A while back Donna and I received an invitation to meet, eat and drink with historic Napa Valley winemaker Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. The dinner was held during a starlit evening on the rooftop patio of their Denver distributor. The crowd was not too big and many of us were not very familiar with this fairly small producer. Stu Smith cut quite a figure as he spoke easily and generously with the guests. Husky and bearded, Stu reminded me of Jeremiah Johnson after a trip to the barber shop. His style is soft but firm, a real straight shooter. Some weeks later I was talking to a restaurateur who referred to Stu as “the real deal.” I could not agree more.
After that winemaker dinner, Smith-Madrone was on our short list of Napa wineries to visit on our fall trip in September. There were a few unique things that intrigued us about Smith-Madrone. 1) It was one of the first wineries high up on Spring Mountain, founded in 1971. 2) They produce fewer than 4,000 cases annually, all from estate grown grapes. 3) S-M is a family operation run by Stu and his brother Charlie. 4) While S-M produces excellent Cabernets and Chardonnays, as you would expect, they are most famous for their dry Riesling.
The drive up to Smith-Madrone winds up Spring Mountain through vineyards and forests. It’s really hard to imagine how anyone in 1971 would think the 200 acre ranch high above the Napa Valley floor would make a great vineyard. But Stu, fresh with his graduate Viticulture and Enology degree from Cal Davis, saw the land for what it could be and began planting Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then they added a few acres of Merlot and Cabernet Franc for blending purposes.
We took a few wrong turns trying to find Smith-Madrone. No fancy signage on these rural winding roads. Once we found our way onto the property we were stunned by the fifty foot tall olive trees that are far too tall to be harvested even though they still produce. The winery operation is housed in an old barn. We were greeted by a cheerful Charlie Smith and soon we were joined by Stu and his ever energetic pup, Curly. We were first served a glass of the award winning Smith-Madrone Riesling ($27). This righteous Riesling was no stranger. We had a bottle a few nights earlier while dining with Stu’s wife Julie Ann at Solage in Calistoga. The Smith-Madrone Riesling pairs wonderfully with Asian influenced foods and it great by itself.
Riesling in hand, we toured the barn which housed everything from fermentation tanks to oak barrels to lab equipment and the office. After visiting mega million dollar wineries earlier in the week, Smith-Madrone was a refreshing stop. It felt like winemaking the way it should be, well tended vineyards, passionate winemakers and no hype.
We walked around the vineyards and olive trees near the winery while we sampled the estate grown 2008 Chardonnay ($30 – very well balanced with a touch of oak, butter, pears and a hint of lemon). Once the walking tour was done, we jumped into the gator for a tour of the ranch and vineyards. The gator cruised (Curly running and jumping alongside) over the dusty dirt road up and around the Riesling vineyard to a flat area with a breathtaking view of the Napa Valley floor far below us. Donna suggested that it would be a picturesque wedding spot. Stu informed her that it was illegal to hold weddings at Napa wineries, even those outside of the agricultural preserve. If you want a vineyard wedding, head to Sonoma.
We toured the rest of the vineyards and returned to the barn to two glasses of Cabernet open and breathing. First was the current release 2004 ($45). The wine was softer and more elegant than other Cabs from mountain fruit. It had a graceful, even silky finish. A good cabernet to pair with food, the soft tannins and low alcohol (13.9%) will not overpower your palate or plate. The real treat was a taste of their as yet unreleased, un-priced and unnamed 2007 Reserve Cabernet. We’re talking “Big Ass” cabernet, just the way I like mountain fruit cabs. Once this wine opened to its full potential it blew me away; a wine that commands your attention and encourages contemplation.
Our tour came to an end and we had to let Charlie and Stu get back to work preparing for harvest, still a couple weeks away. The restaurateur certainly had it right. Stu and Charlie of Smith-Madrone are “The Real Deal!”
While S-M wines are available in a few restaurants and wine shops, we encourage you to contact the winery to make orders. As you can see the wines are well priced. If you enjoy dry Rieslings, the Smith-Madrone offering is a must-have. We’ll be keeping tabs on the release of the 2007 Reserve Cabernet. Enjoy!