Smith-Madrone in the September issue of Decanter Magazine

Standing the test of time

By Elin McCoy

September 2015, Decanter Magazine

Successive re-runs of the legendary Judgement of Paris tasting have shown that California Cabernets can age. But is it site, vintage or winemaking that counts the most? Elin McCoy finds some unexpected answers.

“….Winemaking techniques also count. While some winemakers favor long macerations, others don’t. Stu Smith, winemaker at Smith-Madrone, on Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley, points out that adding in the tiny stems between the grapes adds tannin. But time of picking, he and many others agree, matters most for ageability. “The problem today is that the overripe style is still with us.” Fond of pithy phrasing, Smith likes to call them ‘Ninety-minute wines.’ With the 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, it looked like some wineries known for that style were scaling back towards more balanced wines. “These cool vintages allowed people to rethink their attitudes about how ripe grapes should be,” Smith says.

10 wines that will stand the test of time

2009 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon

In this cool year, the wine is lively and complex, with intense aromas, juicy texture and grippy tannins.

2011 Cabernet awarded 91 points in The Wine Enthusiast

In the June issue of The Wine Enthusiast, the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is reviewed:

91 points

From the producer’s dry-farmed estate vineyard, and supported by small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this wine is elegant in sage and black cherry, silky on the palate in satisfying ways. Savory tea and an element of chocolate truffle give it additional complexity around a core of silky tannin.

Velvet pantaloons, truly spectacular and more in TheWineChic’s reviews

Katie Curley-Katzman reviews the current releases: :

Smith-Madrone: Wines Of The Gods

(NAPA, Calif.) The Romans used to say “Bacchus amat colles,” Latin for, Bacchus loves the hills. The god of the grape harvest was said to pour special blessings on hillside grapes. At Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery on Spring Mountain, owner Stuart Smith believes it to be true.

“The very best grapes come from the mountains,” he says.

It seems Dionysus is looking down on the 200 acre ranch at 1,300 to 2,000 feet of elevation. First planted in the early 1880s, the land was abandoned due to the Phylloxera epidemic. When Smith found the land in the early 1970’s, huge Douglas Fir trees, some 30 inches in diameter, were growing on the property; a sure sign of good soil. With almost all four exposures, he planted Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir was grown for more than a decade before grafting it over to Chardonnay. Smith now runs the winery with his brother and winemaker Charles Smith.

The wines of Smith-Madrone are decidedly reserved, elegant and like Smith says, the type of woman he would want to take on a date.

“I’d rather be involved with Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren than Pamela Anderson,” Smith said.

The style is more reminiscent of great Bordeaux-blends than that of New World wines.

“We believe that balanced elegance, restraint, sophistication, these are all difficult words to describe and define but we think they are important words in great quality wines,” Smith said. “We put a bit of California sunshine stamp on that concept but we believe that after making wine for 7,000 years, the French have honed a style of wine and we believe in it.”

Smith admits, there is a large market for what has become the “California style” and is careful not to denigrate what other winemakers are doing.

“What’s fun about wine is all the different styles.”

Crafting such elegance doesn’t come without considerable work – work Smith says, is never done.

“If it rains, you’re up in the middle of the night making sure you’re not eroding, you’re concerned about wildfires, deer, if I could sell rocks by the ton, we would be wealthy people,” he says. “You have to be of a certain type to be in the hills; nothing comes easy. Just getting stuff up the mountain is a chore. It’s a pain in the ass, but we do it because we love it.”

In Smith-Madrone’s more than 40 years, the industry has been turned on its head more than once. From viticulture and winemaking practices to bottling to marketing, Smith has witnessed the growth of Napa and California as a whole, as a wine destination. The winery has also changed and evolved along with the industry. All wines are made entirely from the winery’s dry-farmed vineyards, producing around 4,000 cases a year.

“What hasn’t changed in the search and desire for the very best wines and the constant change of trying new things,” Smith said noting they are experimenting with new clones and root stocks. “There have been a lot of changes but fundamentally, the process is the same and you try to do as little as possible to the grapes. The more you have to do, the more that’s reflective of the quality of the grapes.”

The blood, sweat and tears have flavored the terroir or Smith-Madrone, creating an experience in every bottle.

“We think it’s our job as winemakers to get the vintage into the glass. We really celebrate the diversity and uniqueness.”

Above all, it’s the pleasure of wine that Smith hopes they are able to relay in each glass.

