Stu and Charlie Smith have seen big changes in their 50 years at Smith-Madrone Vineyards in the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley. In part two of our conversation with Stu to celebrate the winery’s golden anniversary, while tasting the wines the topics ranged from current and past droughts, to dry farming, the world-wide championship award for their first vintage of Riesling that put them on the map, and how long it really takes to reach maximum production of a wine for sales from date of planting.
Did we mention that Stu has a lot to say about what he’s learned after fifty years on the mountain? We thoroughly enjoyed every word, particularly because Stu is an estimable raconteur!
First and foremost, Stu drilled into us that, “Wine is made in the vineyards!” He and his brother, Charlie, planted the first 21 acres at Smith-Madrone in 1972. Stu hand-watered it all, dragging garden hoses to fill individual basins around each vine. (Remember, drip irrigation didn’t yet exist!)
Back in 1971, Stu paid $350 per acre. Nowadays, that cost has risen exponentially, surpassing several hundred thousand dollars per acre in parts of Napa Valley. That doesn’t begin to address the costs f planting, farming and developing production facilities. As Stu describes on the show, each of those components got cobbled together one at a time over several years. In fact, in their first year he couldn’t even afford to buy stakes for the vines!
The current drought brings back memories of past ones. According to Stu Smith, our current drought is as bad as the worst ones in the late 19th century when St. Helena’s low rainfall was a mere 11” to 12” of the normal 33” annual rainfall. And in 2021? Stu says St. Helena received only a few drops over 11” this past winter. Cause for significant concern, particularly with the high fire danger.
But what of the wines???
The Smith-Madrone Estate Riesling, as we mentioned in part 1 of the show, won Best Riesling in the Wine Olympics for its 1977 vintage, an international tasting organized by the food and wine magazine Gault Millau in Paris.
The Smith-Madrone Estate Chardonnay is a stunner! We were shocked to learn the Smith’s barrel aging for this wine included 85% new French oak. We would never have guessed the wine had seen that much new oak given how well integrated all the flavors were. Here is another reason to listen to Stu’s stories, as he explains how their barrel program has evolved, including experiments with American oak and French oak from various regions – with highly divergent tasting results.
The Smith-Madrone Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is another pleasant surprise… No big, over-jammy, only-pairs-with-T-bone fruit and tannins bomb. This is an elegant cab, suitable to pair with a much wider range of foods than we would ordinarily associate with a cabernet. Classic blackberry, tobacco and leather notes deliver beautifully without the tannins and acid overwhelming. All elements are restrained and balanced together. Read a great review of their 2015 Cabernet here by Jamie Goode.
But why Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, we asked of Stu? In fact, the Cabernet now integrates a small amount of estate Cabernet Franc and Merlot, only recently planted in 1998. But back in the early 1970s, Stu reported that cabernet, chardonnay, pinot and riesling all were fetching the same price at market. Cabernet was many years away from being associated iconically as THE Napa Valley variety. So they seemed to be a good choice for his mission to make the best possible wines in Napa.
They weren’t the only varieties grown at Smith-Madrone, however. Stu was more than willing to talk about the efforts that didn’t pan out to their satisfaction. During the show Stu talked about their attempts to make the best Pinot Noir. Ultimately, they decided the variety just couldn’t express itself well enough on their mountain side to meet their own standards of excellence. Thus, their pinot got yanked and they replanted. Not every experiment works, but you sure learn a lot in the process!
There was so much more in our conversation with Stu:
- How he got “Johannisberg” detached and removed from the BATF labeling requirements for (what is now known simply as) “Riesling”
- The difference mobile bottling made for small producers
- His warning about developing a “house” palate
- Why mountain grapes make all the difference in producing the best wine
- Why he thinks many pricey Napa wines won’t age over the decades
- The effects of direct sunlight on grapes
- Why stainless steel fermenting makes for the purist expression of Riesling (and how well it ages)
- “Mechanical” harvesting along steep slopes in Germany
- The problems of harvesting too late in California
- Why Smith-Madrone doesn’t have a wine club, and
- The travails of printing the property “patent” (deed) on tissue paper…
Then we were on to his advice and predictions:
- There are always opportunities, but are you exercising the needed creativity to take advantage of those opportunities and be successful?
- While he and Charlie got started at the right time, in the right place, and with the right stuff, he admires that now those wishing to get into the industry can do it without the brick ‘n’ mortar or land-owning component. Go virtual!
- We are our own best advocates and critics.
- Each vintage influences the next one. (Smith-Madrone is offering verticals and library wines in celebration of their 50th anniversary. Now’s the perfect time to taste a bit of history.)
And what of Smith-Madrone’s future and the next fifty years? One item Stu was most adamant about: There are no wines-in-cans in their future. While he sees a place for it in the market overall, it’s not a fit for their own winery. Stu believes an important element to the enjoyment of wine is seeing it, a sensory element removed by the aluminum can. It’s part of great conversation with friends to enjoy drinking Smith-Madrone wine—in a glass!
He also strives to make even better wines than in the past. Not high-scoring wines! He has no interest in targeting a number assigned to his wines. But he’s strongly committed to making better and better wines from their estate grapes. And with his son, Sam, having joined the winemaking team a decade ago (and launching his own brand in July), he’s certain this will be achieved.
After a thoroughly intoxicating conversation with Stu Smith about the “soup-to-nuts” of wine growing and wine making in Napa Valley, we capped off our memorable show on top of the mountain with a toast, of course: Here’s to another 50 years of Smith-Madrone wine!
Resources to learn more or purchase wine:
About the Glass Fire with extensive interviews with Stu Smith: