Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail wind their way through some of the most well-known appellations in wine country: Stags Leap District, Oakville, and Rutherford, to name a few. Along the “valley floor” there are dozens of wineries, many of which are household names; some wineries have even achieved cult-wine status. But where there is a valley, there are mountains. In the case of Napa Valley, two large mountain ranges frame the valley: the Macaymas Mountains to the west and north, and the Vaca Mountains to the east. On both of these mountain ranges grapes are grown within certified American Viticultural Areas (AVA). This past week we had the opportunity to taste some “mountain wine” at a winery in Spring Mountain, our first trip to that AVA.
We were invited to taste wine at Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery in Spring Mountain, north and west of the town of Saint Helena. After about 50 minutes of driving – the last few miles on a narrow two-lane road with more than a couple of switchbacks and hairpin turns – we found ourselves on Smith-Madrone’s long driveway. We parked and made our way to the winery building in search of our host Charlie Smith, the winemaker. A somewhat rare treat these days is getting to meet the winemaker, let alone having a tour and tasting led by one. Our first observation was that the winery looked more like a barn than a winery and we walked all the way around the building once and were wondering if we were in the right place. There was no signage or clear entrance but we figured out that the big barn doors must be an entrance.
While it is not uncommon for wineries to have tasting rooms that look like barns, we have to say that most are barns in name only. Many of these “barns” were designed by well-known architects to achieve a faux-rustic sensibility. Smith-Madrone’s barn was the real deal and having our tasting in a genuinely rustic setting added to the authenticity of the overall tasting experience.
First things first, Charlie Smith poured us a glass of Smith-Madrone’s 2014 Chardonnay made from 100% estate fruit. We were surprised to learn that the Chardonnay was fermented in 100% new oak barrels and that the wine went through secondary (malolactic) fermentation. Typically, this style of winemaking produces a “California” chardonnay whose key descriptors would be “buttery,” “oaky,” or “creamy.” Wine snobs might call the wine “full-bodied” and refer to its lush “mouthfeel.” In no way was Smith-Madrone’s chardonnay “oaky” or “buttery.” Charlie Smith told us that mountain fruit tends to resist the effects of oak which allows for a final product that is full-bodied and lush but retains the right balance of acidity and crispness.
With glasses of Chardonnay in hand we followed Charlie out of the barn to get a closer look at the vineyards and get a sneak peek at several varietals in their fermenting bins.
Charlie opened up several bins and educated the group about the fermentation process and the need to perform periodic “punch downs” as the solid parts of the grape (skin, seeds, stems) tends to rise to the top and create a “cap.”
Without a punch down the juice underneath the cap would not get exposed to the solid material which contributes both color and flavor to the juice.
Many wineries that we visit relegate much of the winemaking work to staff or, in the case of punch downs, to large machines that perform this function. Charlie Smith’s punch-down demonstration was not simply for show – this is a task that he performs throughout the day. During our more than 2 1/2 hours on the property the only staff we saw were people named Smith. Without a doubt Smith-Madrone is a true hands-on family business, with an emphasis on business. We have visited quite a few wineries recently in the Valley that are owned by either “gentleman farmers” – people for whom making wine is a hobby – or extremely wealthy individuals for whom profit is not a concern.
After our tour and winemaking lesson, Charlie took us back into the winery building to taste more wines. Unlike other tastings, Charlie did not continue with a white wine but went straight to red: the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of Cab (85%), Cabernet Franc (8%) and Merlot (7%). Lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon will tell you that there is a different between “valley wine” and “mountain wine,” and they are correct. For those skeptics who do not believe that location matters, here are some important factors to consider. First, Smith-Madrone dry farms all of its estate vines, which means that the only irrigation they receive (other than at initial planting) is what the vine’s roots can access in the soil. Second, the soils on Spring Mountain are generally less fertile than those on the valley floor and the composition of the soil is much different. Third, the temperature on Spring Mountain is much cooler (especially at night) than the valley floor and vines can spend their mornings shrouded in fog.
In the case of the 2014 Cabernet, these factors come together to produce an elegant, balanced, earthy wine with modest tannins and a soft finish. Great with food but we would be happy to sip it on its own.
Our next red wine taste was the 2012 Cooks’ Flat Reserve Cabernet, a very small production wine that is produced only in vintages of superior quality. As much as we enjoyed the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, we were really blown away by the Reserve. The Cook’s Flat Reserve is a more muscular wine, a powerhouse but by no means an over-the-top, Big Napa Cab. The fruit is nicely balanced with acidity and tannins that contribute to a very strong and long finish. This wine lives up to the best of what Spring Mountain can produce and we expect that the current offering can be cellared and enjoyed two or three decades from now. We should mention that the Reserve is Smith-Madrone’s most expensive wine at $220 a bottle, most definitely not a wine to drink everyday.
Uncharacteristically for a Napa Valley tasting, we finished with a white wine, easily our favorite of the day: the 2014 Riesling. Aromatically, the Smith-Madrone Riesling exploded out of the glass. Our first sniff detected an aroma reminiscent of diesel fuel or kerosene. Before you say we’re crazy, or worse yet, conclude that Smith-Madrone messed up their Riesling, it’s important to point out that certain white wine varietals produce this aroma as a result of a natural compound called TDN. We have encountered this aroma in some of the best Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc we have had from Europe. As the wine opened up, aromas of citrus, honey and floral took over. On the palate, the wine was smooth, almost silky, refreshing and balanced. We were expecting a bone-dry wine but detected a hint of sugar and Charlie confirmed that the wine did have a small amount of residual sugar. When someone in our group asked Charlie for his favorite wine, he picked the Riesling as one of two Smith-Madrone wines he would want to have with him if stranded on a desert island. We would agree.
When our tasting was over and we were back at the car and getting ready to head home, Charlie’s brother Stuart came roaring up in at ATV and offered us a tour around the property. We knew from our pre-visit research that Stuart Smith purchased the property that is now Smith-Madrone back in 1971 and today is general partner and vineyard manager. We gladly accepted his invitation to tour and enjoyed one of the most fun experiences we have had at a winery as Stu whisked us up and down the property’s steep hills at top speed. We certainly would not have felt comfortable driving the ATV at those speeds but when you’re with someone who acts like they know what they are doing the best approach is to just trust that they do.
Our first stop was at a grassy overlook with views down Spring Mountain and the valley below; this was a truly stunning spot and a place we would be happy to set up a tent and stay a long while.
From there we drove into the vineyards for a really close up look at the Cab vineyards and got a much better perspective for how steep some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards are (some are 34% grade).
After crisscrossing the property Stu deposited us back at the car in one piece and we made our way down Spring Mountain. All the way down the mountain all we could talk about was our appreciation for the Smith brothers’ old school approach to growing grapes and making wine. They are down-to-earth real people trying to make great wines . . . and succeeding. They are proof that you can get ahead doing things the right way. Now that we’ve had a taste of Spring Mountain, we’ll be exploring the other wineries up there and sharing our experiences in upcoming posts.
John & Irene Ingersoll
October 7, 2017