“Wines have to be intellectually interesting and hedonistic. It must first give pleasure, then complexity,” he says.

Tasting Notes: 

2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: This one had me hooked right away. Beautiful aroma of humidor and mocha. On the palate the wine is silken with elegant finish. Flavors of blackberry and cocoa, beautiful balance. Like the baby Jesus wearing velvet pantaloons. I only use that saying for my very favorites 😉

2012 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay: Floral bouquet, lychee, lilac and lime. On the palate, bright, crispy with minerality, citrus peel notes. Every sip taught me something new, pushed me to reach further. This is truly spectacular.

2013 Smith-Madrone Riesling: A Riesling to win over the toughest critics. Apples and pear, honeysuckle and jasmine with chalky minerality and can-just-put-your-pinky-on-it white pepper, vegetal finish. Just beautiful.

The wines are ‘both serious and charming’

Robert Neralich tastes through the wines:

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side.
You can go around it.
You can dig under it.
You can fly over it.
You can blow it up.
You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there.
You can turn around and go back the way you came.
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” – Vera Nazarian

Not only did Stuart and Charles Smith make a mountain their home, they also established one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries on it. Located on Spring Mountain (1,800-foot elevation), the Smith-Madrone Winery produces several wonderful wines, three of which it is my pleasure to review in this post.

Smith-Madrone 2012 Chardonnay has enticing aromas of spice, apple, and pear that lead to luscious lemon, papaya, green apple, and melon flavors accompanied by notes of mineral, honeysuckle, and toast. Its texture is opulent, and its finish is lingering and rich. This wine would make a good companion for most seafood and poultry dishes.

Blended from 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc, the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is a complex wine, both powerful and elegant. Its impressive flavor profile includes dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry, and plum, with notes of mocha, spice, raspberry, and vanilla lingering in the background. These perfectly integrated flavors are supported by firm but supple tannins and close in a long, resonant finish.

Some wines manage to be both serious and charming, and such is the case with Smith-Madrone 2013 Riesling. Its seductive aromas of peach, nectarine, apricot, lime, and grapefruit precede bright apple, mango, pineapple, and lemon flavors that are balanced by lively acidity and complicated by nuances of honeysuckle, spice, and mineral. This dry Riesling could accompany a wide variety of savory fare, but it would also be the perfect wine to sip on a summer evening when the temperature does not go down with the sun.

Since the Smith brothers are viticultural and vinicultural artists, I thought it appropriate to close this post with a quote from someone who shared both their love of wine and their passion for creating beautiful things: “The birds have vanished into the sky and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.” ― Li Bai, the Chinese “Poet of Wine”

Exquisite and enjoyable, reports Examiner

Melissa Vogt at Examiner tasted through the wines recently. Here is her report:

Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery: Stunning new releases
May 30, 2015

Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery is located in the Spring Mountain District appellation, nestled at the top of a ridge with panoramic views of Napa Valley. Working with only estate-grown fruit, this small production, artisanal family winery focuses on crafting Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay of exceptional quality. With origins dating back to the beginning of the wine boom in the valley, 1971, brothers Charles and Stuart Smith have maintained an impeccable reputation from their stunning production of low-yield, mountainous fruit, which translates into truly elegant, terroir-driven wines.

Recently released are the new vintages of their three flagship varietals: 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Riesling and 2013 Chardonnay. Although the vast majority of the planted vineyards are comprised of these three varietals, the estate also has small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot planted for blending into the Cabernet Sauvignon, which provides balance and added complexity. Each of these wines is made strictly from the estate-grown fruit and all of the vineyards are dry farmed.

Although these mountainous vineyards are tended to in the same manner, the terroir of each site is very specific to the varietal planted there. When first planting, Stuart and Charles chose distinct locations for each of the grape variety, so as to assure that each variety was planted in the terroir that it is most suitable for. Full of deep-red Aiken stony clay loam—which includes volcanic rock, chert, limestone, serpentine, shale and metamorphic rock—these soils force the vines to struggle and dig their roots deep into the ground. This also allows for the brothers to dry farm the vineyards, because their roots are deep enough to tap into the ground water. The struggle of the vines in these rocky soils is truly what allows the vines to produce such small, concentrated grapes of astounding quality. In turn, the wines are expressive, complex and distinctly unique to their terroir of their vineyard sites.

