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.”

2013 Riesling as elegant as delectable

Cindy  Rynning at Grape-Experiences enjoyed the 2013 Riesling:


“Everything happens for a Riesling” were the words on a shirt I saw recently. And it’s true. Riesling, a wine that expresses itself in so many ways, is one of my favorites and I know plenty of wine lovers who would move mountains to find this noble grape in a bottle.  For others, however, it may be neglected as a viable choice for a variety of dishes. Ranging from dry to very sweet, a delicious Riesling that will pair with just about anything can be found in your local wine shop and restaurants. If everything happens for a Riesling, then it’s time to put Riesling back on the table! And I did just that with a dish I haven’t made in years.

This week, I found one of my best-loved recipes, Hampton Roads Crab Imperial, from a cookbook I’ve had for ages, “Virginia Hospitality”. I started making this dish in graduate school when I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the availability of right-out-of-the-water crab was plentiful and the price was much less than it is now. Despite the fact that I now live in the Chicago area where fresh crab is a bit more of a commodity, I felt the need to create this special dish once again.

It was just as delicious as I remembered. Easy to make, the crab, spices, green pepper, and eggs blended to offer not only flavor, but texture. Served with a simple, fresh green salad, this dish is delightful as a weekday supper or dinner party pick.

And the wine? Although I could have chosen others to pair with the Hampton Roads Crab Imperial, I chose Smith-Madrone Riesling 2013, sent to me as a sample. Smith Madrone Winery, located in St. Helena, is a pioneer in dry farming.  All wines are in the Spring Mountain appellation of Napa Valley and are not only estate-grown, but estate-bottled.

The Smith Madrone Riesling 2013 was a fabulous choice, one that was just as elegant as it was delectable. The aromas of stone fruit, white peaches, dried apricot, and hint of lime wafted from the glass. I couldn’t wait to take a bite of the crab and a sip of this dry Riesling. On the palate, I found refreshing notes of melon, yellow flowers, and touch of spice, flavors that truly complemented the salinity of the crab, the spice of the curry, and other ingredients. With lip smacking acidity and a long finish, it wasn’t difficult to pour more than one glass of this wine, one that showed more complexity that I could have ever imagined. Cost is around $27.

Hampton Roads Crab Imperial


  • 1lb crabmeat
  • 1 egg
  • 2 eggs (hard-boiled and chopped)
  • 2/3 cup green pepper (diced)
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • sprinkle of garlic salt
  • small handful of bread crumbs


Step 1
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Step 2
Mix all ingredients lightly and spoon into individual shells or 1 quart casserole.
Step 3
Sprinkly paprika and fine bread crumbs on top of each crab mixture.
Step 4
Bake for 20 minutes. The recipe serves 3-4.
Step 5

A day on the mountain with PullThatCork

Nancy and Peter Brazil (PullThatCork) came to visit and shared their thoughts here:

Highlights include talking about Smith-Madrone’s history, the uniqueness of mountain soils and growing grapes on the slopes of a mountain, the hows and whys of row orientation, trellising, dry-farming and the Smiths’ approach to winemaking, with notes on the 2013 and 2014 vintages of Chardonnay and Riesling, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Cook’s Flat.

“….When you taste Smith-Madrone wines you are tasting the style of wines the Smith brothers like to drink themselves, according to Charles…Skill, more than luck, accounts for the fine quality of their wines. They pay attention to every detail, beginning in the vineyard. They eagerly await the opportunity to begin tasting each vintage as fermentation proceeds; making observations, taking notes, planning changes for the next vintage. And while there is a overall consistency of style in the Smith-Madrone wines we tasted, there is definitely vintage variation, which is exactly as the Smiths would have it….”

and: “…Wine tasting at the winery requires a reservation, but you will be rewarded for planning ahead. The drive up Spring Mountain takes you away from the crowds of Napa Valley, the air is fresh and the mountain vineyards are beautiful. Wine tastings take place in the barrel room where the aromas of wine production accompany your tasting. If you are lucky Curly the winery dog will be there.  Taste these beautiful wines for yourself, I’m certain you will not be disappointed….”



