The Way of Things at Smith-Madrone
Where pragmatism meets quality, and absolutely no BS
Out of the way, down a drive lost in Spring Mountain, one comes upon Smith-Madrone, a winery that speaks as much of the past as the present. There’s a bit of a Twilight Zone feel here; it’s in a GPS black hole, and somehow it recalls the innocence of a simpler time. (“Willoughby, the next stop is Willoughby.”) Stuart and Charlie Smith play their parts as well, namely farmer and winemaker that chose the rugged slopes of Spring Mountain to make wine on over 35 years ago.
We all know that Napa has changed over the years, as has winemaking and just about everything. But at the same time many of us cling to nostalgic recollections of how things were. Here at Smith-Madrone you certainly get the impression that not much has changed from the modest barn that serves as winery, cellar, tasting room and offices, to the vineyards which just don’t look like modern vineyards. The look, for those both observant and old enough to know, is decidedly old school. It adds an openness and airiness to the vistas here, recalling paintings and pictures of the way things used to be.
Of course the truth is that a lot has changed, even here at Smith-Madrone, and most has been for the better (I only say “most” because I’m not familiar with all the changes that have taken place here, but being curmudgeonly I’m hedging my bets). There have been modest incremental changes, the move to pick Cabernet at above 24 and even 25 brix when 23.5 once sufficed, and the introduction of a super premium wine, priced at $200 a bottle. And then there have been wholesale changes in the vineyards.
Before talking about the changes in the vineyards, it’s worth noting Smith-Madrone’s overarching philosophy as defined by Stuart: to get the vintage into the glass of wine, to celebrate the diversity of the vintages. Now if there is anything Smith-Madrone might seem to need, it’s a marketing team. I mean what kind of a message is that? (Willoughby, the next stop is Wiloughby.) It’s an honest message, that's what, simple, precise and straightforward without any bullshit, just the Smith boys, and frankly just like the wines here. Maybe they should do without the marketing team after all.
When walking through the vineyards, there are 38 acres planted primarily to Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Cabernet Franc available for blending. Stu will give you a veritable history on common wisdom regarding vine spacing and trellising over the years. The property, purchased by the Smiths in 1971, had at one time been vineyards, but by the time they arrived the forest had reclaimed the land, forcing them to call in loggers to clear the patches that have since become the hillside vineyards.
The vineyards were originally planted in the early 1970s, the same blend of vines as today, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet, some on their own roots on other root stock that was popular in the day. Vine spacing was 12 feet by 9 feet, 493 vines an acre, with vines oriented in such a way so as to make for long, unbroken rows with easy turnarounds at their end. These were almost pioneer days, and when one looks back at the wines produced back then, not only here but across the valley, one almost has to wonder how the hell they did that. But then again, we’re being trained to think that way, aren’t we?