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery
The new releases are quite incredible, both in their youth and in looking down the road for aging. To begin, the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon—which is planted at 1,800 feet elevation on steep (up to 35% gradient) slopes with southern and western sun exposures—exhibits lively aromatics and a true Bordeaux-style palate. This isn’t a big, jammy-fruit Napa Cab by any means. The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery is elegant, expressive and intricate with layers of complexity and texture. The nose is stunning with lively aromatics of mint, tobacco leaf, anise, wet rocks, pencil lead, black currant and black cherry. The palate shows incredibly complex flavors and textures with a very long finish. A medium body with integrated tannins and silky, dry texture is surrounded by subtle fruit flavors of red and black cherry, dried raspberry and a hint of blueberry in the background. These gentle fruit characteristics are beautifully poised against bittersweet dark chocolate, cocoa, rocky minerality, pencil lead and a touch of smoke. You can taste the varietal characteristics, the earth of the vineyard site and the delicate approach in the cellar. Nineteen months in French oak with a final blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 7% Merlot make this one of the most finessed and balanced Cabernet Sauvignons of the difficult 2011 vintage that I have tasted. Certainly a wine that is enjoyable now, but also built for long-term cellar aging.

2013 Riesling, Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery
This is a beautiful expression of a dry style. With only .75% residual sugar content and 12.6% alcohol, this Riesling remains refreshing and sophisticated. The nose boasts notes of white peach, white nectarine, salted lemon, wet rocks and stony minerality. The palate jumps out of the gate with bright acidity, followed by a round, creaminess at mid-palate, then finishing with that ever-so-gentle kiss of faint sugar—balanced by a touch of salted lemon and lemon zest. Flavors of green apple, ripe pineapple, kiwi and mango abound on the palate; gentler notes of honeysuckle, sweet peaches and minerality linger beneath the surface. The fresh acidity is well balanced by a welcoming roundness of body, making for a rather enjoyable tasting experience. This wine is also an excellent candidate for cellar aging.

2013 Chardonnay, Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery
This is exceptional, especially for those who enjoy the influence of oak balanced by terroir-driven characteristics. Spice-filled aromatics of cinnamon, ginger, green apple, honeydew melon and salted lemon leap from the glass. The palate is creamy and full with a lusciously round texture; background notes of caramel, burnt sugar and salted lemon mingle with foreground notes of papaya, green apple, lemon zest, minerality, clove and cinnamon. This Chardonnay is full and enticing, while still maintaining freshness and wonderful fruit flavors.

Overall, the new releases from Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery are exquisite and enjoyable, and also pleasantly perfect for stocking up on and putting away in your cellar for a later date. Brothers Stuart and Charles Smith prove once again that terroir-driven wines from mountainous Napa Valley regions allow for winemakers to produce stunning, noteworthy wines of incredible quality.

Stylish wines of substance, says TheFermentedFruit

Ryan O’Hara at The Fermented Fruit reports on his recent visit to the winery:

Smith Madrone Vineyards | A Spring Mountain Must…
Something From Nothing | The Beginnings of Smith Madrone Vineyards

Tucked away at the very end of Spring Mountain Road lies Smith Madrone Vineyards. Situated at the highest point in the Spring Mountain District, its steeply sloped mountain vineyards reach grades of up to 34% at elevations between 1300 and 2000 feet. Notable and familiar neighbors include Bothe Napa Valley State Park directly to the North, Barnett Vineyards immediately to the West and Keenan Winery lies due south.

The history of the property dates all the way back to the 1880 when a man by the name of George Cook secured a land grant authorized by then President Chester A. Arthur and planted vineyards and olive trees on the estate. But when Stu Smith discovered this special parcel of land, with its expansive views of Napa Valley and rocky, well-drained volcanic soils, the existing vineyards were in disrepair and the property was still mostly just a forest!

The founder of Smith Madrone Vineyards, Stu Smith is a celebrated enologist and viticulturist who today is considered a specialist in hillside vineyard farming. He would learn a great deal about viticulture in practice after purchasing this 200 acre forest of Madrone, Oak, Redwood and Douglas Fir in 1970 and clearing and planting an initial 20 acres of hillside vines by 1972.

A year later, Stu’s brother Charles Smith signed on to serve as partner and winemaker at Smith Madrone and the rest is history. Today, with a total of 34 acres planted to vine, Smith Madrone is producing wines of style, substance, restraint and longevity from its cooler mountain climate. They are wines that will complement, rather than compete with a meal.