Riesling a fun manifestation of individuality

Allyson Gorsuch looks at options for summer white wines in the June issue of The Tasting Panel, singling out our Riesling:

“…’s just fun to play with wines of pure individuality. Riesling finds a fun manifestation in Smith-Madrone’s Spring Mountain example—jasmine, honeysuckle, white peach and nectarine and just 12.6% alcohol….”

We’re honored to be one of several Rieslings offered at a book signing for John Winthrop Haeger’s newest book, Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright and Dry. 

The event takes place in St. Helena on May 5 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 750 Wines in St. Helena, located at 1224 Adams Avenue. There is no charge to attend, but RSVPs are requested or can be arranged by emailing

Haeger will speak about the book at the event and Napa Valley Rieslings from Smith-Madrone and Stony Hill will be poured, joined by bottles from Radio-Coteau from Sonoma County, Germany’s Weingut Dreissigacker and Austria’s Malat and Markus Huber. Copies of Riesling Rediscovered will be available for purchase. A portion of the evening’s book sales will benefit Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch’ emergency fund.

This is a must-attend event if you’re a student in any wine certification program (WSET, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, Society of Wine Educators) or if you just want to find out why wine lovers are so enthusiastic about these wines.

Riesling is the world’s seventh most-planted white wine grape variety and among the fastest growing over the past twenty years. It is a personal favorite of many sommeliers, chefs, and other food and wine professionals for its appealing aromatics, finesse, and minerality; for its uncanny ability to reflect terroir; and for its impressive versatility with cuisines of all types. It is stylistically paradoxical, however. Now usually made dry in most of Europe and Australia, and assumed dry by most German consumers, Riesling is made mostly sweet or lightly sweet in North America and is believed sweet in the American marketplace irrespective of origin. Riesling is thus consequently—but mistakenly—shunned by the mainstream of American wine drinkers, whose tastes and habits have been overwhelmingly dry for two generations.

Riesling Rediscovered looks at the present state of dry Riesling across the Northern Hemisphere: where it is grown and made, what models and objectives vintners have in mind, and what parameters of grape growing and winemaking are essential when the goal is a delicious dry wine. John Winthrop Haeger explores the history of Riesling to illuminate how this variety emerged from a crowded field of grape varieties grown widely across northern Europe.

John Winthrop Haeger has written about wine since 1986. His articles have appeared in Connoisseur, Wine & Spirits Magazine, Sunset, Saveur, San Francisco Chronicle, Singapore-based Appetite and Japan’s Wine Kingdom. His first book about wine, North American Pinot Noir (University of California Press, 2004), was named Louis Roederer International Wine Book of the Year for 2005. The second, Pacific Pinot Noir: A Comprehensive Winery Guide for Consumers and Connoisseurs, was published in September 2008.



Riesling is a wine for Mother’s Day!

Gayot chooses the 2013 Riesling as one of its top ten Mother’s Day wines:

Originating from terroir that winemaker Stuart Smith purchased in 1971, the Smith-Madrone vineyards produce grapes perfect for crafting French- and German-style wines. The Smith-Madrone 2013 Riesling boasts aromas of stone fruit, white flower and honeysuckle. Flavors of citrus and stone fruit are rounded out by a creamy finish.

James The Wine Guy stopped by….

James Melendez came by for a visit: here’s his complete story

And below an excerpt:

….I want to highlight my visit to Smith-Madrone in Spring Mountain District; getting off of Highway 29 or Silverado Trail can be both exciting and adventuring to producers off the beaten path.  The windy road to Smith-Madrone was an exquisite ride gorgeous evergreen scenery.  Getting to the top of the hill was to navigate where Smith-Madrone was—mobile phone service was not there to help–thanks Siri–hence all numbering conventions can be thrown out the door–they are not as intuitive as you might think.

I finally found the path and glided down in the beautiful, ethereal mid-autumn season in Napa.  Autumn and winter my absolutely favourite seasons–even though there is a bit of warmth in the air the breeze sends a different signal…..

