’s coastal ranges and consisting of a collection of various rock types.

There is a flat parcel, known as Cook’s Flat, named after the first person to plant grapes on this part of Spring Mountain. In the late 19th century, George Cook planted olive trees and grapevines.

The olive trees remain today at 130 to 135 years old but the vines he planted were dead by the early 20th century.

“We found old wooden grape stakes in what had become forest,” Charlie said.

Cook’s Flat is home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The vineyard is surrounded by a mixed forest of Douglas fir, redwoods and madrone — the tree with the peeling, reddish-orange bark. The forest provides dappled sunlight in the vineyard, which the Smiths like.

Cook’s Flat is also the name of Smith-Madrone’s reserve red, which the winery first introduced in 2007. The second release was the 2010 vintage and the third was the 2009 vintage. 2012 will be the fourth release of Cook’s Flat Reserve.

Much of the production of Cook’s Flat Reserve is sold from the winery, Charlie said. “We pour it for people who come and they like it and buy it. We think that’s nice. It makes us happy.”

The 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Cabernet Franc. Its fruit profile is mainly dark fruit, including plum. The Cabernet Franc adds width to the center palate, a nice complement to the wine’s richness. The 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve has a special snap and vibrancy and life, no less substantial but not quite as brooding as the 2010.

Smith-Madrone didn’t release any red wines in 2008. The smoke from fires that year particularly affected their high-altitude vineyard. They sold their production that year to a bulk buyer.

Another challenging vintage was 2011, which was wet. But thanks to its mountaintop location, the vineyards at Smith-Madrone dried out more quickly than did some valley floor vineyards.

“The hillsides are different from the valley floor,” Charlie said. “Not just a different microclimate, but a different climate.”

Chelini concurs. “It’s fairly cool on Spring Mountain, frankly,” he said.

Smith-Madrone’s 2011 cabernet sauvignon does have a bit of a pyrazine green pepper quality, but it also has good fruit flavors and good tannic presence, as well as the structure to allow it to mature for at least a couple of decades.

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon has a riper, more accessible structure, very fruity and lively. Charlie calls it a “light heavyweight — not a real heavyweight but not a middleweight either. It makes me cheerful when I taste it.” The current release of the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon is the 2013 vintage.

All of Smith-Madrone’s wines are made to mature in bottle. The sweet spot for Chardonnays, Charlie believes, is the six to eight-year window. A typical Cabernet will show its full potential in the 15-20-year range, with good vintages capable of lasting 50 years.

For example, Charlie has a strong affinity for Smith-Madrone’s 1979 Cabernet. “We knew that was a great wine from the very beginning. We just loved it from the start. Some wines, when you finish fermenting, you just go, ‘Wow, this is really good stuff.’”

Chelini finds Smith-Madrone’s Cabernets “very, very civilized, approachable even when young but capable of aging well too.”

One of the reasons Smith-Madrone is able to make wines of such distinct character and ageability is its sorting of grapes and wines into many different lots.

First, grapes from any one particular vineyard can be harvested in multiple passes. For example, the relatively compact five-and-a-half acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in Cook’s Flat is usually harvested in three stages.

To determine when to pick, the Smiths “take a close look at the grapevines. It’s very helpful to know your own vineyard. What we do is custom picking at its most picayune.”

In the winery, different fermentation techniques are used. Some of the reds are fermented in tanks, others in small open containers.

“We keep very close track of what comes out of the vineyard and how it fermented,” Charlie said. “We have a lot of different barrels — some are new, some a year old — and put portions of everything into those barrels. We have a lot of different barrels.”

“When you make a blend, go through and grade the barrels, then put the best foot forward.” Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of the best barrels from the vintages in which the Smith’s choose to make a version of that wine.

For weed control, the Smiths cultivate every other row to keep some amount of ground cover at all time. With the exception of new vines, all the vineyards are dry farmed.

In the winery’s early years, the Smith even propagated their own vines in a mini-nursery. Today, they buy vines from a commercial nursery.

The layout of the winery was specifically made to be efficient.

“It’s not something you want to do day in and day out but in a pinch one guy can handle the operation,” Charlie said. In the “old days” he sometimes had to do just that, making the wine while Stuart was out selling and marketing it.

Today, the brothers have the help of Stuart’s son, Sam, who has worked at the winery for several years after some apprenticing elsewhere, including at Dr. Loosen winery in Germany.