Of the 34 total acres at Smith Madrone Vineyards:
• 13 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon
• 10.25 acres of Chardonnay
• 6.25 acres of Riesling
• 3.75 acres of Merlot
• 1 acre of Cabernet Franc

A Must Visit | A Tasty, Educational Experience
You too will be well taken care of at Smith Madrone Vineyards. Don’t assume that I got the ‘wine blogger’ treatment because I got to taste with the founder himself – all tastings at Smith Madrone are conducted by one of the Smith brothers personally; and did I mention that they’re free of charge? I had initially intended to spend about an hour at Smith Madrone getting an introduction to their wines and their story – and ended up spending a a thoroughly informative and educational three hours with Stu – and we only tasted five wines!

During that time, it became quite clear that Stu is at one with his vineyards and has a real intuition when it comes to how best to maximize his exposures and soils. For example, he plants his Cabernet Sauvignon vines on his southern and western exposures for ideal and even sunlight, and his Chardonnay on the coolest northern exposures to preserve acidity and balance.

His vineyards are entirely dry-farmed and he believes that vines should struggle and root deeply for water, producing smaller berries with an ideal skin to juice ratio. You won’t find a multi-million dollar tasting room at Smith Madrone. It is refreshingly casual and tastings are conducted in the hand-built winery or just outside overlooking the sloping estate vineyards. The focus here is on the vineyards and the wines.

What We Tasted During Our Visit to Smith Madrone Vineyards…
Smith Madrone Riesling 2013: Light yellow with flecks of green. The nose reveals apples, pears and honeysuckle balanced by a lively dose of lime citrus and a whiff of petrol. In the mouth, the Smith Madrone Riesling is medium in body and begins with a round personality revealing melon and a honeyed sweetness before developing a racier side with assistance from vibrant acidity, citrus notes and spice. This has good verve and tension and is frankly hard to put down. This makes a compelling argument for more Riesling in Napa and in your wine cellar. I tasted a 2007 Smith Madrone Riesling during my visit and it was already developing very well and showing more developed secondary notes of honey and petroleum and had considerable life left.
Score: 90

Smith Madrone Chardonnay 2013: Medium straw yellow in color. There’s an abundance of sweet, ripe aromas bursting from the glass including apples, pears, cantaloupe, and white flowers complemented by hints of lemon curd and wet stone. In the mouth the Smith Madrone Chardonnay is medium to full-bodied with a creamy yet spicy, zesty mouthfeel and a subtle undercurrent of mineral. While the fruit is ripe and rich, it maintains excellent balance and good persistence on the subtly toasty finish. A very good Napa Chardonnay exuding both power and grace. Considering that this sees 8 months in 100% new French oak, it is surprising how well integrated the oak influence is.
Score: 91

Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011: A dark ruby red in the glass with aromas of bell pepper, cherries and currants framed by hints of menthol and cedar. In the mouth it’s a medium-bodied with a silky texture. A savory and herbal expression of Napa Cabernet revealing a focused core of sour cherry, blackberry and black currant is further nuanced by bell pepper, sage, woodsmoke, minty tobacco and spice notes livened by vibrant acidity. It finishes with fine powdery tannin. Stu believes that some green pepper notes are indicative of a properly ripened Cabernet, and that you only get rid of it with overripe fruit. Those who consider bell pepper a flaw should taste this stylish, well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 7% Merlot | 14.3% ABV
Score: 91

Should You Go? This boutique Spring Mountain winery is producing stylish wines of substance that emphasize balance and restraint over sheer power. The visit is refreshingly casual yet informative, and the wines are priced to take home and enjoy with a meal.

Fun Facts | Smith Madrone Vineyards
• The name is a tribute to the Smith brothers and the Madrone tree, which is the most common tree on the 200 acre ranch. It is a form of Evergreen with a reddish-brown color to its trunk and branches.
• Tastings are always conducted free of charge, by one of the Smith brothers personally.
• The soils are mostly deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam. The volcanic soils are rocky, with some of the rocks reaching the size of a small car.
• Smith Madrone’s production of approximately 4,000 cases of wine per year is entirely estate grown and bottled.
• The history of the property dates all the way back to the late 1800’s when George Cook homesteaded the property, planted vines and olive trees, and was eventually awarded a patent by then President Chester A. Arthur for ownership rights to the estate.

Mountain wines….why they’re different!

Our constant goal is to present Smith-Madrone as an estate-vineyard mountain winery.