I got a driven tour of the site–varies greatly from 1,300 to 2,000 feet above sea level–the steep grade is a great incentive for drainage and strong and forthright root development.  The site has a specific orientation for the three bottled varieties–eastern facing is the Riesling–it’s cooler.  Southern and western facing is for the Cabernet and a northerly orientation for Chardonnay.  Beautiful red soil of clay loam, sandstone and limestones amongst others.

After the site tour Stu and I sit down and tasted the latest vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay.  I felt immediately comfortable talking with Stu about everything from the then always-top-of-mind drought, current vinicultural trends–namely the concrete egg, his early years of winemaking and no vineyard stone was left un-turned in our conversation–it was a conversation not an interview.  Stu has an authentic view–and his view of both vini and viticulture are not old fashioned but centered–Stu is well educated and has a long time perspective of being a wine producer, a long time resident of Napa Valley.  There is something comforting in knowing that a family like Charlie and Stu are committed to their namesake label and site; where in Napa Valley constants, commitments and being a vanguard are becoming rarer. ….For a great down-to-earth and genuine experience of tasting fine Spring Mountain wines, find these wines and also find time to visit…..

Decanter stops by

Adam Lechmere from Decanter Magazine came to visit the Spring Mountain District; his report is in the February 2016 issue. An excerpt:


SPRING MOUNTAIN DISTRICT is one of the five great mountain appellations of the Napa Valley. It covers a lot of ground – its lower reaches abut the quiet residential streets of St Helena town, before the road climbs in vertiginous switchbacks up to 800m into the Mayacamas Range and the borders of Sonoma. Wine has been made here since the mid-19th century – the Beringers, already established in St Helena, planted a vineyard in 1880. In its heyday, before phylloxera and Prohibition, there were some 250 wineries working on Spring Mountain. Today there are only 30, and you’re unlikely to find a more diverse crew of winemakers and grape farmers in Napa or indeed any American appellation.

There are rangy individualists like the Smith brothers of Smith-Madrone, whose ranch is a piece of Napa history, unchanged since they arrived in the 1970s. Their interesting range includes a Riesling that is renowned and delicious, though not as original as their Cabernets. On a quiet evening you can hear their shotguns booming from miles away – the estate is dotted with buckshot-peppered targets.

Stuart and Charles Smith work a remote 81 hectare ranch, first planted in the 1880s, crafting Bordeaux blends, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling on rocky slopes. The Smiths have changed little since they planted in the 1970s, their Cabs especially showing a fine classic structure.

Six producers to watch


Stuart and Charles Smith work a remote 81ha ranch, first planted in the 1880s, crafting Bordeaux blends, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling on rocky slopes. The Smiths have changed little since they planted in the 1970s, their Cabs especially showing a fine classic structure.

Lechmere’s picks: 10 top Spring Mountain District wines

Smith-Madrone, Riesling 2013

92 points: Orange blossom nose with hints of gasoline then white flowers on the palate and developing peach and pear fruit. Bone-dry minerality will soften. Curiously charming. Drink 2016-2025

Smith-Madrone, Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

94 points: Vibrant blue fruit on the nose then a fresh and savoury palate with ripe, perfumed damson, finely structured tannins and refreshing acidity. Drink 2018-2028.

Riesling is the perfect gift!

The Daily Meal recommends the 2013 Riesling as the perfect gift:

“…A bottle of wine —  something unusual, something good, something chosen with care — brings joy to any holiday party, and induces smiles and thoughts of Christmas dinner when opened on Christmas morning…It’s the perfect gift…”


“A gem of a riesling from The Daily Meal’s 2014 Winery of the Year, citrusy and lush, with plenty of acidity, loads of varietal character, and a long, elegant finish that leaves behind a mouthful of fruit. A nice change of pace for wine-lovers who are hooked on sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and other trendier white wine types.”

Consider Riesling as a holiday ‘detente’ wine!

Peg Melnik at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat talks about wines to “keep the peace at your holiday feast.” Here’s her take on the 2013 Riesling:

This riesling will turn heads with its great minerality. It has gorgeous stone fruit of apricot and peach, with lime in the mix. This riesling is rare because it has pitch perfect balance. Strikingly crisp.