Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery

From left, Sam, Stu and Charlie Smith, with a newly arrived load of cabernet sauvignon grapes.
From left, Sam, Stu and Charlie Smith, with a newly arrived load of cabernet sauvignon grapes.

Charlie Smith is stymied. After he and his brother, Stu, took delivery of dozens of new bottles at their Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery of Napa Valley, they realized they were the wrong model.

Now Charlie is trying to secure the bottles to a pallet so the shipment can be returned, but the cardboard on top is sliding and the rope he’s stretching about the stack is slipping.

Stu ambles by on his way from one corner of the barny winery to another. Without breaking his stride he glances at Charlie’s problem and casually suggests, “Let’s shrink wrap it.”

Charlie looks at him with no reaction whatever on his face, but he responds quickly and gratefully, “Good idea.”

That’s it? No balking? No defensiveness? No stubborn insistence that he do it his way? What’s up with these brothers, who have been growing grapes and making wine high on Spring Mountain along the west side of Napa Valley for more than 40 years?

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s join Stu for a tour of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards, which curve about Spring Mountain’s steep and rocky slopes on a series of terraces between 1,300 feet and 2,000 feet above the valley floor.

Their ranch sprawls for 200 acres, much of it given over to Douglas fir, poison oak and the madrone that explains why the winery is named Smith-Madrone and not Smith Brothers, which they probably couldn’t have gotten away with anyway (think cough drops).

They cleared about 35 acres for their vineyards, planted to cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, merlot and cabernet franc. All their production, which ranges between 2,500 cases and 5,000 cases per year, comes solely from their own grapes.

They are nearly at the end of a long-term project to replant the vineyard block by block, in part because of an infestation of the root louse phylloxera, in part to take advantage of smarter viticulture practices that have evolved since 1972, when Stu Smith put in the hillside’s first vines.

“Back then, the direction of the vine to sunlight didn’t matter,” he is saying as he explains why their rows now run more northeast/southwest than their initial east/west layout. They’ve introduced other changes, such as a restyled trellis. “We think we’re making better wine because of it,” he adds.

Pausing under the massive madrone that helps account for the winery’s name, he mused about the style of wine the brothers seek to capture. They want their wines to speak clearly of varietal or style, and the uniqueness of their site and the vagaries of the vintage. They want their wines balanced and complex.

“They should have lots of layers of interesting flavors,” Stu said. They don’t mind if the wines comes off leaner or lighter than typical for California wines. Their acidity must be snappy.

“We value the elegance, finesse and restraint of Europe, which with a little California sunshine gives a very distinctive wine.”

When we returned to the winery there was opportunity to ask how both brothers got to where they are.

Q: Stu, what did you see in 1971 to prompt you to grow grapes and make wine here? (Charlie joined him two years later.)

A: Stu: Several things. One, (this site) had been in vineyard (in the 1880s). There were grape stakes throughout the forest, and next to these grape stakes were Douglas fir trees two and 21/2 feet in diameter, where the forest had regrown. The trees we harvested in 1971 were about 55 years old. They had grown fast. The soil was a very productive soil. Second, we’re neighbors of Stony Hill Winery, and Stony Hill made really good chardonnay. The other thing is that I wanted to be in the mountains. The reason for that, and we still agree on this today, is that the best grapes come from the mountains, and the better the quality the grapes, the less you have to do as a winemaker.

Charlie: We don’t want to step on anybody’s toes down there on the valley floor, you understand. There are nice areas to grow grapes down there.

Stu: And they are very lovely people, too. We’re even friendly with some of them. Some of my best friends …

Charlie: … Are on the valley floor. But to go back to Stony Hill and the structure of its chardonnay. Stony Hill quite rightly has a reputation for producing chardonnays that are extremely long-lived. That’s structure at work.

Stu: In this day of technology, where people are using spinning cones, reverse osmosis and mega purple and all this other stuff to make wine, we don’t, because we think we have good grapes, and when you have good grapes you don’t have to do that.

Q: If you were starting over today, what would you do differently?

A: Charlie: We’d build the winery differently.

Stu: Bigger.

Charlie: And more underground.

Stu: Yes, the entire main floor would have a cellar underneath it.

Charlie: We’d absolutely love to have barrels set one-high in caves. When we were building the winery I remember thinking that caves with barrels one-high was an incredible waste of space. But it’s not actually like that. It’s a very efficient use of labor. You don’t have someone crawling all over the barrels when you top up. Topping is a huge chore. We do it once every two weeks. There’s no escaping topping, it has to be done on a regular basis. If you have a row of barrels one-high one guy can top all those barrels in a single day.

Stu: After the earthquake (this past August) my son Sam (the winery’s assistant winemaker) came up with a real good rationale why the barrels should go in a cave. When they are one-high they can’t fall over.

