2013 Cabernet included in a look at Napa’s mountain vineyard-wineries

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.


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.


Riesling is a ‘great wine going happily down the hatch’

Sometimes a great wine goes happily down the hatch and I make a mental note to buy it again.  Sometimes a great wine sucks me in hook, line, and sinker and I want to learn everything about the who, what, where, when, why, and how.  The Smith-Madrone Vineyards 2014 riesling did just that.  I’d been gardening in the sun for several hours and was starving.  I grabbed some leftover grilled chicken, a few tortillas, a splash of salsa, and a bottle of riesling to enjoy in the backyard.  Riesling on a hot day, enjoyed al fresco, is the quintessential wine moment.   I went from sore and angry at the snails and white flies on my hibiscus, to relaxed and appreciative of life in Orange County.  A glass of Smith-Madrone produced this 180-degree attitude change, so I feel compelled to share my “5 W’s” research with Orange County wine lovers.

Who Brothers Stuart and Charles Smith. Stuart is the general partner and enologist.  Charles is the winemaker.  Sam Smith, son of Stuart, is assistant winemaker.

What 2014 riesling, 1,500 cases.  2014 chardonnay, 850 cases.  2013 cabernet sauvignon, 1,500 cases. The soil is rocky, volcanic, and has great drainage.

Where Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley. The vineyards sit at an elevation between 1,300 and 2,000 feet on steep slopes, with grades up to 34 percent.  Each varietal is planted with a specific exposure, to garner the best character and personality.

When Planted in 1972.  The riesling vines are 42 years old!

Why The brothers grew up in Santa Monica.  Stuart got his Masters in Viticulture from UC Davis.  In search of land for a vineyard, he learned of this forest location atop Spring Mountain, which he purchased in 1971.  He discovered it was actually a vineyard in the 1880s, and was on the Wagon Trail between Napa and Santa Rosa.  Stuart is now renowned as a mountain winegrower.   Charles, who became an internationally famed croquet player, joined him in 1973.

How The mountain-top location and the history as a vineyard inspired Stuart to dry-farm the vineyard.  Dry-farming means that no irrigation was given once the vines were established several decades ago.  This forces the vines to struggle in search of water that is deeper in the soil.  This struggle produces berries that are hardy enough to endure the thirsty challenge.  The grapes are smaller in size, but packed with flavor.

I would love several hours at a dinner table with Stuart, Charles, and Sam.  The stories and connection they must have from this family venture high in Napa’s mountains is the perfect dinner and drinking lore.  The closest I’ll come is a refill of riesling in my own backyard, but I have a big smile on my face.

You can find Smith-Madrone at Pavillions Newport Coast and Pavillions Bayside, or at smithmadrone.com.


True to its founding principles

Dorothy Gaiter talks to Stu for GrapeCollective:


by Dorothy J. Gaiter, March 23, 2017

It’s a wonderful thing to see a business, any business, stay true to its founding principles. Trends come and go; outside factors can impinge; stresses and strains can undermine. It’s all the more amazing when it’s a family-owned business, and a farming enterprise, vulnerable to the vagaries of Mother Nature.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, high atop Spring Mountain in St. Helena in Napa Valley, is such a business. Back in 1999, we had its 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon for Thanksgiving and pronounced it then—15 years old—robust and fruity enough that it could age. We’d paid $25 for that wine on February 28, 1998, according to our notes, a real deal. A couple of weeks ago, we had the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, around $50, sent to us by the winery. It was so elegant and true, with ripe black fruits, cedar, rich earth and minerals that cut through it all like a blade, that we geeked out about it for hours. This wine could easily reach 20 years without breaking a sweat. Smith-Madrone, a pioneering winery 46 years old this year, was still nailing it, and with a finesse that suggested ease.

Duh, you might be thinking. Of course Napa Cabernets are classy and special. We wish that were always true. But over the past several years we have found it increasingly difficult to find a truly classy Napa Cabernet, and certainly not at $50 or less.

