Stu presents the 2006 and 2015 Rieslings to wine writers at the WWET Conference in Napa on May 21, 2018. Why did he choose to plant Riesling? How does Smith-Madrone make Riesling? Was Smith-Madrone a leader in Riesling labeling? and more….
101 Best Wineries in America 2017
by Colman Andrews, August 2, 2017
Our panel ranks the top producers from California and 13 other states, Washington to Virginia, Maryland to Texas. When Leif Erikson dubbed the North American coast “Vinland” or “Winland” back around 1000 A.D., he may or may not have meant to call our continent a land of vines (linguists say the term might also have meant “land of meadows”) — but a land of vines is what we’ve become. The sheer quantity and variety of good and great wine being made in America has grown exponentially in recent decades. It is now produced in all 50 states — and there are bottles worth savoring from almost every source.
Narrowing our national enological wealth down to a mere 101 wineries, then, is a daunting task each year. To help us meet the challenge, we reach out annually to experts in the field, from all over the country — sommeliers, wine writers and bloggers (including our own contributors, of course), chefs and restaurateurs, and of course the wine-savvy editors at The Daily Meal — asking them to nominate their favorite wineries (as many as ten per person) and to tell us what they like about them.
This year we invited about 60 of these professional (or passionate amateur) wine-lovers to weigh in….Collating the nominations, we ended up with a list of more than 250 wineries, old and new, large and small, many of them nominated numerous times. We factored in our own tasting notes of recent vintages, consulted the leading wine publications and newsletters, and considered recent awards from prestigious competitions, and narrowed the choices down to 101.
In the nomination process, we asked our panel to consider not just the obvious places but the entire country. The majority of our choices, 61 of the wineries listed, did turn out to be Californian; as noted, plenty of other places are doing a good job with wine, but the Golden State is still by far the largest producing state and still boasts the largest number of great wineries. The Pacific Northwest (Idaho included) is well-represented too — but you’ll also find wineries from New York (both the Finger Lakes and Long Island) and Virginia, and from Maryland, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
What you might notice missing are some of the most famous California “trophy wines” — the ones that would cost you $500 to $1000 or more per bottle, if you could even locate one for sale. These are absent because, for whatever reasons (and we could guess at a few of them), our panelists simply didn’t vote for them. That said, some wineries on our list do command top dollar, and some are difficult to find in ordinary retail channels and go primarily to longtime mailing list customers. On the other hand, there are plenty of easily accessible wines represented, too, many of them offering excellent wine at fair prices.
- Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, St. Helena, Calif.
A couple of amiable, bearded-and-mustachioed brothers, Stuart and Charles Smith (no relation to prolific Washington State winemaker Charles Smith, No. 94) — vineyard manager and winemaker, respectively — make their winery home near the summit of Spring Mountain, long known as the home of some of Napa Valley’s best producers. Here, they farm about 34 acres of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling, with small quantities of merlot and cabernet franc for blending. Production remains small — about 5,000 cases a year — and Smith-Madrone wines seldom show up on trophy lists, but connoisseurs who really know wine tend to love them. The chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon regularly win gold medals around the country, and the winery’s exquisite riesling was named “Best Riesling in the World” in 1979 at the International Wine Championships sponsored by France’s Gault & Millau magazine. They’re under the radar, but on top of their game — which is why The Daily Meal named Smith-Madrone its 2014 Winery of the Year. Wine writer Gabe Sasso raves that “each Smith-Madrone offering is consistently delicious, vineyard-focused, and age-worthy, and also incredible value. Smith-Madrone’s cabernet sauvignon, which sells for just under $50, is as good — one vintage after another — as any in the Napa Valley, regardless of price.”
The July issue of The Wine Enthusiast looked at Napa Valley’s mountain wine growing regions.
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was reviewed:
93 points: From dry-farmed estate vines, this savory, classically styled red is dusty in cedar, dried herb and peppercorn, incredibly inviting and nuanced. It speaks quietly of the forest which surrounds its estate, a complex, balanced landscape of subtle, elegant flavor and intriguing length. Editors’ Choice.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
Mastering Napa’s Mountain Appellations
Discover what links Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.
BY VIRGINIE BOONE
Early in the history of the Napa Valley, before the absurdity of Prohibition, grape growers raised their sights. With many hailing from Europe, they understood how wine grapes love to dig deep into hillsides and mountains.
Those pioneers—Jacob Schram, the Beringers, Charles Lemme and the Christian Brothers—gave way by the 1950s to a new generation. Such innovators as the McCreas, Al and Boots Brounstein, Dr. Jan Krupp, Piero Antinori, the Smith brothers, Bob Travers, Sir Peter Newton and others believed there should be distinct appellations for five of the Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.
After decades—sometimes centuries—of toil, the Cabernets from these hard-to-work vineyards are now reaching their peak potential.
What links the Cabernet Sauvignons from these mountains are their intensity and structure. Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with powerful tannins that take time to unravel. There’s also a distinct spectrum of earthiness in these wines, a product of their wilderness of forest and rock.
Mountain harvests tend to happen later, which allows winemakers to pick for flavor and at maturities that are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s how these mountain appellations within the Napa Valley differ, and how they don’t.
Spring Mountain District
Hidden in plain sight above the town of St. Helena on the eastern side of the Mayacamas, the Spring Mountain District became an official appellation in 1993. The thick presence of forest and the springs throughout the mountain give the area its name and personality, a world away from the valley below.
The appellation lies mostly along the winding Spring Mountain Road, definitely off the beaten track. At its top, it connects with the border of Sonoma County, near the home of Pride Vineyards which straddles both Napa and Sonoma.
