One of the many great things about being a frequent traveler to wine country is the stunning natural beauty that often accompanies the setting. Spring Mountain, with its undisturbed natural forests, steep vineyards and stunning views of the Napa Valley laying more than a thousand feet below is one of the more beautiful and picturesque settings we have been to. Smith-Madrone occupies a gorgeous spot high up these hills on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains where they make wines every bit as beautiful as their site.
Spring Mountain is a part of the Napa Valley AVA. It is really very different than the rest of the Napa Valley. Spring Mountain District obtained status as an American Viticultural Area (“AVA”) in 1993. Its mountainside location means high elevations, steep slopes and a significantly different temperature profile than the Valley below, giving it a unique terroir and thus qualifying it as its own AVA. To us, there is a feature that distinguishes Spring Mountain from the Valley floor even more than its unique terroir, and that is its unique people. Napa Valley during the last 30 years has seen significant transformation as it has received much favourable press about its wines, especially its Cabernet Sauvignon. With that praise has come increasing prices for vineyard lands and for the local wines.
Some Napa Cabs have become the darlings of collectors and attracted a near rabid following of purchasers that have pushed prices into the stratosphere, keeping up with top Cabernets of Bordeaux, and in some cases nipping at the heels of…gasp!…Burgundy! Some tasting rooms resemble high-end art galleries, charge tasting fees of $50 or more, create exclusive clubs to fashion bespoke wines for their members, and generally offer all sorts of ancillary lux to please their wealthy patrons. Spring Mountain will have none of that. High up the mountain, the steep roads are full of hairpin corners, no shoulders and enough potholes to take the under-carriage out of a cult Cab collector’s Maserati or Lamborghini. No, the winemakers up on Spring Mountain don’t seem to have any connection to that type of glitz or image-maintenance. They are just focused on good agriculture to produce great tasting wine. There is an authenticity to Spring Mountain. And Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone Wines might just be the most authentic of that mountain bunch.
Stu first discovered the lands that are now his vineyards back in 1970. He was looking for vineyard land in the Napa Valley, having just completed his BA in Economics at Berkeley and working towards his MA in Viticulture at UC Davis. As he walked the lands of dense forest (Stu told us there are about 600 plants per acre in the surrounding forest, three times the average of most forests), he noticed old vine stakes planted in the ground, evidence of a former vineyard. It turns out that vineyard was planted in the 1880s along the wagon route between St. Helena and Calistoga and then abandoned during Prohibition. The next year Stu put together a partnership of friends and family to acquire the property. He was 22 years old. In 1973 Stu brought his brother Charlie into the partnership and now Charlie makes the wines. A recent addition was Stu’s son Sam who is the assistant winemaker.
Those forests high on Spring Mountain have Douglas Fir, Oak, California Redwood and Madrone. The beautiful Madrone trees on the land gave the winery its name. The Madrone is of the same species as the Arbutus that grows so well and uniquely in our native British Columbia.
The original vineyard was planted on native rootstock (unusual due to its susceptibility to phylloxera, the vine-destroying louse) to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Today the vineyard consists of 34 acres in various stages of production dating back to 1972. In addition to the 6.25 acres of Riesling, 10.25 acres of Chardonnay and 13 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, the vineyard now has 3.75 acres of Merlot and 1 acre of Cabernet Franc. The original Pinot Noir plot was grafted over to Chardonnay. Over time the vineyard blocks have been re-planted to several different rootstocks that are phylloxera-resistant. Today the entire estate is dry-farmed.
We remarked to Stu that it was unusual to see warm and cool climate varieties planted on the same farm and yet all doing so well. Outside of Washington State, we cannot think of another vineyard where both Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are planted. “We love Riesling and it can do really well here. We harvest at a different time than most people (sooner). The longer the berries are on the vine, the higher the sugar; but the inverse is that the longer the berries are on the vine, the acidity drops or respires out. So when we harvest Riesling at 22 or 22.5 degrees Brix, that’s going to give us a wine that’s 3.1 pH.” which gives his Riesling a wonderful, crisp acidity. Variation in picking dates and using the vineyards different exposures and elevations allows Smith-Madrone to make terrific wines from each of these varieties.
As we talk about the land that Stu is so passionate about we get a further glimpse into the unique person that he is. Stu cares very much about his land and farms it in the most sustainable way he knows how. He characteristically marches to the beat of his own drum. “And that then gets into a whole other issue which would be organic farming—is organic farming really the long-term solution for a lot of people? I don’t think it is. It’s a great brand but it doesn’t have any economic viability to it and in Napa Valley I believe it’s less than 15% of vineyards are organically grown, and we’re probably some of the most environmentally sensitive growers anywhere in the country, if not the world. If we can only get 15% as organic farming that’s not success. You need a paradigm where you can get 80-85% and that’s where I think sustainability (which has no great brand recognition) will eventually become the dominant model that farmers go to because it allows Best Management Practices (BMPs) to bring in new technology & IPMs (integrated pest management). IPMs use other bugs to control pests; here we don’t use any pesticides.”
Stu briefly tells us that he put up a website called “Biodynamics Is A Hoax”. Obviously he does not believe in biodynamics, not any big surprise as the concept is very controversial as we wrote in our article on the subject. We highly recommend that you go and look around his website. He has not published on it since 2011 but is thinking about going back to it. Our recommendation comes not from agreeing with his conclusion (we do not) but more from the view that it is extremely well-posited, has numerous and very thoughtful comments and is revelatory of the person that is Stuart Smith. Stu’s blog shows him to be articulate and erudite, and possessing a very deep knowledge of this subject. When you read enough of his posts and his comments you realize that his blog is not really about claiming that biodynamics does not work. We didn’t read every post (there are many) but we only discovered one instance that was even close to a refutation of the efficacy of biodynamics. He knows of two attempts at biodynamic farms that failed, but he is quick to acknowledge the attempts were made by people new to farming. Rather his two big issues seem to be with some biodynamic practitioners’ claims of superiority and to the lack of scientific rigour behind the biodynamic paradigm. Stu takes offense to those who claim their practice is superior and that by inference if you do not follow biodynamism you are not being good to the land. Stu is clearly a firm believer in real world science. To him, validation of concept must be based upon proof, not belief, as he expounds upon in his blog. What he writes reveals a great ability to communicate, an open mind, and an even hand with his critics. He acknowledges those who make good points when disagreeing with him. On his blog he promotes a discourse that is devoid of trolling, is respectful, and is informed. A refreshing change to a blogosphere that has increasingly become populated by nasty barbs and mis-information. Stu’s blog shows him to be intellectually honest, tolerant (read it closely, strong opinion does not mean intolerant of other opinions), and highly individual.
The winemaking philosophy at Smith-Madrone is pretty simple: the winemaker is the steward of the vineyard and of the climate that produced the grapes. Use consistent winemaking techniques that maximize what the site can produce and let differences of each vintage show through. Stu was extremely eloquent about the types of wine they try to produce: “Balance, complexity, elegance & finesse are things that we prize. I also believe that wine’s first obligation is to give pleasure and so I think wine should be hedonistic. I also think that when we talk about terroir, we tend to think and talk about a sense of place. I actually think of it one step further down the line as an ephemeral sense of art. Smith-Madrone shouldn’t exist if we make wine that is indistinguishable from everyone else. Between we the growers, we the winemaker, and the site, we want something which is unique and that’s our philosophy that goes into it which I think that is expressed in our wine. We do NOT make wine for scores, we make wine for us and we think we have good palates and as long as there are enough people who agree with us and buy our wine, we’re in business.”
“I never would have said this when I was younger but it’s an artistic endeavor. We are a small artisanal winery and I don’t know that the word ‘artisan’ was in my vocabulary when I started, but that’s what we are and it’s why we’re still small after almost 50 years. We originally had the concept of being a chateau style winery like in Europe. We lost our way for a couple of years when we bought grapes and realized several things – we didn’t like paying for the grapes, we didn’t have the money to pay for the grapes, we didn’t like the quality we got when we bought grapes and if we’re going to buy grapes that means we’re a business. And if we’re a business, we have no business being on the mountain, because we should be down in the Valley floor catching all the tourist action. Then the question we asked ourselves who are we modeling after? That really re-focused us at an important time as to what we wanted to do here and why I came here.” Stu has always believed that there are 2 fundamentals in the wine industry which are sacrosanct: you cannot make great wine from anything but great grapes & the best grapes come from the mountain. We could not agree more.
A blend of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this is just the style that made us into Rosé lovers. The strawberry and rhubarb profile has great intensity making this a more serious style of Rosé as opposed to the cocktail style. Components of earth, mineral and spice add complexity. There is well-judged acidity that keeps the flavours juicy and adds precision. With swirling we get tart strawberry, raspberry and red delicious apple. Wonderfully refreshing.
Very Good/Excellent (USD $25 at their tasting room)
We never think of Napa and Riesling together, partly because Napa’s Mediterranean climate just does not seem to suit a cool climate grape like Riesling, and partly because we just don’t see it on the shelves (less than 2/10 of 1% of plantings in Napa are to Riesling). I guess we will have to think again because this is one damn fine Riesling! Lots of petrol notes on the nose. Flavours of apple and pear gain complexity from the mineral streak and citrus notes. Fermented fully dry, it has a medium body and terrific intensity.
Excellent (USD $32 at their tasting room)
Wow! This is why California Chardonnay, in the hands of the top growers, can compete on the world stage with the very best. Gold in colour, we pick up bruised apple, stone fruit, melon and hints of tropical fruit. The texture of this wine is simply spectacular. The gorgeous mouth-feel is full and round and the back-end acidity maintains precise definition and gives this wine perfect balance. The Smiths found the fulcrum with this wine! The finish goes on and on and is infused with hints of mineral and lemon zest. At the winery when we tasted it we rated it Excellent/Extraordinary. We took a bottle to dinner that night. With food, this wine really shone and pushed up our rating.
Extraordinary (USD $40 at their tasting room – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
Medium dark red colour. Notes of black cherry, mirabelle plum and boysenberry dominate the profile. The body is medium and the tannins and acidity are both moderate. There is a European sense to this wine; intense without being at all heavy. Complexity comes from the cedar and forest notes. The finish is long and mineral infused. Delicious now but likely to reward long cellaring as well.
Excellent (USD $52 at their tasting room-most Napa Cab at this quality level would sell for near twice this price)
2013 Cook’s Flat Reserve
“Cook’s Flat” is what the locals used to call the 8 acre plot planted in 1972 and used to grow the grapes for this red blend. This year the cuvée was 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, with roughly equal parts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Many Napa proprietary blends or luxury cuvées are distinguished by their power. The Smiths, always marching to the beat of their own drum, have focused on elegance in this wine. More toward the blackfruit end of the spectrum than their regular Cabernet, this wine showed great intensity without any heaviness. The tannins are medium+, but they are ripe and polished. A rich mouthfeel makes it a pleasure to drink now but Stu assured us this has a long future in the cellar. With such precise balance, we have no reason to doubt him.
Excellent+ (USD $225 at their tasting room)
4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, California [Phone 707/963-2283]
Open by appointment only at 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Appointments must be confirmed by phone or email & tours and tastings are always conducted by one of the Smith family. Tasting fee is $25 per person (fee is waived with a wine purchase).