Grape-Experiences takes a long look…..
The People, The Place, The Wines
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.
As an homage to the realized dreams of Stuart Smith, Managing Partner and Enologist and Charles Smith III, Winemaker, as well as the distinguished Madrone tree that grows throughout the estate, the name Smith-Madrone was given to this winery, one that is producing some of the finest examples of Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve tasted.
The Eclectic Smith Family
But first. Who are the intriguing people behind these notable wines?
Having just received his B.A. in Economics from UC-Berkeley, a young Stuart Smith entered the wine industry as he took classes towards his Master’s in Viticulture and Enology at UC-Davis. Through a family friend, he discovered a forest on the most remote and highest point of Spring Mountain, an area that had not only been part of a vineyard but was a segment of the wagon trail route between Napa and Santa Rosa. In May 1971, Stuart Smith and a partnership of family and friends purchased that land now known as Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery. His leadership and expertise in the wine industry is legendary.
The Winemaker and “general factotum” for Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery is Charles F. Smith. In 1971, he obtained his teaching certificate after attending UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State University. But the wine life beckoned and Charles Smith joined his brother, Stuart, at Smith-Madrone in 1973.
Don’t assume that the wine industry consumes the time of these gentlemen; after reading about their everything-but-wine activities, I certainly won’t. Just as rich, broad, and interesting as their wines are the lives of these brothers.
Stuart Smith serves as auctioneer for the Omaha Nebraska charity auction each year and has chaired the 1986 and 2006 Napa Valley Wine Auctions. He served on the Napa River Watershed Task Force for many years and was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to sit on Napa County General Plan Steering Committee in 2006. He’s an avid canoeist, Boy Scout supporter, and family man with five children and two grandchildren, all of whom I hope do or eventually will appreciate good wine.
In his “wild oats years” (his words, not mine!), Charles Smith held jobs as a probation officer, a furniture mover, and taxi cab driver. He’s a top-notch croquet player who has represented the United States in international competitions. Apparently, his dubious claim to fame is that he was a co-participant in the longest single game (over 7 hours!) in the history of the World Croquet Federation, a game that was played against the Japanese champion in the 1992 World Championships.
Sam Smith, Assistant Winemaker, holds a degree from UC-Santa Barbara. Prior to his stint at Smith-Madrone, Sam traveled extensively, worked harvests at a variety of wineries, and held positions as a sommelier at international restaurants. A Napa Valley native, his athletic background on the football field, tennis court, and golf course allows him be a crucial player on the winemaking team at Smith-Madrone.
The Unique Vineyards
34 acres of estate vineyards, some dating to 1972, are at elevations between 1300 and 2000 feet on the steep slopes of Spring Mountain. For the most part, the rocky soils are deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam that are volcanic-based, well-drained, and deep. I found it interesting (and the soil geek in me was thrilled) that the geology of the area is the Franciscan Assemblage that includes “altered mafic volcanic rocks, deep-sea radiolarian cherts, sandstones, limestones, serpentines, shales, and high pressure metamorphic rocks, all of them faulted and mixed in a seemingly chaotic manner as a result of tectonic plate activity”.
To establish a vineyard, the team employs drip irrigation. Yet, Stuart Smith pioneered dry farming in the area and now, older vines “send their roots deep to search for water and nutrients, only producing the precise amount of fruit exactly appropriate for their vigor, small berries with a large skin-to-juice ratio” is used. Stuart Smith explains…
The Exceptional Wines of Smith-Madrone
All wines are produced from grapes cultivated in the estate vineyards surrounding the winery atop Spring Mountain. Stuart Smith chose specific slopes with differing exposures for each varietal: Riesling grapes are planted on east facing vineyards, Chardonnay can be found on cool, north-facing slopes, and Cabernet Sauvignon thrives on flat parcels with southern and western exposures.
At Smith-Madrone our goal is to make artisanal wines which are distinctive and are an expression of both the vintage and us, as vintners, but above all else, are wines which bring pleasure to the senses. Every year our wine is made from the same vineyards, pruned by the same people in the same way, cultivated in exactly the same manner and harvested at similar levels of maturity, yet Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses and character. Vintage dating is a celebration of that uniqueness and diversity. Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery
If the goal of those at Smith-Madrone is to craft wines that bring pleasure to the senses, these incredible wines deliver and that mission is achieved.
Smith-Madrone Riesling 2014 – Absolutely delicious, this bright and lively 100% Riesling prompted several “Wows!” and more than a few “Riesling from Napa?” remarks when I poured tastes for friends. All of us were delighted and rightly so. Fresh aromas of lemon, yellow flowers, orange peel, stone fruit, and minerality burst from the glass. Clean and gracious, notes of juicy citrus and minerality, zesty acidity and a round mouthfeel were dominant with each sip. The finish on this crisp, dry Riesling? Long and luscious.
Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2014 – I was blown away by the taste sensations of this glorious Chardonnay that spent nine months in 100% new French oak. Elegant aromas of lemon, juicy citrus, apples and pears enticed and I was anxious for that first sip. On the palate, I discovered notes of tropical fruit such as melon and citrus, brilliant acidity, oak, and a creamy, buttery texture. All led to an exceptionally long finish and I savored every moment.
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 – Bold, yet light and refreshing, I remarked after a few velvet-like sips that this luscious Cabernet, aged in French oak for 18 months, is one that I could drink anytime, anywhere, with or without food. Consisting of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Merlot, I was mesmerized. Intense aromas of deep rich black cherries, freshly picked blueberries, vanilla, and a dash of black pepper led to flavors of dark fruit compote, baking spice, wet earth, and savory herbs. Of course, soft tannins and lively acidity provided the foundation to a wine that should be in everyone’s glass.
A tour and tasting at Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, with one of the Smith brothers as your guide, should be on your must-see list when you’re planning a visit to Napa Valley. (You can make an appointment here.) Be sure to savor a bit of Napa Valley history, the stories that Stuart or Charles will share, and each sip of some outstanding wines.