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. The fact that Stu sports a big gray and white beard under a wizened and kindly face helps to reinforce the possibility that he might belong in some ancient tale. 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 under-appreciated 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, and even more surprisingly, especially to those unfamiliar with the winery, it’s quite good. To those who have known about Smith Madrone for some time, this small production Riesling is one of Napa’s best kept secrets.
Of course, you can’t have a winery on Spring Mountain and not make Cabernet. That would be like having a winery in Montalcino and not making Brunello. Over the years, the winery has grown to a modest thirty or so acres, and after as many years in production, only makes around 4000 cases of wine, split between Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Riesling. 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 Cabernet is made from the estates 32-year-old, dry-farmed vines at the top of Spring Mountain. It ages for 22 months in new American Oak barrels (an unusual choice for both Napa and for Cabernet), and is bottled unfined and unfiltered. After bottling the winery likes to hang onto it for a while, which means this 2003 is the current release (the 2004 will hit the market in a couple of months).
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a beautiful nose of plum, chocolate, and heady cedar aromas. In the mouth it is soft and silky on the tongue, with a suprisingly lightness for Napa Cabernet — a bruiser this is most certainly not. The core flavors are black cherry and chocolate, and they dance, juicy on the tongue thanks to great acidity and faint, powdery tannins that simply play a background note to the overall bright quality of the wine. Incredibly easy to drink (a whole bottle).
With the light tannins and great acidity this wine is a good food pairing for any meat dish, even those on the lighter side. I wouldn’t mind drinking it with a spiced pulled pork sandwich.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $35
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.