Owen Bargreen tastes two current releases:
A seriously cool and historic Napa estate, Smith-Madrone wines are sourced from the winery’s dry-farmed estate vineyards surrounding the winery on top of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley. Stuart Smith chose specific slopes with different exposures for specific varietals when planting the vineyards: eastern exposure for Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the Cabernet Sauvignon and the coolest north-facing slopes for the Chardonnay. The soil is mostly deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam, and is primarily volcanic-based, well-drained and deep for mountain soils. The estate is a 200 acre ranch, partly planted as vineyard over a century ago. California black bears and other wildlife once thrived here as did 120-year-old Picholine olive trees which frame a path and view down to the floor of the Napa Valley.
I recently had the chance to review the wines from this historic estate in Napa and was hugely impressed with the quality of wines from the warm vintages of 2013 and 2014. The 2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet (WWB, 93) in particular, showed wonderful terroir, aromatic range and Napa character. While delicious now, this wine will have a long life in the cellar. Learn more about these fantastic wines at https://www.smithmadrone.com.
2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling- This high elevation Riesling wine shows brisk acidity considering the heat of the vintage. Aromatically subdued at first when needing a one hour decant, this wine begins with a bouquet of white roses, honeysuckle, unripe pear and petrol. There are deep flavors of Gravenstein apple, unripe honeydew melon, lemon rind and a touch of green papaya. This has lovely astringency and structure, as this currently displays an almost unctuous mouthfeel. Drink 2017-2022- 92
2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet- This gorgeous wine begins with aromatics of violets, black cherry, creme de cassis, black olive tapenade and suggestions of baking spices. Tannic and rich, this wine has flavors of coffee grounds, creme de cassis, cigar box, dark chocolate shavings and boysenberry liquor. Dense, tightly wound and intense come to mind when savoring this lovely Cabernet. The mouthfeel is gorgeous, showing beautiful texture and structure. Try to give this lovely wine another year for the fruit to fully amalgamate. Drink 2018-2030- 93
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is reviewed in the April issue of California Grapevine:
Medium to medium-dark ruby; forward, spicy, cedary, black cherry and blackberry fruit aroma with herbal notes and hints of cassis, green olive, and bell pepper; full body; moderately rich, textured, cedary, black cherry fruit flavors with herbal notes, and tending to be a bit lean on the finish; full tannin; lingering aftertaste. Approachable now, though will benefit with several more years of bottle aging.
The April issue of California Grapevine reviews the 2014 Chardonnay:
Very highly recommended.
Medium-light golden yellow; assertive, citrus, pear, and apple aroma; medium to medium-full body; crisp, nicely balanced, lemony, pear and apple flavors with bright acidity, a note of minerality, and some plushness in the mouthfeel; lingering aftertaste.
Winethropology takes a look at the current releases:
High above the valley floor west of St Helena sits the Spring Mountain District, one of Napa Valley’s sixteen AVAs. With steep hillside vineyards reaching altitudes upwards of 1500 feet, this is prime cab country. And at the very end of Spring Mountain Road is Smith-Madrone.
Founded in 1971, Smith-Madrone winery was a pioneer in the practice of dry farming, still a very rare pursuit in California. That they are able to crank out quality wines – not just cabernet, either – from this location and in this manner is impressive indeed. Having been up there a couple of times before, a jaunt off the well-trodden route 29 is highly recommended. Quiet and serene, Spring Mountain feels like the rest of Napa probably did in the seventies.
The wines are all made with precision and clarity. Honesty of place shines through in them all. Lovely wines.
2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District $30
Crystalline platinum blonde in the glass offering faint petrol and funk aromatics typical in some rieslings. This gives way to a light bodied and very clean palate. Low viscosity, and quite dry, but not at all lacking in flavor or character. The zippy finish has terrific acidic grip with citrus nuances and a nice mineral bump. All this while clocking in at under 13% ABV. Very Alsatian in style. Very enjoyable with or without food.
