As a pioneer of the Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, Stuart Smith has seen many changes over the years. He took an entrepreneurial leap in 1971 when at age 22 years old, he purchased the 200-acre property on Spring Mountain. From its beginning to the present day, it has been a challenging endeavor, but when you taste the wines of Smith-Madrone, you know it was worth every effort that the Smiths put into their passion for this winery.
Spring Mountain District AVA
The Spring Mountain District AVA was established in 1993. The Spring Mountain appellation resides on steeply sloped terraces of the Mayacamas Mountains. These mountains separate Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.
Naming the winery Smith-Madrone pays tribute to the Smith brothers, their passion for wine and winemaking, along with the Madrone trees that reside on their Spring Mountain District property. Wine and farming is not something new to the Smith family’s legacy. Back in the 1730s, relatives, the Fetherolf family, German farmers came to America. Perhaps this is where Stuart’s love of Riesling originated.
Stuart Smith grew up in Santa Monica, California. During his college years of studying Economics at UC Berkeley, he worked the summers as a lifeguard at the Santa Monica beaches. Following graduation, Stuart pursued a master’s at UC Davis in Viticulture. Throughout that tenure, he became the first teaching assistant for industry pioneers like Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton. Stuart later taught enology at Santa Rosa Junior College and Napa Valley College. All through this time, he also pursued his passion for making wine. In addition, his economic background made him well suited to serve his community sitting on Napa County’s Watershed Task Force and, most recently, Napa County General Plan Steering Committee.
The winery became a family affair with his brother Charlie becoming the winemaker, and in 2009, his son, Sam, as the assistant winemaker.
Spring Mountain District Farming the Vineyards
The 38-acre vineyard was planted in 1972 with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Riesling. Each slope has a specific varietal planted for the type of exposure. Riesling grows on the eastern exposure. The Southern and western exposure has flat expanses. It is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon southern and western exposures across flat, and the coolest north-facing slopes contain the Chardonnay vines.
The soils consist of primarily deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam, which is volcanic-based and well-drained. The soil has a sediment retention base covered in an aggressive cover crop. The location and the type of soil are well-suited for dry farming, mainly because there is higher rainfall in the mountains. Stuart is known as one of the first to utilize the dry farming method in vineyards.
These mountain vineyards are above the fog resulting in cooler afternoons.
In addition, to dry farming, the property is fish-friendly and sustainable because Stuart farms economically and utilizes best management practices.
Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain District Wines
I remember visiting the Smith-Madrone winery and sampling wines in the 1980s. In 2019, I sampled the 2016 vintage of the Chardonnay and Riesling and the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon; I will compare those vintages to the wines I tasted recently.
Ultimately the goal for Stuart is to achieve balance, elegance, and restraint.
Smith-Madrone Estate Grown Chardonnay
Typically the Chardonnay vines’ growth falls behind because the mountain climate is colder. As a result, the grapes take longer to mature. They catch up because of a lack of water and dry farming.
In 2017, the Chardonnay fermented in stainless steel and moved to barrels where the wine aged ten months in 85% new tight grain French oak, which does not express a lot of oak but rather complements the Chardonnay. This vintage exhibits a lot of structure but not a lot of fruit. The wine delivered lots of acidity and minerality while exhibiting flavors of lemon and citrus.
In 2016 I wrote that I consider this Chardonnay from the Spring Mountain District very subtle in its style and not overwhelming. Although the wine ferments in 80% new French oak followed by nine months of aging, you cannot tell because the wine is not oaky at all. The wine displays well-integrated acidity and exhibits aromas of pear and flavors of lemon and pear.
Obviously, the 2017 vintage had more pronounced citrus qualities, but the oak treatment is similar and creates a French Burgundian style, which I prefer.
Smith-Madrone Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon consists primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon combined with small percentages of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The wine ages 19 months in 45% new, and 55% used French oak. The wine exhibits earthy qualities, with the classic herbaceous green-pepper of Napa Valley accenting the dark fruit. The structure and layering promote a clean, dry Cabernet.
Smith-Madrone 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon is an old-styled Napa wine. This wine represents a high elevation Cabernet. The wine consists of Cabernet Sauvignon mixed with Cabernet Franc while it ages for 18 months in 65% new and 35% one-year-old French oak. The wine displays the herbaceous green pepper and spice offset by dark fruit, typical of many old-school Napa wineries.
By far one of my favorite Rieslings produced in California, Smith-Madrone’s 2017 produces a wine representing the pure essence of this variety. On the nose, I found honeysuckle, white flower, and lemon. On the palate, the wine delivers the lively, fresh, crisp, bright, and fruity nuances of Riesling accented by sweetness on the finish.
Smith-Madrone 2016 Riesling: The grapes grow on steep hillsides in the Spring Mountain District, similar to those in the German Riesling regions of Mosel. Aromas of white flowers and citrus give way to flavors of lime, stone fruits, and pear. I found a very dry Alsatian-style Riesling that is lively and bright with some creaminess and minerality.
Smith-Madrone represents a link to both old-style Napa that many of us experienced in the 1970s and 1980s as well as the adventures of winemaking that helped put California wines on the map bringing the industry to the standards we see today.
Featured image: Spring Mountain District above the Fog. Photo Courtesy Smith-Madrone
Common to the wine industry, this writer received hosted wine samples. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.