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?
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.
So now onto the wines, essentially three wines since the $200 Cooks Flat Meritage is way out of my price range, as good as it may be. They each represent exceptional value in an classic, age-worthy style. The Riesling is among the nation’s best, clean, precise with just a whisper of sweetness adding a deft touch of roundness to the palate, and value priced at $27. The Chardonnay, $30 a bottle, is barrel fermented and goes through malo, yet that mountain fruit can't be tamed so be prepared for a fine blend of richness and sinewy power with transparent citrus flavors. And then there is the Cabernet Sauvignon. As much as has changed around here—and let’s not kid ourselves, the Cabernet has changed as well—this is as close to a wine of the 1970s as you’re likely to get. For $45 a bottle there simply aren’t many California Cabernets that can compete with the purity, elegance and detail of a Smith-Madrone Cabernet. These are wines that every wine lover should try. They are as distinctive as Stu and Charlie, reflecting the kind of freedom of thought that heralded the golden age of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, showing us that it’s not over yet!
Lots of apple fruit here. This smells like an apple barn laced with fine mineral and herbal suggestions. In the mouth there is an early dried apple note followed by lime fruit across a mid palate that is dry, firm, crisp and mineral-laced with plenty of steely acid driving the almost green plum fruit through the finish. Nicely perfumed in the mouth with a lingering note of green apple on the long finish. Youthful, snappy and focused with just enough sugar to add a soft buffering veneer to the acids. 92pts
This has just a beautiful nose, with green tea layered over dried lime zest topped with an emerging hint of petrol. Air brings out suggestions of some treacle and honey sweetness as well. On the palate, the bright acids support a broad and supple mouthful of apricot and lime fruit that shows the slightest honeyed edge. This is long and super-bright on the finish, with superb integration and a lovely fan of honeycomb and spiced apples. Exceptionally easy to drink, I wish I could have spent the afternoon with this bottle. 93pts
Cool on the nose with a very fine, crisp orchard fruit aroma that is supported by almond butter notes. With good acidity offering a nice mineral wash on entry, this builds to exhibit lovey fruit that once again shows a bit of nutty but not terribly oaky character on the palate. The finish is clean, focused and mineral-rich with some aromatic, lightly bacon-toned oak notes. The texture is really lovely here, pretty tense with lovely clear apple and lemon fruit that is long, elegant and really quite nuanced. 92pts
Tight, lean and somewhat reticent on the nose with a nice butchers wax top note over ripe, soft peach, orange and apple fruits. On the palate there's some nutty oak here and a touch of wood tannin under the core of fairly ripe fruit that shows hints of apple butter and rich, sweet almond-tinged apple fruit. The texture is a touch softer than the 2010, showing a little slippery edge on the long finish along with the lush fruit. 91pts
A little earthy on the nose, with nuanced green herb and mineral notes framing gorgeous blackcurrant fruit that’s laid over mocha and lightly roasted coffee. On the palate this remains tight and lean, if focused, with excellent purity to the blackberry fruit. This is fruity and ripe, true to the vintage, but remains totally transparent.There are fine ripe tannins supporting the fruit on the palate and peaking out on the finish; just a little youthfully stern and dry, but this does finishes just beautifully with fresh cut plums and red berry fruits over gentle soil tones. Young, with an easy decade of positive improvement ahead of it. 91pts
Very fresh on the nose, with a little mocha cream, some smoke and fines herbs with a nice minty top note layered over decisive blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. This has really lovely bright acids in the mouth with transparent fruit that bathes the tongue with bright, tart, blackberry flavors that have just a little medicinal edge to them, adding complexity. There are nice, rich, soft tannins on the long finish which leaves a persistent echo of black cherry fruit. This is young and tight, but wonderfully energetic in the mouth, with nary a speck of fat. Will love to watch where this one goes with age. 92pts
Very true to type, this shows modest evolution when compared with the later releases offering up wonderful plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit framed with integrating mocha oak notes and topped with nice green herbal elements. In the mouth, it shows incipient softening from age, though the tannins remains a touch obvious. There is a broadening on the palate with fine richness and nuance. Herb, anise and mineral notes pop on the back end along with some nutty oak elements on the long, rich, smooth finish. This could use another 2-5 years in the cellar to really hit its stride, but even today it’s just classic Cabernet Sauvignon that blends purity, detail and power like few other Cabs from Napa. This will seem a touch rustic to some, but for my palate it’s spot-on. 93pts
Fruity and quite intense on the nose, with big black fruit that is deep and ripe topped with herb and carob aromas. This feels a bit like Bordeaux in the mouth, ripe yet perfectly clear, with great cut and layers of wild cherry, plum, and blackberry fruits. There are firm tannins, but this is so well balanced they are certainly unobtrusive. There’s a lovely lifted hint of mint on the back end that contrasts with the very fine edge of dry extract ,adding richness to the vibrant finish. A pretty powerful wine that has great energy in the mouth. 93pts
Lots of toasty mocha oak greets the nose along with ginger, cinnamon and floral aromas. This is very pretty, with a little coffee cream on the super supple entry. The acids are very well integrated here, showing off lovely cut plum and sapid red fruit flavors, all topped with a hint of mintiness on the back end. Super fine tannins on the finish add smooth textural support to the rich black currant and black raspberry fruit. Although this is tight, it shows superb balance, and while the oak is dominant at this early stage, everything is in place to evolve beautifully. 92pts