Stuart Smith, 68, founded the 4,000-case winery in 1971 when he was 22 with a degree in economics from Berkeley and some enology classes at UC-Davis. While studying for his Master’s at Davis, Stuart was the first teaching assistant for Maynard A. Amerine, a plant physiologist widely considered the father of American wine because he helped revive the California wine industry post-Prohibition, and Vernon Singleton, a trailblazing expert in the chemical compounds, like tannins, that affect a wine’s taste, color and texture. Eager to begin making wine, Stuart left short of his degree and, with the help of family and friends, purchased 200 acres of forest on beautiful Spring Mountain. The land had been part of an original 550-acre homestead that more than a century before had included vineyards. Stuart’s brother, Charles F. Smith III, 73, who also went to Berkeley and had taken classes at Davis, left a teaching job to join Stuart in 1973. Today, Stuart’s title is general partner, enologist; Charles is winemaker; and Stuart’s son Sam, 29, is assistant winemaker.

The Madrone half of the winery’s name is from the Madrone trees, evergreens with red bark, white flowers and, during fall, orange-red berries. About 40 acres of the 200-acre ranch is vineyards. The winery makes three estate-grown, mostly dry-farmed wines: currently, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2014 Chardonnay, $32; and the 2014 Riesling, $30. Smith-Madrone’s inaugural wine was its 1977 Riesling and that wine won a prestigious competition in Europe in 1979, putting the winery on the map in this country. It’s still famous for its Riesling. Charles, it turns out, was extremely fond of German Rieslings, interesting as the family is descended from German immigrants, who came here in 1730. In addition, they grow Merlot and Cabernet Franc (smithmadrone.com). The Smiths also make a small-production Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine called Cook’s Flat Reserve, named after the first owner of the land, George Cook, and a special vineyard. The 2009 current release sells for $200, (cooksflatreserve.com).

When I asked Stuart about working for 46 years with his brother, he said, “It’s like a marriage. It is a marriage. It’s the best of times and it gets a little gnarly at times.” Their dad worked with one of his brothers in insurance so at least they had a model for a sibling professional relationship.

After Stuart purchased the mountain property, he hired a company to clear some of the trees. Some neighbors weren’t happy about Stuart’s logging and another property-owner’s logging and the county quickly passed a moratorium on logging, according to a fine piece on Smith-Madrone in the Napa Valley Register in 2013. But it turned out that the county had overstepped, the newspaper reported, so Stuart prevailed. Other winemakers have followed Stuart’s example, putting their stakes in mountain property. Stuart is now celebrated as an expert on mountain viticulture.

The mountain appealed to Stuart, he said, quoting the Roman poet Virgil in Latin, on Bacchus loving the mountains, the sunny hills. The vineyards in the Spring Mountain district are at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet above sea level, on steep slopes of soils that are volcanic-based with shale and limestone and loam. With panoramic exposures, Stuart chose which direction he wanted for each variety of grapes. All of that thought and care went to ruin when phylloxera hit Smith-Madrone and many of their neighbors in Napa. They had to replant beginning in 2000.

“Once you get over the emotional distress of seeing our vineyard die, you see the silver-lining-behind-the-darkest-cloud concept,” Stuart told me when I called him the other day. “Whoopee! I get to replant with all of the technology that has transpired over the past several years. It’s an opportunity. But you don’t see that in the beginning.”

He told me he used that do-over opportunity to change the direction of some of the vineyard’s rows, spacing and trellising to better take advantage of the sun and the cool of the evenings, to better help the grapes ripen.

The 1984 Cabernet that John and I had in 1999 was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “That was a lovely vintage, a lovely wine,” Stuart recalled, adding that the 1984 Riesling, which they most recently tasted last year, was “equally good.”

Beginning in 2000, with the replanting program, Smith-Madrone’s Cabernet Sauvignons have been blends. The composition changes depending on what type of vintage they experience. The Smiths are proud of their emphasis on terroir, putting in the bottle what Nature gives them without manipulation, sometimes with no filtering and fining, and trying to do it in an environmentally sustainable way. The 2013 Cabernet is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, which gave it real edge, and 6% Merlot, aged in French oak.

Looking back, with all of the wisdom of his 46 years making wine, what advice would he give a winemaker starting out, I asked him.

