A few (several?) months ago, I sat down with Stu Smith, who, along with his older brother Charlie, founded Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley in 1971. Yeah. Fifty years ago. While that is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to some European wineries, it would not take very much time to count the number of American producers who have reached their golden anniversary.
I am not sure if Stu would agree, but at least from my vantage point, it was a fascinating conversation, filled with plenty of history about Smith-Madrone, the Napa Valley, and winemaking in California. We also spent a considerable amount of time talking about the increased frequency and intensity of the fires that annually threaten lives and livelihoods in most of California.
That, in short, is why I am so late getting this first post up about our conversation. As I said, it was a great conversation, but at nearly two-hours long, there was a lot to review, edit, condense, and organize. And it is still not finished.
In a way, it has reminded me of working on my dissertation over a decade ago. There all my data sat, waiting for me to sort, catalogue, and analyze, but I froze at the enormity of it all. I prefer not to state how long it took me to complete that opus.
This past weekend, after having an argument with my son about his need to take his homework and approach to school more seriously, I realized that I needed to start living what I was preaching and tackle this Stu Smith interview.
To that end, I decided to first publish our conversations about the Smith-Madrone wines. If you have not heard of the winery, you are certainly not alone as their production is fairly small and most of it is allocated to the dedicated folks on their mailing list (Stu was quick to point out that it is not a “wine club” as there is no requirement or expectation). But I can say without hesitation that Smith-Madrone is one of the best producers in Napa Valley and certainly one of my favorites in all of California.
After about an hour talking about the 2020 fire that came to virtually the doorstep of the winery, and also the now-constant threat that fire poses in Napa and beyond (more on that soon), we got to the Chardonnay:
2017 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $38. Under cork. I spent just about two hours on a Zoom call with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. We had planned to chat about the current releases, but we ended up talking about the 2020 fires, the dot-com “boom” in Napa, and the relative ease in acquiring a logging permit in Napa (in 1971 vs today). We did discuss how S-M approach to Chardonnay has evolved over the past 50 years (it became even more food friendly) and why it continues to be such a great value (Stu wants to make a profit, but has little desire to live an “opulent lifestyle”). This Chard? Whoa. While there are certainly markers that this is from California (rich, luscious fruit), it also pays homage to its French heritage with near-bracing acidity (keeping that fruit in check) and a judicious use of oak (even though this wine sees 85% new French oak, the barrels are made from an oak species in between the Loire and Burgundy regions that has a much tighter grain, which ends in a lower oak “influence”). Whoa. Rich lemon curd and rind on the nose along with an impressive minerality, a touch of white pepper, and just a hint of oak. The palate? Whoa (again^2 or is it ^3?). Tart, fruity, mineral, rich, just about everything you would want in a Chard. And then a bunch more. Outstanding. 94 Points.
Then, we made our way to the Riesling, and Stu shared why he decided to plant Riesling on Spring Mountain:
As I mention in this next clip, the Smith-Madrone Riesling, every year, is perhaps the Californian wine that is universally loved by wine geeks like me (even those who are far smarter than I am):
Last, Stu talked about the decision, fairly early on, to change the Riesling from a stylistic standpoint:
2017 Smith-Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $34. I try to avoid hyperbole. Nor do I ever (OK, rarely) suggest that one should buy a particular wine. But. What I have in my chubby, sausage-fingered hands (OK, I really have delicate, piano-player-like hands even though the only musical instrument I play is the car radio) is quite possibly the best American Riesling (although the argument also has to include Brooks Winery in the Willamette). And it comes from, wait for it… Napa Valley. Yowza. All cards on the table? My Riesling chops were sown (grown?) in an odd combination of Alsace (where I studied), Germany (where I was a bicycle tour guide), and the Willamette Valley (where my spirit animal resides). And yes, this wine rates right up there with all of them. Crisp, “varietally correct” (which is a stupid notion, but nonetheless…), light straw in the glass, bright citrus, a healthy dose of minerality, and the omni-present(?) petrol component that defines Riesling (at least for me)–this wine has it all and then some. Simply put, if you don’t like, nay, love this wine? You will never enjoy Riesling and we could never be friends. Outstanding. 95 Points.
The last of the three wines we tasted was the 2016 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps needless to say, Stu has myriad opinions about his Cab in particular and the dominant Napa variety in general. Here we talk about the pricing of the Smith-Madrone Cabernet, and why it is, at least by Napa standards, “Reasonable” (warning: there is a bit of “colorful” language here):
Next, Stu expanded a bit and talked about why he thinks other Napa Cabs are priced so much higher than Smith-Madrone:
Here, in the last clip (for today), Stu and I talk about “greenness” in Cabernet Sauvignon, and whether that is a good thing:
2016 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $58. 89.7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.4% Merlot, 6.4% Cabernet Franc. Another wine that I had the pleasure of tasting online with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. While our conversation meandered quite a bit with this bottle open, we eventually came back to the wine. While rather shy initially, this eventually opened up over the course of the conversation. It never, however, becomes a big, Napa, mountain Cab–no, it is demure, with subtle red and black fruit notes, cedar/forest floor, a hint of cigar, and a decided green note. When I suggested that the green (which I enjoy) is often seen as a flaw in Napa Cabs, Stu agreed but quickly added: “it shouldn’t be.” He went on to explain that while that green pepper note is usually associated with Cab Franc, he also asserted that its offspring (i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon–the “child” of Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc) can (and should) express it as well. The only way to get rid of it is to allow the fruit to become over-ripe, which results in an unbalanced wine. Well, I have yet to hear anyone accuse Smith-Madrone of producing an unbalanced wine, and they did not start here. Wonderful. Excellent. 91 Points.
Those wines are astounding. Across the board.