For all of the wines, no bottling occurs until everyone agrees.

“We make a joint decision,” Charlie said. “Everybody’s got to be happy. We push and we push until everyone agrees.”

Chelini remembers first meeting the Smith brothers, when he took them a piece of equipment to borrow.

He’s impressed with what the Smiths have built over time, giving them the highest kind of praise for a Spring Mountain vintner.

“They’re mountain boys, no doubt about it.”

Unique…authentic farmers are we

Our thanks to Susan Spinello for her recent visit: “…There is something unique about the lay of the land and the spacing of the vines, something that is sought after, but can only be achieved by authentic farmers and longevity in the business.  Smith-Madrone captures that and more, as evidenced by their superior wines…”

Her article is here: and our section:

Our next adventure was about 35 minutes further northwest.  Just past the town of St. Helena, and a few more bouts of whiplash later, we travelled up the steep, rugged 5 mile incline of Spring Mountain Road to the Vineyards of Smith-Madrone.  Pulling onto the long dirt driveway up to the barn 1800 feet high. It was time for a wardrobe change.  Adorned in boots, jeans and a tee shirt, we were about to meet the legendary Smith brothers.   Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, and joined two years later by winemaker and brother, Charlie, Smith-Madrone has been producing award winning and authentic wines since 1977.  This year marks their 45th anniversary of superior excellence in winemaking.

Upon entering the barn, Charlie was finishing up a tasting for a small group of five.  We wandered around the property under the watchful eyes of Curly, the Springer Spaniel who was just doing a less than stellar job of guarding the premises.  The vantage view from this over 200 acre property situated in the Mayacamas Mountains above the fog is breathtaking.  Surrounded by Madrone and Fir trees and framed with 120 year old Picholine Olive trees, feels like a throwback in time.  Charlie and Stu are a bit of a throwback in time as well, sporting beards and UC Berkeley educations in the late 60’s.  They are direct descendants of German farmers, the Fetherolf family, who came to America in 1730, and are continuing the tradition with Assistant Winemaker Sam Smith, Stu’s son.   Each portion of the vineyard is carefully selected to optimize the best of each grape varietal.  Currently there is close to 40 acres under vine.   Riesling is planted on 35 degree slopes facing east, chardonnay faces the cool north, cabernet sauvignon faces the south and west to optimize sun exposure and merlot and cabernet franc are dispersed accordingly to maximize the cool, mountain climate.

There is something unique about the lay of the land and the spacing of the vines, something that is sought after, but can only be achieved by authentic farmers and longevity in the business.  Smith-Madrone captures that and more, as evidenced by their superior wines and highly sought after Cook’s Flat Reserve.  Charlie revved up his 4 wheeler high-speed golf cart and took us around the property with Curly close behind…for a while.  There is a unique 8 acre block of vines known as Cook’s Flat (named after George Cook, the first owner of the property) where a small production of the best of the best mountain fruit is grown.  Cook’s Flat was replanted in 1972 and the result is a very special Cabernet Reserve that will only be crafted in small batches and only in the best years.  Each Cook’s Flat Reserve bottle is wrapped in tissue which has been printed with a copy of the U.S. Land Office Patent granted to George Cook and signed by President Chester Arthur in 1885.  The original is on display at the winery.

All of Smith-Madrone wines are estate grown and estate bottled.  So what is the secret?  Is it the Red Aiken soil?  The vineyard orientation?  Canopy management?  Altitude?  Or is the secret in the winemaking itself?  Age and experience really is a virtue.  So back to the tasting barn/winery where the second half of the journey picks up.

2014 Chardonnay is 100% barrel fermented and aged in 100% new French oak for 9 months and yet it is so refined and delicious that it’s as if some magic has occurred, but don’t tell Stu about pixie dust…this is all raw talent. Spice and apples with tropical papaya, lush mango, pear and almonds with a big mouthfeel and long lingering finish.  It’s big and buttery with just the right amount of oak.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is a hidden gem and the perfect wine for your barbecue.  Open up and decant while you wait for your medium rare ribeye or peppercorn crusted lamb to grill.  Rich red and black fruit with notes of savory clove and smoky cigar box.  Mocha, black pepper and green olives show on this terroir-driven, meaty Cabernet Sauvignon, yet like all the Smith-Madrone wines tasted, it is well balanced with a lingering finish.