“Follow your passion,” Stuart said. “There’s always room for a new idea in the wine business, always ever-changing. But the fundamentals of wine are unassailable: Good wine can only come from good grapes. The best grapes, we think, come from the mountains.”


“One hell of a good thing going…”

Mark Gudgel visited: here are his thoughts:

Charles, Stu, and Sam Smith have one hell of a good thing going high up in the Spring Mountain District of California’s Napa Valley. Last month my friend Zach, who manages Corkscrew, and I had the opportunity to visit them at their winery, and we agreed that the experience set a new bar for future winery visits.  Normally I take this short spot to recommend a wine, but after a visit to their winery, I’m recommending the entire Smith-Madrone portfolio. The Smiths (a Madrone is a tree) just don’t miss; their wines are some of the best I’ve had in recent memory, and if you haven’t already tried them, I strongly recommend that you seek them out.

Upon our arrival, Sam was outside cleaning up and Charles was inside putting pen to ledger. He stopped working when he saw us and immediately engaged us in conversation; he appeared as interested in us as we were in him, asking all sorts of questions about where we were from and what we did for a living. When Sam came inside, he, Charles, Zach and I each grabbed a glass of Chardonnay and struck out side-by-side to tour the 200-acre estate, 40 of which is planted.  Sam expertly navigated the rough, dusty trails, occasionally shifting into four-wheel-drive, while Charles pointed out the different vineyards, changes to the soil composition, and recognizable landmarks on the Valley floor far below. We maneuvered under stands of what he referred to as “young” redwoods, some 150 years in age, until we found our way to the spring. Sam stopped to pick fresh bay leaves and we chewed them on the way back, our Chardonnay long since having been imbibed or spilled.

Upon our return, we tasted different vintages of their wines and chatted about life.  Sam grabbed a thief and pulled a few tastes from a barrel that got us excited about the years to come. When the evening began to wind down, Charles checked the time. “No sense leaving now,” he informed us. “The highway will be backed up for miles.” We took the cue, and spent another hour out front in folding chairs, sharing stories.  We discussed everything from the season finale of Game of Thrones, to killing rattlesnakes, to Sam’s post-LSAT decision to skip law school and join the family business.  All the while, Charles made a strong case for Hamlet as the best of the Elizabethan revenge tragedies, and we laughed and told jokes for quite some time. A new friend of mine often says that the personality of a winemaker invariably comes through in their wines. I would suggest that this is likely what makes the wines of Smith-Madrone so wonderful.

The best place to look for Smith-Madrone wines in Omaha is The Winery, where fellow Smith-Madrone junkies are known to congregate. Below is a brief run-down of what’s currently available:

Riesling: Think Alsace. This is the kind of Riesling you can pair with steak, lay down to age for a few decades, or both.  I’ve had dozens of Rieslings from California, and this one is the best I’ve tried, period.

Chardonnay: Far more reminiscent stylistically of Chablis than of the Napa Valley from whence it hails, this is what subtlety tastes like. Lovers of cougar juice need not inquire.

Cabernet Sauvignon:  In a place where Cab of this caliber can easily cost over $100/bottle, this is a solid QPR. Thanks to the generosity of some wonderful people, I’ve tasted vintages dating as far back as 1995 and can attest that this Cab drinks very well now but is also extremely age-worthy.

Cook’s Flat Reserve: Charles probably put it best: “We make this wine because it makes us really happy.” It made me really happy, too. A blend of 64% Cab Sauv, 22% Cab Franc, and 14% Merlot, this wine gets the best of everything during the winemaking process, and you’re sure to love it the next time you’re splurging.

There were less than 25 wineries in the Napa Valley when the Smith brothers started theirs. There had not yet been a “Judgment of Paris” to put the valley on the wine world’s radar, and the area was still planted primarily to fruit and nut orchards when their vineyards went in.  Today, the short drive up from the valley floor is barely enough time to forget that below, the glitz and glamour of the wine industry is in full bloom, but at the somehow timeless Smith-Madrone Winery, you can experience the Valley for what it once was, and what it still so clearly wants to be.

