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A video tasting note for the 2014 Cabernet

February 26, 2018

February 2018

StayRad offers a video tasting of the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon:



“Glorious” and more, when The Armchair Sommelier takes a look

February 22, 2018

February 22, 2018

The Armchair Sommelier takes a look….


One of the perks of being a professional wine student (that’s what I’m calling myself these days) is that I occasionally get some wine samples to review.  I’m particularly grateful to Smith-Madrone for sending me their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon each year, because they always give me a little nudge to think about something besides just tasting notes.  Today, I started thinking about how each vintage of wine is different (wine people like to call this vintage variation).  Because they are different.  And that snowballed into some thoughts on vintage charts.

The soul of winemaking is farming.  Without grapes, there can be no wine.  The success of a particular grape harvest is entirely dependent on the whims of Mother Nature.  A spring frost can decimate a vineyard.  Too much rain in the spring, and you can lose flowers.  No flowers, no grapes.  Too much rain at harvest can swell the grapes, diluting flavors.  Honestly, I’m surprised more winemakers don’t make sacrifices to Mother Nature.  The Ancients used to sacrifice goats to Bacchus with the hope of insuring a good harvest.  Why goats?  Because goats eat vines.  Fewer goats, more vines.  I know of a winemaker who spreads gopher ashes over his vineyards, which I guess is kind of like sacrificing a goat. I digress.

Mother Nature’s mood swings mean that no two harvests are exactly the same.  Wines that are made from the same vines grown in the same place each year are different each year.  These little differences from one year to another are one of the things that make wine so damn interesting.  But, I certainly can’t remember the growing conditions in Pomerol for 2004, or in Barbaresco for 2012, or in Napa Valley for 2008.

You’d think I’d be all about a vintage chart.

Does anyone actually have one of these in their pocket?

Nope.  I don’t stress much about this vintage vs. that vintage.  When buying wine, I place more emphasis on my own preferences for particular regions, grape varieties, style, and wineries/winemakers.  And honestly, I find vintage charts tedious.  If I want to know the particulars about a wine, I can look them up on my phone in about 13 seconds.  Vintage charts are so generalized, I feel like I’m reading my horoscope.  (Your travel plans are shaping up today, Leo.  Be sure to wear pants!)  Even worse, they’re woefully intimidating and potentially misleading to someone who is just getting into wine.  I still remember the first time I tried to consult a vintage chart (thinking it was some kind of almighty canon), and it made about this much sense to me:

There are exceptions (both good and bad) to every vintage, but that a lot to do with winemaker skill and technology, rather than a “bad” vintage.  Great winemakers will always figure out how to make lemonade from lemons.

[Tangent alert]:  Vintage is more important if you buy a lot of super expensive wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, where ripeness can be a real concern every year.

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was widely regarded as stunning, perfect even.  By contrast, the 2007 vintage was mostly panned as a stinker.  Hmmm.  To satisfy my own curiosity (and to procrastinate working on my WSET Diploma research paper), I took a quick look at pricing, availability, and aggregate scores of two first-growth Bordeaux wines on best vintage chart ever.

The Château Margaux 2005 is $800 (97 points), but the 2007 is $450 (93 points).  The Château Lafite Rothschild 2005 is $1,000 (96 points), and the 2007 is $750 (92 points).  I’m not sure I’d call the 2007 vintage a stinker based on those parameters.  A bargain, maybe (if I ever win the lottery), but certainly not a stinker.

And that is my very belabored point.  One vintage over another isn’t necessarily bad, just different.  Unique.  Distinct.  Interesting.

So what’s interesting about the Smith-Madrones this year?  Honestly, as I looked back on my tasting notes for previous vintages, what struck me the most was the consistency.  Smith-Madrone wines are different each year, but remarkably consistent in structure and quality.

2015 Chardonnay  
100% Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in 80% new French oak.  The second I stuck my nose into this glass, I grinned from ear to ear.  Because I knew it was going to be an acid bomb.  A glorious, mouth-puckering acid bomb.  Laced with flavors of yellow apple, lemon meringue, minerals, and chamomile.  Elegant and edgy at the same time — kind of like Audrey Hepburn.  At 14.9% ABV, I feel like this should be “bigger”, but it’s so well constructed.  Gawd, this is good.  And, it’s only $34.  Seriously.  How is this possible for only $34??

My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2014:  Bâttonage (lees stirring) = toastier, yeastier.
2013:  Clean mountain rain.
2012:  Old World restraint.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon  
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 7% Merlot.  Aged for 18 months in 70% new French oak and 30% one-year old French oak.  If you recall, 2014 was the year of the Napa earthquake.  It was also a drought year for Napa, and according to Smith-Madrone, rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were about half what they usually are.  What does that mean for the grapes?  Well, it means the grapes were stressed out.  And stressed out vines can make great wines.  It also means that grapes were smaller, which produced a more concentrated juice.

A gorgeous, deep ruby color.  Cedar, blackberry, black currant, garden mint, and a big pile of crushed mountain rocks.  The power in this wine comes from its structure.  Despite its youth, this is beautifully balanced with beautifully integrated tannins.  A dense and elegant knock-out.  No doubt this will develop beautifully in the bottle.  13.9% ABV.  $52.