2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a highly allocated 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc reserve wine that displays generous dark fruit, cassis and tobacco leaf.  It has solid tannins and is exceptionally poised to lay down for another 10 plus years.  But this wine is drinking fabulously right now.  Upon commenting on the rich style and finesse in which this wine was crafted, Charlie replied, “Oh Hell, let’s break open a bottle of the 2009”, and thus a new love entered my life.

2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve also highly allocated and held back, released after the 2010, is pure gold.  64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc and 14% Merlot, it sees 18 months in new French white oak, and is layer upon layer of dark fruit, black cherry, blackberry, cocoa, espresso and baking spice.  It’s more fruit-forward, but exceptionally integrated, and can lay down another 20 years, but I’m not going to chance it.

2014 Riesling is “a dry Riesling that has been grown and produced from the same vineyard, pruned by the same people in the same style and left to Mother Nature to impart annually distinct flavors, scents and character”.  The Smith brothers have been growing and producing Riesling since 1983 (about 17 years before the rest of California attempted to jump on the bandwagon).  It has been hailed as one of the 50 best wines in the world according to Stuart Pigott, author of “The Best White Wine on Earth:  The Riesling Story”.  Orange blossom, jasmine and honeysuckle with lemon zest and crisp minerality, followed by white peach and pear with a creamy, lingering finish.  Perhaps this is the best Riesling on Earth and why Charlie saved the best for last.

Smith-Madrone graciously hosts tastings by appointment only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 11am and 2pm.  Located at 4022 Spring Mountain Road, it’s a little off the beaten path, but well worth a visit and an experience that will linger long after the wine is gone.  There is a chalkboard sign in the winery bearing the poetry of Eduardo Galeano:  “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine”.  Yes, please!

Purely Domestic Wine Report reviews the current releases

Doug Wilder at Purely Domestic Wine Report reviews the current releases in Issue 3.5, January 2015:

It was in 1971 when not much existed in the way of Napa Valley wineries when Stu and Charles Smith planted their first vineyards on Spring Mountain and over the years and over the years developed a devoted following for wines that eschewed the push toward higher alcohols. They are beautiful expressions of terroir and generally well priced. The relatively rare Cook’s Flat is a different aspiration altogether and stands apart from the core wines.

2012 Chardonnay shows a nose of anise, almonds, dried lemon, vanilla pod, conifer and salt. The palate is rounded, dry fruit, apricot, nectarine and pineapple with pronounced acidity in the mid-palate. Nicely balanced, it only spends 8 months in new French oak. Drink 2015 – 2020.

2013 Riesling is a delicious throwback to a nearly forgotten variety. There are scant Napa wineries using it and those who bottle estate could be counted on one hand. A nose of sweet spice, white blossoms and sun-warmed white peach. The palate is lush, pure and bright yellow stone fruit, crisp in the mouth-watering core. Drink 2015 – 2018.

2011 Cabernet has a nose of fig and slightly dried plum, spiced with an undercurrent of tobacco, black currant and blueberry. The palate is seamlessly saturated loam, black fruits, chocolate powder, all in a silky mouth-coating texture. Drink 2015 – 2025.

2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a single eight-acre block on the estate replanted in 1972. After 19 months in oak, the wine is bottle aged for up to three years prior to release. The nose is subtle cedar, plum and nutmeg. The palate entry is dry cherry, notes of florals, and earth in a round and deeply textured way finishing with lively acidity. Drink 2016 – 2025.

2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is Released

Cook's Flat Reserve
Smith-Madrone is delighted to announce the release of our 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve.
Photo of Cook's Flat Reserve bottles
2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve

This is a limited production wine of 140 cases, created by the careful selection and blending of a small group of the best barrels from our Cook’s Flat vineyard block. In 2010 this means the wine is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc, aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels. Each bottle of Cook’s Flat Reserve is individually numbered and tissue-wrapped and represents our uncompromising pursuit of perfection in winemaking.

The wine opens with an intense, seductive aroma of dark fruit – black currant, blackberry, black cherry – tinged with mocha, spice and licorice. This is a sumptuous wine, rich and creamy in texture and crammed full of delicious dark fruit. The layered mid-palate moves seamlessly to a finish tinged with raspberries and cherries and is marked by exceptional length.

Cook’s Flat is a small section of the original 19th century vineyard which became part of Smith-Madrone when we established the winery in 1971.