Stu typically comes to Omaha every spring for Vin Nebraska, but that’s half a year from now. Until then, picking up a stock of their wines at The Winery would be a terrific introduction to Smith-Madrone (you’ll have to race me to the rest of the ’13 Riesling), however don’t stop there. With flights in the $300 range right now, a visit to Spring Mountain would be the perfect fall getaway, and in case the Smith’s outstanding wine isn’t draw enough, they’re pretty damn charming people to boot.

Wine(ry) Recommendation: Smith-Madrone

The SF Chronicle looks at tasting rooms and we’re there

In California’s Wine Country, tasting rooms are essential

By Esther Mobley

September 15, 2016

The village was empty. Some of the 12th century edifices might have been nearing “ruins” status: former monasteries with no signs of life; squat, stone houses with doors so petite that even a modern-size 10-year-old might have trouble getting through.

This was Vosne-Romanée, a village in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. If any place could be said to produce the world’s best wine, Vosne-Romanée, home of vineyards like Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and Richebourg, surely contends. Yet any casual tourist driving through this village (population: 427) might never have guessed she was standing on such hallowed ground.

Someone better accustomed to the Napa Valley style of wine tourism might have wondered: Where are the droves of thirsty visitors taking selfies? The roadside burger joints? The luxury home wares shops?

Where, indeed, are all the tasting rooms?

OK — there are a few tasting rooms in Burgundy, and several restaurants, even if not in Vosne-Romanée. Still, many Californians would be surprised by the impression of ghostliness Burgundy conveys relative to its heft in the wine world. Even many of the larger-scale, household-name wineries whose equivalents in Napa or Sonoma would have state-of-the-art hospitality behemoths — Domaine Faiveley, for instance, which produces about 60,000 cases of wine per year — aren’t open to the public.

The experience of wine tasting in Burgundy largely exists for the wine trade. It involves standing in dark, chilly, damp cellars, while the vigneron extracts small amounts of wine out of barrels and pipes them into your glass. You clasp the stem precariously between two fingers while furiously jotting notes in your notebook. This is not finished wine: It’s nascent, tannic, brutal Pinot Noir, as girded and reserved as many of the Burgundians themselves. With gums numb from polyphenolic overload, you spit into a drain, trying not to focus too much on the glowing pink mass growing in the wall’s furry mold that must be, you’ve decided, an insect’s egg sac. Whatever precious drops remain in your glass, you pour back into the barrel.

Napa Valley’s Beringer, this is not.

It’s an instructive reminder that we do things very, very differently here. Wine tasting in Burgundy can give the satisfaction of finishing a grueling workout. In California, on the other hand, wine tasting aims primarily to give pleasure.

This contrast has been on my mind a lot lately as I have been visiting winery tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma counties in order to review them. From these reviews, both mine and my colleagues’, we’ve selected an exemplary set of 50 to include in our 2016 magazine guide to Wine Country, which you’ll find in Sunday’s newspaper. Later this fall, we launch a new website, The Press, an interactive online guide to visiting Napa and Sonoma. Both offer recommendations for where and how to go wine tasting, and are anchored in our independent reviews.

But how to evaluate the experience of visiting a winery? The more I tasted in Burgundy, the more complicated the question seemed. Is wine tasting supposed to be serious? What if it feels too serious, as if catering only to connoisseurs? Is it supposed to be fun? Is it possible for it to be too fun — tacky, tawdry, commercial? What if you dislike the Chardonnay but love the patio? Or what if, no matter how precious the Pinot, you just don’t want to spit into drains in a musky cellar with egg sacs growing in the walls?


Because the small and mid-size California winery’s business model depends on direct-to-consumer sales — cutting out the middlemen of wholesaler and retailer, who take sizable cuts of the profit — many of our wineries depend quite heavily on their tasting rooms. This is a different model from what’s found in many of the world’s other wine regions. When visitors come, maybe they’ll buy some wine to bring home, or better yet, join the wine club; at the very least, they’ll recognize the wine later at a restaurant.

The result is that California wineries have invested a lot of resources into creating a leisure sport for us. That’s perhaps nowhere clearer than at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga — a reproduction of a 13th century Tuscan castle (reported construction cost: $30 million) where the wine can feel like an afterthought to the dungeon, torture chamber, drawbridge and moat. (All can be experienced on a guided tour; $40.) You could hardly spot more bachelorette-party sashes if you were at Asia SF on a Saturday night.

“The wine business is a relationship business,” says Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui, which owns Castello di Amorosa. “To sell wine, you have to share a story about where the grapes are grown, how the wine is made. There has to be a connection.”

Evidently, people are connecting. Every year, V. Sattui alone sees about 250,000 unique visitors. (The company would not disclose Castello di Amorosa’s specific visitor figures.) Both V. Sattui and Castello di Amorosa sell all of their wine directly. Zero enters distribution.

A few miles south of the castle, up Spring Mountain, you’ll find Smith-Madrone — or, more likely, drive past it — where brothers Stu and Charlie Smith have been farming their small vineyard for the last four decades. They’re open by appointment, just barely. The brothers are charming when they’re not bickering with each other, and the tastings, which they hold somewhat reluctantly, are about as unfussy as they come, held among their barrels in an old barn. “Hospitality” is not a word you’d imagine passing through the Smiths’ lips. The wine is an afterthought to nothing; it’s the only thought, and you’d better be ready to chime in amid Stu and Charlie’s winemaking debates.

You couldn’t leave Smith-Madrone and not connect with the place, the people, the wines. But achieving that connection requires a little more legwork than moseying up to the castle, moat notwithstanding.

Me, I’d rather sit in the barn than the torture chamber any day. But is recommending the Smith-Madrone experience, categorically, a bit like telling people they should skip the latest “Captain America” movie and go watch “The Seventh Seal” instead?

Maybe. I was amazed, over our recent visits to hundreds of Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms, by how much there was to love at all points on the spectrum. We found lots of scrappy-underdog operations that were easy to want to advocate (see: Nalle, Two Shepherds). We likewise found plenty of big-budget blockbusters that, if you’re willing to spend a little extra, we believe are worth it (see: Quintessa, Larkmead). We found places that offer settings so beautiful you won’t care whether the wine is any good (see: Stonestreet, Artesa). And places that, despite sometimes feeling like tourist traps, are just, we had to admit, a lot of fun (see: Gundlach Bundschu, Robert Mondavi).

As with restaurant reviews, the nexus of quality, service, ambiance and value is complicated. We tried our best to make sense of it in this particular context, keeping in mind that sometimes (most of the time?) you’d rather get a Mission burrito than a reservation at Saison.

The good news is that in California you’ll find the vinous equivalents of both: Whereas a Vosne-Romanée wine can legally be made only from Pinot Noir, here it’s a free-for-all. That means we’re free to flop — and plenty of wineries do; we’ll warn you from those — but also to stake out new methods, new grapes, new styles. We’ve got Tuscan castles and dilapidated barns. And whether they spent nothing or $30 million on their tasting room construction, they’re all in the relationship business. That’s just how it works here.




Wonderful wines & winemakers, says “The California Girl”

“The California Girl” and “The Brit” came to visit: read on:


Before we start this post, we would like to note that this is officially our 100th posting on our blog. Thank you all so very much for reading, sharing, liking and commenting on our Blog, our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. The love we have had from all of you has made this really fun for us both. We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our first milestone than by talking about the wonderful Smith-Madrone Winery and Vineyards.

When we were invited to Smith-Madrone, neither of us knew what to expect. We were impressed by the entire experience from start to finish.

This place isn’t one of the commercial mega-wineries you get in Napa Valley. Instead it is a truly personal and family run business that has been around since the 1971. The brothers who founded it still work the land themselves and they put their heart and soul into what they produce. It was an immense pleasure to spend time with the brothers Stuart and Charles Smith, talking with them over glasses of wine. We really enjoyed ourselves.

They don’t have a fancy tasting room with shiny decor and slick young hosts. Instead, they personally bring visitors into their rustic barrel room and let them taste the wine. I enjoyed the simplicity of it. It felt honest rather than a Hollywood version of what a winery should be.

One of the things that struck me is that they strive not to have a style when making their wines. Instead, they work with the crop they harvest that year and make the wine the best they can produce from it. They also aren’t worried about what style of wine is in fashion, or what the critics like. They make wine that they like and hope everyone else will like it too. How refreshing is that?

We started our tasting with the 2013 Chardonnay. It was a very balanced wine. It tasted creamy and rich with a decent amount of acidity. Oak, butter, and fruit were all in complete balance. But I have to say, that for me there was nothing “special” about it. If I were drinking it, I would drink the entire glass with zero complaints, but it wasn’t something I thought WOW.

The Brit comments: I agree and disagree with California Girl on her statement about this wine. I was impressed when I tasted it, but once we tasted the next year’s Chardonnay it paled in comparison. It was interesting to note that despite all of their Chardonnay being in 100% casks, the fruit is not overwhelmed by the wood and all three Chardonnay’s we tasted exhibited great balance between fruit, acidity, and vanilla from the oak.


We moved on to the 2014 Chardonnay. Interestingly with this wine they made it same way as with the 2013, but they made one change. They stirred the wine in a process called Batonnage. (They stir it with a special paddle like device while its in the barrel to keep the wine in contact with the lees while maturing rather than the lees sinking to the bottom of the barrel. It creates a much richer flavor.) This wine had my taste buds singing. The flavor was amazing! Creamy rich notes of vanilla, full of fruits, wonderful in the mouth with medium acidity. I absolutely loved this wine. We had to purchase bottles of this beauty. Fantastic.

The Brit comments: The Chardonnay was superb, but it helps that Smith-Madrone were not serving their wines chilled. I am amazed at how many wineries cool their white wine to a point where the cold suppresses the aromas and flavours. Here the wine was served at barrel room temperature.

We were lucky enough to be treated to a special tasting of the 2015 Chardonnay which has yet to be bottled or released. It wasn’t quite ready, but boy, oh boy we could tell it is going to be an amazing wine. It has a slightly acidic kumquat finish, with honeysuckle and melon on the nose. We would have bought bottles of this if it were possible. We will be revisiting just to do that when it comes out. I can’t wait to experience the finished product. Charles seemed pleased with it as well.

We moved on to the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a nose of oak and summer berries. There are very soft tannins which are pleasant on the palate with a flavor of forest floor, cloves, and those summer berries. Delicious. I thought it was priced very reasonably for the quality and the character of the wine. The mix is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot.

The Brit comments: As with all of their wines, the grapes are all estate grown. They change the balance each year and despite its youth this wine is already drinking well.

The 2009 Cooks Flat Reserve is one of those special bottles of wine you don’t drink every day. Priced at $200, per bottle this beauty is really what you would hope for in a mature Cab. Rich berries on the nose and palate, baking spices, weighty and rich in the mouth. We both loved this wine. It will continue to age beautifully for at least 10 years if not more. I would love the opportunity to taste it then. I think that this is one of my favorite quality Cabs I have experienced. It is a wine to be savored and experienced rather than simply consumed.

Our favorite pick out of the lineup though is the 2014 Riesling. This is a WOW! Pear, grapefruit, and melon on the tongue; a perfect sip, not too dry, not too sweet. Honestly, I should have purchased more bottles. The quality of this wine for the price is outstanding. The Brit however warned me that we are lacking space in our white wine fridge and not to buy too much until we go through some of what we have in stock now. It just gives me a good excuse to make another visit to Smith-Madrone to get more. I loved it that much.

The Brit comments: I admit that I used to avoid Riesling, associating it with poor quality overly sweet German wines that used to be consumed in the UK. I now realize that it is a very versatile grape that can be used to make dry white wines with complex flavour profiles. Smith-Madrone’s Riesling is a superb example of the grape at its best.

Aside from the wonderful wines and the very interesting wine makers, Smith-Madrone is well worth the visit for its beauty and the views. I felt like I didn’t have enough time to focus on my photos while I was there, and I would have liked to be there in better light so my pictures could have really reflected its beauty. Maybe they will invite us back. I sure hope so.


