As a wine blogger and perpetual wine student, I receive invitations to a fair number of events: winemaker lunches and trade tastings, for example, as well as the chance to review sample bottles sent out by PR companies. I’m always grateful for these opportunities to broaden my knowledge and expand my palate.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret about the wine world: some invitations are more coveted than others. And it has nothing to do with wine critics, 100-point scales, or impossibly small allocation allotments. What it boils down to is authenticity; in other words, old-fashioned, honest winemaking.
A few weeks ago I received just such an invitation.
Tasting with the Cool Kids
When I received the email inquiring whether I’d like to participate in a virtual tasting of Smith-Madrone wines, I could hardly believe my good luck. These wines are highly respected by folks who aren’t so easy to impress. But year after year, they agree that these wines are special. I couldn’t wait to taste alongside them, hear what they had to say, and compare their observations with my own.
I RSVPed YES without a moment’s hesitation!
A Virtual Tasting with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery
I’ve listened to my fellow wine bloggers wax rhapsodic about these wines for years, but I’d never tasted them. As a point of reference, most of these folks are rather reserved when it comes to describing wines, using clinical wine terms and assessments of quality. Yet, somehow, the wines from Smith-Madrone inspire these same stoics to share unabashed praise for what’s in their glass. They talk about experiencing the wine rather than what it tastes like, putting the wine in a context that includes food, family, and friends.
And, yeah, the wine also happens to taste really friggin’ good!
About Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery
Smith-Madrone was founded in 1971 by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith. The estate boasts 200 acres, a small portion of which is devoted to grape growing. Surrounding the vineyards are native flora like centenarian olive groves and a species of evergreen known as Madrone. The winery name hints at the collaboration between humans and nature. Yes, it’s about the wines; but it’s also about so much more.
The vineyards take up 34 acres in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, one of the region’s cooler spots. Vines lie on steep slopes ranging from 1,300 – 2,000 feet in altitude, offering different exposures for ripening a wide array (especially for Napa) of grape varieties: Riesling occupies the east-facing parcels, giving it full morning sun; Cabernet Sauvignon soaks up the warmth on the flatter expanse looking south/southwest; and Chardonnay looks northward, enjoying the coolest plots.
Production is a scant 3,000 cases per year, prompting me to feel even more grateful to have been invited to taste four of their wines. Such generosity extends to the Smith-Madrone philosophy in general:
At Smith-Madrone our goal is to make artisanal wines which are distinctive and are an expression of both the vintage and us, as vintners, but above all else, are wines which bring pleasure to the senses. Every year our wine is made from the same vineyards, pruned by the same people in the same way, cultivated in exactly the same manner and harvested at similar levels of maturity, yet Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses and character. Vintage dating is a celebration of that uniqueness and diversity.
My Kind of Wine People
After spending an hour with Stu Smith and a handful of fellow wine enthusiasts, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. (Tasting notes on the four wines are in the next paragraph.) There was such a refreshing vibe to the conversation. Stu talked about why they make wines the way they do:
“Because, ultimately, wine belongs at the dining room table, with family and friends.”
The folks at Smith-Madrone aren’t out there chasing points or trying to develop a cult following. They’re making honest wine that is delightfully expressive; it pays homage to a place – an inviting place where we’re all welcome to pull up a chair, sip something delicious, and speak our minds.
These are definitely my kind of wine people.
Note: I received these wines and an invitation to participate in the chat courtesy of Smith-Madrone. I wasn’t compensated for this post, and all opinions expressed herein are mine.
2016 Smith-Madrone Estate Grown Chardonnay (14.4%abv; $40 at the winery; sold out)
100% Chardonnay that was dry-farmed, barrel-fermented, and aged in oak (80% new French barrels) for nine months. Only 831 cases made, which is a pity, because I could sip this rich, refreshing wine every day. I live in Miami and am always on the hunt for crisp, white wines to bring the temperature down. Napa Chardonnay doesn’t usually come to mind.
This one, however, is a beauty. It hits the Goldilocks spot for me: lots of ripe white peach, apple, and pear, tons of zippy citrus, and lively, medium+ acidity. As Stu mentioned during the tasting, a good wine needs to dance across the palate, and acidity is the key. If you think you don’t like new world Chardonnay, I dare you to try it – if you can find a bottle.
2015 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (14.3% abv; $52 at the winery)
An enticing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (84%) and Cabernet Franc (16%), this wine is the product of fruit grown at the top of Spring Mountain (1,800 feet) on weathered volcanic soils mixed with sedimentary rock. The wine was aged in French oak barrels (65% new; 35% one-year-old) for 18 months.
Stu called this wine a throwback to the Napa Valley of yesteryear: a wine with pure, clean Cabernet Sauvignon character. I happen to love that it’s blended with a healthy dose of Cabernet Franc, a variety they expect to plant more of. You can get just a hint of it on the palate, where it adds an attractive, peppery note.
As opposed to many varietal Cabernet wines from Napa, this one strikes a rather modest pose: medium+ acid and tannin, medium+ intensity black and red fruit aromas. There are spicy notes of cigar box, earthy scents of forest floor, and kirsch and vanilla. It’s clean and fresh and a perfect partner with grilled steak. I would actually enjoy drinking this wine on its own – something I can’t say of many Napa reds.
2016 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve (14.3% abv; about $250 at the winery)
Made in preciously small quantities only in superior vintages, Cook’s Flat Reserve is modeled on the world-famous first growth wines of Bordeaux. Always a blend of the finest barrels, the 2016 brings together Cabernet Sauvignon (54%) and Cabernet Franc (46%) in a medley of ripe black fruit, tobacco, baking spices, and sun-warmed earth. Exquisitely balanced with moderate acidity and tannin, this wine is a hedonistic pleasure to drink now but would reward the patient oenophile who can put it away for a few more years.
Only 111 cases of the 2016 were made, and each bottle is individually numbered. Available only via the winery (for now) count yourself among the lucky few if you manage to score a bottle. I’m still thinking about this wine two weeks after tasting it.
Yeah, it’s that good.
2016 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Spring Mountain Riesling (12.8% abv; $32 at the winery)
I have to admit: this was the wine I was most looking forward to tasting. Remember how I described my fellow wine bloggers who went crazy for all the Smith-Madrone wines? The most effusive praise – across the board – was for the Riesling.
A bit of an outlier in Napa, Riesling more often calls to mind the steep slopes of the Mosel in Germany or perhaps the sunwarmed slopes of Alsace. Spring Mountain? Not so much. But this wine makes you wish Riesling were more prominent among the plantings; and that it all could be made by Smith-Madrone.
100% Riesling, this wine smells like a beautiful fruit salad: apples, pears, passionfruit, and mango spritzed with a few drops of lemon juice and sprinkled with lime zest and ginger. It is unapologetically ripe and exuberant, lightly restrained by tart acidity that keeps all that personality in check. Reminiscent of Alsace but with even more pizzazz. Hands down, my favorite wine of the tasting.
First planted in 1972, the Riesling is what Stu calls a pure expression of terroir: no blending, no malolactic conversion, no resting on the lees or barrel aging. It’s “as close to nature as possible.” A classic variety served up with a twist. Delicious!
If you haven’t yet tasted the wines from Smith-Madrone, I highly recommend them. Especially if you’re gathered at the table with loved ones, telling tales and passing plates. Or any time you’re knitting the fabric that connects family and friends. That’s exactly what these wines were made for.