The region’s Cabernet Sauvignon roots run deep. It’s said that La Perla Vineyard was the first planted here, by Charles Lemme in 1874. The land has been continuously farmed, and even withstood Prohibition because it was hidden so far up in the woods. It’s now part of Spring Mountain Vineyard, and the original stone La Perla Winery still stands.
The Beringer brothers planted nearby in the 1880s. But phylloxera and Prohibition put a stop to Spring Mountain’s rise until the 1940s and ’50s, when the McCrea family founded Stony Hill Winery. They planted on steep hillside vineyards terraced between thickets of trees, a common theme.
Spanning 500 to 2,600 feet in elevation, the appellation is 5,000 acres. Less than 10 percent of that acreage is planted to grapevines; most is steep and forested. Sedimentary and volcanic loam soils are the norm, typified by high drainage and low fertility.
Newton, Cain, Keenan, Barnett, Smith-Madrone, Terra Valentine, Spring Mountain Vineyard and York Creek Cellars are among the longstanding adventurers here. Lokoya now bases itself here in a grand tasting estate that surrounds its Yverdon Vineyard at 2,100 feet above sea level.
“Complex and textural would be my summary,” says Newton Vineyards’ Rob Mann of the Cabernet here. “Spring Mountain has an incredibly diverse combination of soil types, aspect, slope, altitude, varietal mix, planting density and vine age. Within one vineyard, depending on the site, you may have four weeks difference in ripening from one plot to the next, planted to the same variety.”
West-facing slopes can be barren and dry, supporting low scrub and live oak, and winemakers must be careful not to let fruit cook in these areas. An adjacent east-facing slope 100 feet away can be cooler and more humid, supporting oak and redwood trees. Slopes are often too steep and cool to ripen red grape varieties.
“The wines are rather intellectual and red-fruit based, with an alluring textural and savory structure, and can be incredibly complex,” Mann says.
In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux reds, the land is planted to such varieties as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sémillon, Petite Sirah and even traditional Port grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz.
Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith and his brother, Charlie, settled on Spring Mountain in 1970, intrigued by mountain grapes. They were preceded by Stony Hill, which set up shop in 1943 off Highway 29. Around 1952, it added a commercial winery to the property, planting Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon, varieties the family still tends.
The Somm Journal came for a visit: this is in their December issue.
Fred Swan describes not only the history but also the current releases, 2014 Chardonnay, 2014 Riesling, 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Cook’s Flat. Take a look!
Ray Fister of LifeBetweenTheVines did a video of a recent visit to the winery (June 30, 2016):
Talking with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery on Spring Mountain is to get a strong feel of what Napa Valley was like back in the 1970s. Stu goes way back to 1971, a time when there were very few wineries in the valley. Along with his winemaker brother Charlie (whom we interviewed for Podcast #94 in July of 2013) make exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay. This interview was conducted ‘mobile’ while touring the property with Stu.
Stu was driving through the vineyard at twilight and….let’s let him take over, from a note he sent to neighbors:
Dear friends on the Mountain:
I wanted to alert you to some unusual wildlife you may see strolling through your vineyards, as I did over the weekend.
It’s a very dramatically colored bird with an enormous tail and the amazing ability to fly straight up at great speed (the bird demonstrated this skill when my dog tried to chase it): it’s Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Native to southern China and Burma and spectacularly out of place in our Spring Mountain forests.
I can only surmise that this bird escaped from a pet store or an owner somehow let it loose.
I guarantee you you’ve never seen a bird this wild looking in your vineyard before!
Discussing rootstocks, dry farming and more, including the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon: “…it’s a wine that wears its 14.3% ABV nobly, and beckons you to keep drinking until there’s none left….”
And “…if you’re typically a drinker of Old World wines who won’t touch Napa Valley with a ten foot pole — or someone who pines for old California Cabernet — the dry farmed wines of Spring Mountain will dazzle you….”
Stop by Gargantuan Wine for more: http://gargantuanwine.com/2016/05/escape-to-spring-mountain/?subscribe=opted_out#blog_subscription-2
On February 22 Stu was one of the panelists at How Green Is Your Wine? in San Francisco.
Here is the audio link for the panel discussion: http://www.cuesa.org/audio/how-green-your-wine
In this panel discussion co-sponsored by Community Alliance for Family Farmers and CUESA, hear California vintners and wine grape growers discuss organic and biodynamic vineyard practices, dry farming techniques, and what actually goes into their wine bottles. Dry farming was common in California until the 1970s, when drip irrigation enabled growers to irrigate hillsides. In this era of drought and climate change, will dry farming make a comeback? Discover how wineries are producing top-quality wines by reintroducing dry farming and practicing environmental stewardship.
We’re honored to be one of only 7 wineries featured in the Napa Valley chapter of a new book from Lonely Planet, Wine Trails: Plan 52 Perfect Weekends in Wine Country.
Here’s what they say about us:
Fans of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon will often be heard debating the respective merits of ‘mountain’ Cabernet vs. those from the Valley floor. Those curious enough to taste the difference for themselves should head up Spring Mountain to the rustic but welcoming winery of Smith-Madrone, where brothers Stu and Charlie Smith have been making some of the Valley’s most under-rated Cabernet (not to mention Riesling and Chardonnay) since 1971. These are wines that not only taste great when they are young but also age superbly if you have the patience to stick them away for a few years.
A visit to Smith-Madrone not only gives you the chance to spend time talking and tasting with some of the friendliest and most genuine winemakers in the business, it also offers up some of the most spectacular vistas in the entire Napa Valley.
EatLoveSavor takes a look: http://eatlovesavor.com/discover-smith-madrone-vineyards-napa-valley-california/