How is dry-farming like parenting and more from NapaFoodandVine

The “California Girl” and “The Brit” came to visit: we thank them for their kind words!


The past is like a foreign country, they do things differently there. That opening line could apply to the Smith-Madrone Vineyard. It is located only a few miles from Highway 29 and St Helena, but it is a world and several decades removed from the tourist packed wineries that cluster along that main road. We drove five miles up Spring Mountain on a narrow and winding road; past signs warning that it was about to get more narrow and even more winding. We turned at a cluster of mailboxes and then followed a single track lane until we found a building in a clearing in the vines. There was nowhere further to drive, so we stopped and got out of the car. There is a small warehouse building, which serves as storage, office space, and tasting room. There is no sign of the fancy tasting room spaces that one sees in the wineries along the valley floor.

California Girl Comments: The drive was really interesting. We passed forested areas with huge redwood trees on our trek up the mountain. I didn’t believe there could be a winery in this country location, but boy was I wrong. Not one, but many wineries inhabit Spring Mountain. Smith-Madrone was one of the first vineyards to inhabit this area.

We were greeted by Curly, an English Spaniel, who was enthusiastically friendly. A few minutes later our host Stuart drove down the hill in an ATV. We climbed in the back and, as Curly gave chase, Stuart gave us a tour of the vineyard.

California Girl Comments: What a cutie Curly is. He was such a handsome boy and posed for me in the vineyard like the gentleman he is. You can tell he’s well-loved.

Stuart and his brother, Charles, have owned the vineyard since 1971. Before they could cultivate vines, they needed to clear trees that had grown since an earlier vineyard had been abandoned at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The trees removed included madrone, a species native to Western America, which in combination with their surname provided the winery’s name: Smith Madrone. Stuart joked that Smith Winery lacked something as a name and that it was fortunate that there was variety of trees on the site, as Smith Poison Oak would also not have been the best choice.

California Girl Comments: This year they celebrate 45 years of wine making. They have also welcomed Stuart’s son Sam into the family business as assistant wine maker. Sam brings to this experienced team youth and new ideas. The three work well together and it shows in the wine.

The vineyard sits on the slopes of Spring Mountain. In some cases the gradient dictates planting the vines parallel to the slope to avoid steep ascents and descents when maintaining and harvesting. There are thirty-acres under vines. The grapes planted on the estate are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Stuart explained they dry-farm, providing extra water only for vines in the first few years of their life. He compared it to caring for children; lavishing care and attention in their early years and slowly enabling them to become more independent as they grow older. He admitted that some of their Merlot was an adult child returned home, as it needed ongoing watering. Stuart also explained how the leaves provide shade for the grapes so that they do not ripen too quickly and how they will trim the leaves back as the summer progresses to provide more sun in the morning and afternoon.

California Girl Comments: It was so interesting listening to Stuart as he explained their philosophy of growing grapes and making wine. I could have listened to him for hours as he talked. He was both old school experience and new science geeky and we just loved it.

Stuart stopped to show us the Cabernet Franc and pointed out how the vines are grown so that the fruit hangs 38 inches above the soil, reducing the amount of bending over that is needed during harvesting. This is one of many decisions they have made which reduce the yield of the vines, but help focus on the quality of the fruit.

About halfway through our tour Curly decided that he had enough of chasing us and jumped into the back with California Girl and me. We did not think there was space on the back seat, but Curly was certain he would fit and once we both shifted to the side the dog was proven right.

After the tour of the property, Stuart introduced us to his brother Charles, who took us through a tasting. We will cover that tasting in a subsequent post.

California Girl Comments: The wine was just as interesting and special as the two brothers who make it. Both the Riesling and the Chardonnay are spectacular and very affordable. Charles spent time going through each and every wine tasting with us. It was wonderful.

Smith-Madrone only does tasting visits two times a day on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday by appointment only. Check out their website for details about making a reservation here. Tastings are $25 and are about 1.5 hours.

We loved our time with the brothers and this beautiful winery. We highly recommend you making the trip to visit. It is one of those really personal experiences in Napa that is a hidden treasure and you don’t want to miss.


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: http://www.liveleft.com/napa-and-sonoma/ 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!