Sometimes wine lovers bemoan the state of Napa Valley. People are heard to complain about the number of ostentatious wineries and tasting room that have taken hold of the Valley and along with that they talk about how it was in the old days when Napa had a small number of producers and a visit meant tasting with the owner who was often also the winemaker. The trouble with that line of thought is that there are still many family owned Wineries in Napa Valley that belie the image of Napa as only lavish tasting rooms and over the top facilities. Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery is a shining example of a small family owned and run Winery. A visit there is in some ways a visit to a simpler time in Napa Valley. They’re a boutique producer that focuses on Estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. When you visit you’ll see their property with either Stu or Charles Smith or if you’re really lucky both of them. They grow the grapes, make the wine and do pretty much everything from soup to nuts that’s involved in bringing their wines to your table. That’s the way it’s been since they were founded in the very early 70’s. Their location up on Spring Mountain is a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor, but it’s not a far ride. Once you’re up there though you’ll feel like you’ve traveled to a magical land where all that matters is the way the grapes are grown, picked and vinified to make offerings that represent the location they came from.
I recently had dinner with Stu Smith who started the winery in 1971. It’s been my fortune to spend some time with Stu on a few occasions and I’m always impressed by how unvarnished, real and without pretense he is. The truth is you can discover the very same thing simply by drinking their wines. They make approximately 4,000 cases of wine each year entirely from their own property. Everything about Smith-Madrone comes from the two brothers. They planted the vines and in the 41 years they’ve been in operation have replanted sections of the vineyard in some cases too. They are as truly Napa Valley as any producer on the map. Their wines are made in a genuine style that lends itself to immediate enjoyment upon release as well as age ability. These are not wines that are produced in a vacuum with the idea of trying to gain high scores on someone’s point system. These are wines grown, pressed and aged in the same ecosystem, every vintage, for over 40 years. The Smith-Madrone wines are alive, delicious and most importantly a true representation of the spirit and desire of two brothers to make great wine in their little corner of the world. With that here’s a look at a couple of the wines I tasted over dinner with Stu and then re-tasted a couple of days ago.
First up is the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery 2009 Chardonnay. All of the fruit for this wine came from their home ranch on Spring Mountain. Their Chardonnay vines have 37 years of age on them. This offering which is entirely Chardonnay was barrel fermented and aged in entirely new French oak over a nine month period. Just over 500 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $35. Apple pie aromas dominate the nose of this Chardonnay and they are underscored by pleasing hints of lemon curd. The palate is marked by the intensity of its Chardonnay character in the form of pure and unadulterated fruit. Apple flavors dominate things here with spice and minerals galore to add to the complexity. Nutmeg, clove and continued mineral characteristics are all in evidence on the finish which has excellent length. Firm, zippy acidity adds to the wonderful structure and balance of this Chardonnay. The Smith-Madrone Chardonnay is nothing short of an absolute joy to drink. It’s also a wine that will age gracefully and be quite enjoyable and drinkable over the next 8 or so years at minimum.
The second wine today is the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the fruit came from their home ranch in the Spring Mountain area of Napa Valley. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), this wine contains Merlot (6%), and Cabernet Franc (9%). The vines had 34 years of age on them at the time of harvest. This Cabernet spent 22 months aging in American oak. The Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Just fewer than 1,500 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $45. Aromas of fresh black fruits such as blackberry, currant, and black cherry fill the inviting nose of this 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Wisps of toast and herb characteristics are present as well. There is a depth, power and complexity to the palate of this wine that immediately impresses as soon as you take a sip and let it envelop your senses. This wine is intense but precise and measured. As with all of the Smith-Madrone wines it’s balanced and proportionate. Cherry flavors, both black and red dominate the palate along with hints of mushroom and leather as well as black pepper. The finish here is long and lush with the depth that is often associated with great Napa Mountain Cabernet. Earth, baker’s chocolate, black tea and hints of graphite are all present. This Cabernet will certainly age and improve in the bottle over the next 15 or so years. However it’s quite ready to drink now, a benefit of Charles and Stu holding their wines until they are drinkable. If you do drink it now you have the choice of decanting it for an hour or so or watching as it develops in your glass over a leisurely meal. In any case you’ll be drinking one of the very best Cabernet’s from Napa Valley regardless of price point.
If you have yet to taste the wines of Smith-Madrone I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience. In addition to being well made and delicious they are also fairly priced. The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular is a terrific bargain relative to many of the Napa Cabernet’s of similar quality. In addition to drinking these offerings, I urge anyone travelling to Napa Valley to take the time and make an appointment so you can visit the lovely folks at Smith-Madrone; your time there will undoubtedly become a memorable visit you will cherish as you drink the wine you will have brought back home with you. So don’t bemoan the over the top tasting rooms at some Napa Wineries, enjoy them for what they are. But when you want to get to the pulse of Napa Valley, point your car up Spring Mountain either literally or via your local wine shop and enjoy the wines of Smith-Madrone.