There are more legends, stories, fairytales, and fables than anyone could count which all involve some guy up on a mountainside somewhere. Sometimes a hermit, sometimes a wizard, sometimes a troll — sometimes just an old man who went to sleep under a tree for a long, long time. No matter what the story, there’s always something a little different about the guy on the mountain, something that is both scary and alluring at the same time.
Stu Smith might be living out yet another version of one of these tales. His start as a winemaker certainly sounds like it belongs in a storybook somewhere: a lone hiker in the early Seventies, stomping through the forests on the mountainside above St. Helena discovers the remains of ancient vineyards and is struck then and there by inspiration.
In deciding to purchase that long forgotten parcel of land, and turn it again into a vineyard, Smith began a thirty-five year odyssey as a pioneer, an iconoclast, and what looks to be a permanent fixture on Napa’s Spring Mountain. The venture, begun in 1973 with money from family and friends, is now one of the most established, and perhaps most underappreciated wineries in the Spring Mountain District.
If you were going to start a Napa winery, even back in the Seventies, what would be the first kind of grape you’d plant? Certainly not Riesling. Yet that was the very first grape that Smith planted. Smith Madrone winery has produced one ever since. Smith likes to say, as he did in a recent interview for a Napa paper, that he “just didn’t know any better,” but this winery has been producing good wine for so long that you have to believe that winegrowing and winemaking just came naturally to Smith.
From the first few rows of Riesling, the winery has grown to only a modest thirty or so acres, and after as many years in production, only makes around 4000 cases of wine. Chardonnay and Cabernet are the only varieties that have been added to the portfolio. Smith, along with his brother, and now his son, like to keep things manageable for a small family who choose to do a surprising number of things by hand.
The winery facility was built using stones and lumber from the property. As the winery was gradually built over the years, Smith and his brother discovered the remains of rock walls, caves, and old carriage roads created by the farmers who last ran the vineyards on the site, sometime before the turn of the century. Some evidence of the former tenants was not so hard to notice — the property boasts a carefully planted line of 22 olive trees, most of which are over 100 years old.
Perhaps it was inspiration from the 19th century vintners whose traces could still be seen on the land, or perhaps it is the only way Smith could ever have operated, but the winery operates very much on the model of small European cellars. From the small volume of low yield fruit that is hand harvested each year, to barrel fermentation in small lots, Smith Madrone wines are hand-crafted from start to finish.
This Chardonnay is made from 31-year-old vines grown on a hillside of red volcanic soil that sometimes reaches inclines of up to thirty-five degrees (steep enough to be avalanche prone if they were ever covered with snow). They are completely dry-farmed, with irrigation “left up to the sky.” The wine is fermented in oak and then aged in 100% new French oak for 16 months. 997 cases are produced.
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a nearly savory nose of buttered popcorn, pineapple and caramel aromas. In the mouth it feels weighty on the tongue, with a lovely texture and flavors of lemon curd and vanilla and a touch of sweet oak, but surprising little given the aging regime. The acid backbone of the wine is good, and introduces a minerality that, along with restraint from the oak, makes this an individualistic Napa Chardonnay, and one that is a pleasure to drink.
We served this the other night when we ran out of a Sauvignon Blanc to go with a frisee salad and goat cheese crostinis. It would also pair very well with a dish like a classic preparation of swordfish steaks in lemon parsley sauce.
Overall Score: 9
How Much?: $20
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.