My previous tasting notes (brutally summarized):
2013:  Cigars and lavender.
2012:  Cranberries in a cedar chest.
2011:  Deliciously funky.

Don’t sweat the vintage, celebrate it!





Don’t Sweat the Vintage, Celebrate It (a Smith-Madrone Tangent)


“Loads of character,” as Corkscrew Report takes a look

February 21, 2018


by Johannes Marlena,  February 20, 2018

Are we out of line for calling Smith-Madrone a “hidden” winery of Napa Valley, considering it was established in 1971? No, not until the world recognizes there may not be a better $50 Napa Cab for the money than Smith-Madrone’s. Not to mention they also produce one of America’s most essential white wines.

What the heck kind of wine person goes out to California’s vaunted Napa Valley and says, “Yeah, I’ll make a Riesling?” Currently, there’s only 87 acres of vineyard dedicated to growing Riesling in Napa (there’s about 4,000 total acres of Riesling in California as compared to 98,000 of Chardonnay). Well, it happened—at the height of the hippie era, not that this necessarily has anything to do with anything. In 1970, Stuart Smith, 22 years old and armed with a B.A. in Economics from UC Berkeley, looked up to the mountains in the Spring Mountain District and bought the latitude 38.532437 and longitude 122.548480 vineyard property that is still the family’s today.

“Stu” Smith, in 1972, chose which varietals he would plant based on the exposures of the mountainous slopes of the vineyards (the peak height of the property reaches 1900 feet): east would be Riesling; north would be Chardonnay; and south and west would be Cabernet Sauvignon. And happily these grapes would grow among the 120-year-old olive trees, California black bears, and other wildlife that exists on the site. “These vines are our friends,” says Stu.

The vineyards of Smith-Madrone are dry-farmed, and Stu is a pioneer of this farming practice as applied to mountain sites.

Mountain Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley can easily run you into the three-figures. “Handcrafted” is a shopworn term in the wine world, but in the case of mountain vineyards, good luck getting big mechanical harvesters not to tip over up there. What it takes to grow great grapes and make great wine around here is true grit. At $50 per bottle, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet is true grit at true value.

For those interested in tasting how a mountain Chardonnay is different in its expression than an archetypal Napa Chardonnay, the Smith-Madrone mountain Chardonnay is a must-have and, again, a relative steal.

And what about that Riesling? The Smith-Madrone remains one of the most inspirational products in American wine. There’s a retro-trendy belief nowadays that California’s terroir is one in which Riesling thrives. Riesling was actually one of the most popular white grape plantings of the Napa of the 1800s—pre-Phylloxera armageddon—and we are on the cusp of a new movement to define what “California Riesling” means today. But, to have a vision of the future of Riesling’s importance to the identity of Napa Valley in 1972 like Stuart Smith did—well, that makes him a kind of Nikola Tesla of the wine world. The Smith-Madrone Riesling is a contemporary American classic and stands as one of our most essential white wines—that everyone can experience at less than 30 bucks.

The three wines reviewed below—Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon—represent the core of Smith-Madrone’s lineup. And these wine represent what’s best about exploring the ‘hidden” corners of Napa Valley. No train or buses to get here… just go your own way.


Rapturously rich, with ripe tropical fruit (lychee, mango), peach nectar and orange blossom notes and a touch of flintiness and minerality. Grapes are grown on steep hillsides, like they do in Germany and Alsace—home to the world’s greatest Rieslings. Man, this is the sophisticated, structured and vivid stuff of dreams. Dry and focused, but also warm, ripe and finishing on the vibrant acidity of citrus—great mouthfeel from beginning to end. This is Riesling going for character and longevity versus quick-pleasing and obvious, like too many American Rieslings of yesterday. Iconoclastic, singular and fiercely independent expression of American Riesling from a place you don’t expect Riesling to be made.


Mountain Chardonnay that’s vivacious, rich and footloose and free. Its color is a brilliant goldenrod, its character broad, buttery smooth, full-bodied and overflowing with flavor, with notes of jackfruit, ripe pineapple, wax, lemon verbena and toffee. Just a ton of personality. Impressively big and bold while structurally solid and high class. The wine’s finish is lengthy with broad tannins—stone fruit notes linger well into the next sip. A Napa Chardonnay that far, far exceeds in quality to its price point.


When you find mountain Napa Cab that doesn’t run into the three-figure dollar amount and is this good, you celebrate. Yes, you celebrate by opening a bottle, but more importantly, you celebrate that this kind of gift exists for mankind. Oh, that great mountain nose of rich, fleshy plum, wild dark berries, violets and lavender. These notes carry through onto the palate—again, rich, sumptuous and fleshy—with additional notes of coffee, dark chocolate and black pepper emerging. Smooth, oily texture and super-fine tannins along with that familiar mountain Cab savoriness. Loads of character here, and a quiet, rugged passion behind the wine is palpable.