A friend in the trade urged us to re-run reviews of our wines from a report in by Christy Canterbury. It first ran in April, 2013; please note that these are not the current vintages. Enjoy!
Napa Mountain Wines Report by Christy Canterbury MW

Many of Napa Valley’s best-known bottlings come from fruit grown on the Valley floor, and it certainly those ripe and succulent wines that epitomize the Napa wine style. However, above the fog and the inversion layer hovering over the Valley, mountain vineyards produce markedly different wines. They favor minerality over fruit flamboyance, and their structure is taut and focused rather than rounded and relaxed. These differences in wine styles are so evident that I’m surprised – as are many of the winemakers – that more attention hasn’t been devoted to them…..

Recommended White Wines
92 pts
Smith-Madrone 2009 Chardonnay Spring Mountain
This is a classic, Napa-style Chardonnay with real balance. Fermented entirely in new French oak barrels, where the wine remains sur lie for nine months, flavors of cream and diacetyl naturally accompany the grapes’ tropical fruit flavors. Fresh acidity gives the wine a sense of lightness despite its generous abv, showing that typical lift found in mountain wines.

92 pts
Smith-Madrone 2011 Riesling Spring Mountain
Without question, this is the best Riesling from Napa I have tasted to date. Aromatically compelling with delicate and multi-dimensional aromas of petrol, white peach and apricots-n-cream ice cream, this wine is highly structured by its piercing acidity. A sophisticated Riesling to seek out with great urgency!

Recommended Value Wines
Value mountain wines are a bit of an oxymoron. Mountain vineyards produce small yields. They usually require hand labor. And, unless the land has been in the family for decades, it is expensive to purchase and develop. I usually classify wines as “values” when they are under $20 retail. For mountain wines, my spread is still only $20, but the price tags start at $20.
90 pts
Smith-Madrone 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain
Oak figures quite prominently in this wine with aromas of vanilla extract and coconut jumping from the glass. The fruit comes through more clearly on the palate with blackberry and black currant leading the way. The palate is thick with generous viscosity but tannins firmly clench the perimeter. One percent Cabernet Franc and two percent Merlot join in this blend.

What a difference the mountain makes—the 2011 Cabernet in the San Jose Mercury News

We recommend Laurie Daniel’s look at 2011 Napa Cabs in the April 20 San Jose Mercury News, pointing out the difference the mountain makes:

Another good hillside cab is the 2011 Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($48), which is a relative bargain among Napa cabs. It’s savory and structured, with concentrated black fruit, notes of olive and anise and firm tannins.

Enofylz recommends us with “No Reservations” and the wines “Outstanding”

ENOFYLZ Wine Blog, April 16, 2015
No Reservations Wine Tasting – Smith Madrone Vineyard and Winery

My wife and I do more than our fair share of wine tasting. We’ve hit all the major wine regions in California (and a few minor ones too;-), along with some tasting in Oregon and Spain, and Champagne.

From time to time, we have a wine tasting experience that stands above the rest, and is everything we’re looking for – great wine and commendable service in a relaxed unpretentious environment. It’s those experiences that are the focus of this No Reservations series.

Why No Reservations? Because I can honestly say I have no reservations about recommending the winery to anyone who is looking for a great wine tasting experience!

The latest in this series features Smith Madrone Vineyard and Winery in the Spring Mountain District of the Napa Valley.

My complete review of Smith-Madrone, including history, a recap of the tasting experience – including reviews of wines tasted may be found at the American Winery Guide’s website.

2011 Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: Dark Ruby color with exuberant cassis, tobacco, cedar, plum, spiced black cherry, and a bit of eucalyptus aromas. On the palate it’s medium-bodied and well-structured with ample cassis, black cherry, tobacco, and a bit of mineral flavors. Medium-Long finish. Outstanding; 92-95 pts

2012 Smith Madrone Chardonnay: Pale lemon yellow color with promising green apple, pear. lemon cream, and limestone aromas. On the palate it’s medium-bodied, fresh and harmonious with a creamy texture, and apple, pear, lemon zest, vanilla, a kiss of tropical fruit, and subtle spice flavors. Lingering finish. Outstanding; 92-95 pts

2013 Smith Madrone Riesling: Very pale green color with wet stone. lime, stone fruit, quince and a hint of lychee aromas. On the palate medium-bodied, elegant, and harmonious with mouth-watering acidity and a great texture with very appealing white peach, lime, melon, a bit of lemon and apricot flavors and a complementary minerality. Lingering finish. Very Good to Outstanding; 89-91 pts
I highly recommend these wines and a visit to Smith-Madrone.