The Value of Pragmatism
Stuart is happy to talk about the changes ongoing in the vineyards, but at the same time he is of the mind that a lot of what is done by many people is done to be able to say “we're different and this is why.” The marketing of wine is driving some decisions that have no scientific basis, vine density and trellising for example. The truth is that if there were truly something fundamentally wrong with what had been done, we wouldn’t have all these great examples of wines produced when everything was so wrong.
Smith-Madrone’s approach to these issues is refreshingly honest and seems to work just fine. About 25 years ago, Stu had everyone stick their arms out; based on that he chose to place his fruiting wire right around 40 to 42 inches to make the work comfortable. That’s it, simple and straightforward. The trellising system is a sort of blown out VSP system with training wires every foot that are 6, 12 and then 24 inches apart, creating an open canopy that affords the vines ventilation and shade.
The system is an important innovation, particularly in light of the evolving views on row orientation. Once people began to pay attention to these things, the conventional wisdom was to orient your vine rows north to south, providing each side with half a day's sun. Once implemented, this system presented its obvious issues, primarily that fact that now half the vine got the cool sun of morning while the other half received the full brunt of the sun during the hottest hours of the days. A decided improvement on the worst case scenario was vines oriented east to west where one side gets all the sunlight; not an ideal solution, yet one that furthered thought on cane positioning.
The solution was to cant the rows somewhere between 20 and 45 degrees off true north to allow for the increasing temperatures of the day. This does create an imbalance of light, but when factoring in the heat in the vineyards, it does allow for the most even ripening of all the fruit on the vines. Of course this system still relies on what must be some of the least dense vine spacing in Napa. Smith-Madrone is currently replanting its vineyards, about 80 percent completed so far, with vines that are using 8 by 5 or 9 by 5 spacing.
It’s worth noting here that Stuart has a particularly low view of VSP, primarily because it’s a system that requires close vine spacing if one wants to take full advantage of the available sunlight. At Smith-Madrone, wide vine spacing is preferred, again in a moment free of marketing BS, as much for the economy of not buying new equipment as on moral grounds. The increased vine density requires more irrigation, intensive labor, posts, wire, people and energy for essentially the same yield. The bottom line according to Stu is that it is wasteful and doesn’t necessarily improve wine quality, so why bother?
So as you can see as much as things have changed here, things tend to remain the same. Smith-Madrone has undergone an intensive replanting of its vineyards, vine by vine, where the rows are facing the right direction, the varietal is correct and spacing is good. Otherwise everything is getting ripped out to begin with a clean slate to create an ideal vineyard, one with 9 by 5 spacing and a 42 inch fruiting wire.
The Good Earth
Fortunately the vineyards of Smith-Madrone are on some seriously good land. From the earliest days, when they were surrounded by forest hills, to the present day when one can call on neighbors such as Pride, Keenan, Schweiger, barnett and Stony Hill, the quality of Smith-Madrone vineyards has obviously remained a constant, an increasingly appreciated one at that. Fairly East-facing and skirting 2000 feet in elevation, the vineyard soil is surprisingly rocky and iron-rich, allowing for a blend of drainage and water retention. These are aggregate soils created by the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental plate. The tops of both were essentially sheared off and tossed like a salad, creating a layer of mixed sedimentary rocks, soil, and igneous rocks, with the addition of the more recent pumice and lava stones that are typical of the region. This is, after all, a valley defined by volcanos, long dormant but still with a profound impact on the landscape.
Somewhat surprisingly, the soils here have enabled a large part of the vineyards to be dry farmed, though the choice to dry farm can’t come as a surprise once you've spent any time with Stu. As he relates, the wines of the Napa Valley
are never going to compete on quantity, and dry farming is one of the great qualitative advantages the region allows for, particularly the valley floor. According to Stu “if you can you should” dry farm, and he uses some anecdotal evidence to support his suggestion, mainly that during the years of drought in the late 1990s their dry farmed vines showed better than valley floor fruit that had been irrigated because “dry farmed vines dig deep and have a better idea of what is going on with the weather.” A common sentiment among those who dry farm successfully!
I’m not saying that everyone is going to understand what is going on at Smith-Madrone, including the moral stance; Charlie’s is against cold-soaking, based on the inevitable volatility he finds in the wines. I’ve never been a fan, per se, noticing a bit of an unbalanced nature in many wines that undergo extended cold soaks myself. But this is also not the land of natural wines, or organic farming, either. It’s a weird mix of know-how and hunches you would have to guess, and yet it works. Smith-Madrone is one of my Napa Valley heroes. They make wine that they like and always have. One might argue that with only 3500 cases or so a year to make and sell, it’s easy to do so, but the flip side of that argument is it must be terribly tempting to want to do something to generate more sales, more interest, and ultimately more of a name for oneself. That’s just not the way things go around here. When you hear winemakers say “we want Cabernet to smell like Cabernet” and know that they actually mean it, you know that they’re not likely to chase fad or fashion, they’ll just make wines you’ll want to drink.