2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District $32
The few examples I’ve tasted of Napa Valley Chardonnay grown outside of Carneros have just substantiated why growers like Carneros for chard. Smith-Madrone’s proves the notable exception. Its pale straw color and clean nose suggest a lean fleet-footedness. But one sip disabuses the idea that this is anything less than full tilt archetypal California Chardonnay. Big and full of mouth-filling texture, this flavor monster manages to walk a fine line. Well-made without being overblown, it is awfully hard to put down despite its heft.
2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District $50
Very floral upon initial decanting. Inviting. Tight, concentrated, and without an ounce of flab as a first impression. Structured and finely spun tannins are center stage. Its formality softens considerably and yields to comforting cedar and vanilla-laced fruit that starts deep and dark, then evolves toward a more bright, vibrant energy. The perfume aspect persists throughout, singing in the company of food. On day two oak emerges in earnest, overshadowing the fruit. Though this wine will go some distance, impatient drinkers won’t be disappointed, either.
Dorothy Gaiter talks to Stu for GrapeCollective:
SMITH-MADRONE: A NAPA CABERNET THAT’S CLASSY AND AGEABLE, IN ENGLISH OR LATIN
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.”
Ryan O’Hara chooses 6 California Chardonnays You Can Count On Under $40 and the 2014 is one of them:
Score: 93 points
From one of my favorite family-owned and operated boutique producers perched high atop Spring Mountain, the wines of Smith-Madrone always have soul and sense of place, at refreshingly accessible price points. Produced from 100% estate-grown Chardonnay from hillside vineyards ranging in elevation from 1,400 to 1,900 feet, it is barrel-fermented for nine months in new French oak. It pours a light straw yellow in the glass. Fragrant aromas of green pear and wet stone mingle alongside white flowers, buttercream and tangerine oil. In the mouth, the juicy core of crisp, bright fruit flavors are carried alongside an undercurrent of stony minerality. Medium-bodied, it benefits from lively acidity and finishes long and clean, with lingering hints of buttercream, tangerine oil and spices. A gorgeous, impeccably-balanced example of Spring Mountain Chardonnay that effortlessly punches above its weight.
Cathy Huyghe considers the 2014 Riesling at intrepid.MEDIA:
This wine arrived just in the nick of time. It was a Friday night, my husband and I were home alone, our twin boys having been invited to a sleepover elsewhere. It was a long and exhilarating week of work that we both love but lordy, by that point, exhaustion had won out.
We didn’t want to cook, we didn’t even want much to think. It was an order-in night for dinner — Thai food, in our case — and it was the sustenance kind of dinner that you expect to fuel you with calories and, honestly, not much else. But then there was this wine.
It had arrived earlier in the week, along with bottles that this particular Napa producer is frankly better known for, namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But my husband and I are both suckers for Riesling, and spicy Thai food was on the way. We pulled the cork, casually poured a few measures of the wine into our glasses, and took our seats.
To be honest, I didn’t even smell it first. I know I should have; it’s something “wine people” do, but this producer is familiar and I respect their wines and their process. They want to make wines that express their place on the earth, they say, and they also want to make wines that express themselves as people and as winemakers.
That, I get. As winemakers in Napa for more than 40 years, certainly Stu and Charles Smith are keyed into what the market wants and what their land is best suited to produce. By and large, for them on Spring Mountain, that means Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
But then there is this Riesling.
This Riesling says that they have their independent streak. It says that they listen hard enough to their land (and its steep hillsides) that they know it is suited, too, to produce the grapes for this wine. It says that they know this wine will be good.
This Riesling IS good, and refreshing, though in a way-beyond-sustenance kind of way. You get oranges and white flowers and fresh acidity. You get the desire to take another sip and then another.
It’s the kind of Riesling that reminds you to be grateful that wine, and this wine, is part of our life. It’s the kind of wine that makes you grateful that your kids have a friendly and active social life, and that you have this time alone with the person who loves you most in the all the world.
It’s the kind of wine that I’m hungry to drink, with Thai food for dinner or many other things too. It was just the right thing at just the nick of time, to pull us back from the far edge of everyday life.