2013 Cabernet…one of California’s great wines

February 20, 2018

Nittany Epicurean considers the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon:

….Smith-Madrone…part of my ongoing series of discovery of some of the great wines of California was for a white wine from the 2014 vintage. The 2014 Chardonnay grown, produced & bottled by Smith-Madrone demonstrated a deft balance between oak and fruit. Let’s head back to Smith-Madrone now for a red wine from the prior vintage:

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon produced & bottled by Smith-Madrone (St. Helena, California).

This wine is mostly cabernet sauvignon (82%) blended with cabernet franc (12%) and merlot (6%). The fruit was grown in Napa’s Spring Mountain District. Following fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak barrels (75% new) for 18 months. It comes in at 14.2% ABV.

The wine showed a dark ruby color. Blackberry, raspberry, currant, mossy earth and oak all arrived on the nose. Blackberry, raspberry, black cherry, licorice, oak and eucalyptus followed on a palate dominated by dark berry fruit. The wine exhibited good structure and length, along with soft tannins. This wine would do well paired with a marinated and grilled flank steak.

While this wine* is no longer available at the winery, it can still be purchased from retailers for $45-$60/bottle. You can purchase the 2014 vintage of this wine for $52 at the winery or directly from the winery’s website.

Chardonnay in the Washington Post

February 17, 2018

Dave McIntyre considers the 2015 Chardonnay in the February 16, 2018 issue:


“….take comfort in a luscious California chardonnay…

3 stars: Some chardonnays whack you in the face with an oak two-by-four. Smith-Madrone wraps you lovingly in a warm blanket.  ”

Hard to imagine a more satisfying Cabernet

February 16, 2018

Mark Gudgel includes the 2014 Cabernet in his review of 2017 Cabs:


by Mark Gudgel

Food & Spirits Magazine, Omaha NE, spring 2018

I had “The Library Club” over at my house again, everyone having chipped in a bit of money to taste through some older wines that none of us individually would be likely to splurge on. Not for the first time, a guest perusing my cellar inventory was quick to point out that I drink an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, and in particular, American Cabernet. “You need to branch out,” he said matter-of-factly, sipping at a glass of 1996 Caymus Cab Sauv. Do I? I love domestic Cabernet Sauvignon. The name means “Savage” and there’s something about the combination of new-world terroir and American winemaking that so often renders these wines as elegant monsters, a seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of characteristics for which I and so many others adore them. Say all you like about the merits of a well-nuanced Right Bank Bordeaux or a delicate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – I like those too, I really do. But if I had my way, I’d drink a bold, rich, American Cabernet about five nights of every week. And, as it turns out, I have my way. Since I devote a disproportionate amount of my time to drinking domestic Cabernet Sauvignon versus other wines, for the second year running I thought I’d share a list of the best, most interesting, stand-out American Cabernet Sauvignons I had the pleasure of tasting in 2017. When possible, I’ve listed the Omaha-area establishment where I’m most likely to pick up a bottle in case you want one too. From time to time I remark upon “QPR” which stands for Quality-Price Ratio. The prices I list are based either on what the winery lists online or, when they don’t, Vivino’s estimate. To know precisely what any wine will cost, you’re best bet is to ask the person selling it to you. I know that Cab Sauv isn’t everybody’ favorite wine the way it is mine, and I assure you that I’m already working diligently on an article about a terrific Willamette Valley producer for the spring issue of Food & Spirits Magazine. That said, it’s winter now, and Cabernet Sauvignon is precisely the thing to keep you warm – in case you needed an excuse. Below are my favorites from 2017. Enjoy!

Smith-Madrone 2014, Napa, ($52) Available at The Winery and will be featured at VinNEBRASKA Another of my well-documented winery obsessions is Smith-Madrone. The combination of great memories and terrific wine makes every glass of Smith-Madrone one that I savor. The final winery to find its way onto this list for a second consecutive year, when people visit Napa, I always steer them towards Smith-Madrone, and when people are looking for a great bottle of wine locally, I often point to this one. Founded in 1971 before it was hip to own a winery in Napa, the Smith brothers have been making wine for longer than most people have been drinking it, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they’ve perfected the craft. The 2014 vintage had an uphill battle to fight, between drought and earthquake, and yet the 42-year-old high elevation vines at Smith-Madrone still bore some truly extraordinary fruit. This wine is, in my opinion, as close to Pauillac as Napa gets, coming in at a low 13.9% ABV and blending 85% Cabernet with 8% Cab Franc and 7% Merlot. Velvety and smooth with concentrated dark fruits and subtle, integrated earthy notes, I find it difficult to imagine a more satisfying Cabernet.

2014 Cabernet…a benchmark of its appellation

February 16, 2018

Rich Cook takes a look at the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon at WineReviewOnline:

Yet another in a long line of classic Napa Valley elegance bottlings from Smith-Madrone.  Certainly a benchmark of Spring Mountain District, and so delicious now that you’ll likely miss the greatness that comes with long-term aging.  Blackberry, cassis and dried herbs are specific and well integrated already, and will gain in complexity with a long rest in your cellar.  I’m sure this is a virtual repeat of my reviews of previous vintages, but truth is truth — what’s a guy to do?