Charlie: Crawling around barrels looks sexy in magazine, but for a practical matter one-high is way better.

Q: Do you see yourself as any kind of link between the Napa Valley of yesterday and the Napa Valley of tomorrow?

A: Stu: Absolutely.

Charlie: I’m afraid so.

Stu: This may not be a good business strategy, but I kind of think of us as the last of the production winery-type people who came in. We like producing. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but we just love growing grapes and making wine.

Q: Why do you have riesling in your lineup?

A: Stu: In 1971 Johannisberg riesling and pinot chardonnay, as they were known then, and cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, all were selling for the exclusive price of $400 a ton in Napa Valley. The white-wine boom hadn’t hit, and the red-wine boom and the French Paradox were a decade or more away. I’d spent that summer down in the valley at BV (Beaulieu Vineyard) working closely with Andre (Tchelistcheff), who was saying he didn’t know where he was going to sell all this cabernet sauvignon they were growing. You’ve got to understand that at that time BV cabernet sold for $2.75 (a bottle). It was an entirely different world back then. But the riesling, that’s Charlie’s fault. He was really digging the 1971 (German) rieslings. A lot of them were wonderful. That was our model.

Charlie: But there were some pretty respectable (California) rieslings around. Riesling was common.

Stu: But they were all sweet. Our friend Jerry Luper absolutely is responsible for the decline of riesling in America. At Freemark Abbey he got a load of riesling that had been harvested way too sweet, with botrytis all though the grapes. He made an eidelwein with them, a dessert wine, which won the sweepstakes award at the Los Angeles County Fair when that was the major judging in the country. So how did our industry respond? Everybody was sycophants. They copied what he did and they did it badly. I wish I had a nickel for every time when I ask at a public tasting if someone would like some riesling and they say, “No, I don’t like riesling, it’s too sweet.”

Charlie: I’m perfectly happy to blame it on Blue Nun. But the truth of the matter is, the real source of the problem, the reason why riesling (sales) dried up, is that chardonnay got to be so popular. I had the conviction that we could do better (with riesling), I really thought that.

Stu: Then our first riesling, the 1977, won a competition in Paris.

Q: What’s the division of labor here?

A: Charlie: He takes care of the vineyards and I take care of the wine, but when it comes time to put the wine in the bottle we fight about it until we agree on what’s right. We taste and we taste and we taste until we get something we both agree is what we want to produce. I tell visitors all the time that we’re like the two houses of Congress, nothing gets done until we agree.

Stu: Another thing is that I don’t wear contacts and he does. He can’t be out in the dust. I can sit on the tractor all day.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.


Critics and consumers agree: Smith-Madrone is widely recognized not only for its explicit and transparent wines but for its value.

The Smith brothers show uncommon restraint in their marketing. Their highly regarded cabernet sauvignon sells for $48, their equally admired chardonnay for $32, their riesling for $27. The exception is a wine they introduced from the 2007 vintage and which they make only in exceptional years, a reserve cabernet sauvignon that sells for $200.

When we sat down to taste current and pending releases, here’s what came through in the wines:

The Smith-Madrone 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay was bright and floral, with a sinewy build, sunny fruit, revitalizing acidity and a faint brushstroke of oak, even if it was barrel-fermented. The 2013 version of the wine was even lankier, though the brothers had stirred its lees more industriously than usual, which heightened the wine’s toasty aroma and bolstered its complexity without putting any more meat on its bones.

The Smith-Madrone 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon possesses more complex and compelling aromas than usually found in the varietal. It is difficult to imagine a cabernet sauvignon more expressive. What’s more, that flamboyant bouquet carries over into the bright flavor, which runs to red fruits punctuated with an herbal note. The 2011 version, from a troubled growing year, is more meaty and earthy, its fruit running more to blackberries than cherries, its herbal thread a touch more pronounced, its tannins a bit more stern.

With the 2007 vintage, Smith-Madrone introduced a premium wine, the Cook’s Flat Reserve, a $200 blend based largely on cabernet sauvignon. The 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve is as wonderfully aromatic as their regular 2010 cabernet, but with deeper and broader fruit, more supple tannins, and a core of beguiling chocolate. The 2010 version of the wine, which they released before the 2009 because it was already well-developed, is just as approachable, with a more herbal overtone and a more enduring finish.

The Smith-Madrone 2012 Napa Valley Riesling, the driest riesling the brothers have made – .45 residual sugar – is exceptionally fruity, mostly lemon, with an ample yet nimble build and a rich texture. The 2013 has nearly twice as much residual sugar but still tastes dry. It may not yet be as expressive in aroma and flavor as the 2012, but it has a more alluring complexity.

The tasting room at Smith-Madrone is open by appointment only 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Call (707) 963-2283 or complete a form at www.smithmadrone.com. Use directions on the website; don’t rely on GPS.