Gobsmacked by the insanely beautiful view, the co-hosts couldn’t believe their good fortune at being invited to celebrate Smith-Madrone Winery’s 50th anniversary, with the founder himself: Stu Smith. Having set up a lovely table and chairs on the terrace overlooking their vineyard, as well as the Napa Valley floor beyond, Stu and the co-hosts sat down to record his reminiscences and ruminations about fifty years on Spring Mountain, high above St. Helena.
Although Stu Smith got a degree in economics from U.C. Berkeley, he was drawn to the outdoors and happened upon some viticulture classes at U.C. Davis. He was hooked! He pursued his master’s degree in viticulture at U.C. Davis and even became the first teaching assistant under industry pioneers Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton there.
Plunging into vineyard development head first, Stu purchased 200 acres high above the valley floor in May 1971. To make the best possible wine, Stu had his heart set on making wine from mountain vineyards. In the 1970s, there were few, if any, vineyards or wineries in the Mayacamas Mountains above Napa Valley. But he learned the range had once hosted a number of vineyards in the late 1880s, all of which succumbed to phylloxera or were abandoned. All that remained were redwood grape stakes poking through the forest’s undergrowth, a few of which can still be found in the forest.
Back when the Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, and John Denver were topping the charts in the early 1971, Stu was viewing his newly purchased vineyard, perched from 1300 to 1800 feet in elevation, and saw nothing but 200-foot-tall Douglas Firs and Coastal Redwoods. (The winery has since granted a substantial, permanent conservation easement to Save-the-Redwoods League for these trees which they estimate to be more than 1,000 years old.)
Clearing 20+ acres of their 200-acre property would be one of the first steps in launching their winery. (Brother Charles F. Smith III joined Stu shortly after founding.) This proved challenging with the steepness of some of the slopes clocking in at up to 35%! Next up was planting: they further differentiated themselves from the vineyards growing on the valley floor by planting varieties on their own roots (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir). That wasn’t how the rest of the valley was planting fifty years ago….
“Smith Vineyards” sounded a bit too bland to Stu for a name. After much discussion, “Madrone” was added to the name in tribute to a predominant tree on the property. It’s evergreen and features flower clusters in the spring and berries in the fall. Thus, “Smith-Madrone” was born.
Stu reminded the hosts that in the early 1970s wine was not America’s beverage of choice at the dinner table. California wines were fairly generic and sold primarily in jugs with names like “Hearty Burgundy,” and most utilized European names. Americans were more likely to have a cocktail before dinner followed by coffee with dinner. We’ve come a long way in the past fifty years!
In the early years, Stu slept in a mobile home on the property (which was promptly burned down in the 1975 fire). These were the pre-irrigation years, which meant he watered by hand, running hoses from one vine to the next. In fact, Stu Smith is a huge proponent of dry farming. (Read all about it on their blog.) This continues to be one of the biggest challenges to all vineyard growers.
In the 1970s Napa Valley was still a fairly sleepy town, focused on ranching, orchards, prunes, walnuts, chickens and other agricultural products. Wine industry growth after Repeal in 1933 remained fairly slow for the wine industry decades later.
That meant everyone helped one another out. (“Need a de-stemmer? Perhaps I’ve got one I’m not using back here…”) That also meant that after the 1975 fire which left Stu without a home temporarily, his neighbor brought over a case of wine to share in its aftermath. (Pretty neighborly, eh?!)
In 1979, the winery’s first vintage of Riesling (1977) was “put on the map” by winning Best Riesling in the Wine Olympics, an international tasting organized by the food and wine magazine Gault Millau in Paris. The rest, they say, is history….
But wait, there’s more! A mere season ago, Smith-Madrone experienced the devasting Glass Fire. And while Stu told us he was very proud of how well the property faired during the harrowing, week-long fire, there were losses in wildlife and some substantial losses among his immediate neighbors on Spring Mountain and many in the Napa Valley.
After fifty years, what does Stu Smith think about the future of winemaking, mountain grape farming, production, fire insurance (hah!), land management and fire management? You’ll have to download or playback the episode to find out! It was a wide-ranging conversation.
Hear Stu’s five tenets for fire preparedness. Listen in for his forestry management recommendations and methods for combatting vineyard pests and outdated regulations. Ahem!
And the wine? He’ll tell you we emptied the bottles while enjoying the to-die-for view; they were so delicious and beautifully balanced. We’re saving the wine discussion for part two of our conversation with Stu Smith. Tune in next week for the second half.
Resources to learn more or purchase wine:
About the Glass Fire with extensive interviews with Stu Smith: