There are more legends, stories, fairytales, and fables than anyone could count that 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.
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 occasionally his two sons, 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 Charles 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.
The winery’s Riesling is grown like its other varieties, in dry-farmed hillside vineyards of modest to considerable age. The average age among the Riesling vines is about 32 years. The naturally small yields produce enough fruit for only about 600 cases of wine per year.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet limestone, white flowers, and fresh pears. Bright and cheery in the mouth it tastes of pears, wet stones, and unripe apples. Nicely balanced with excellent acidity, incredibly easy to drink and delicious, the wine finishes with a hint of candle wax. Certainly one of my favorite Rieslings made in this country.
Though it does not taste sweet, the wine has a tiny bit of residual sugar that will make it an excellent match for intense, even spicy flavors. I had some Indonesian corn fritters today for lunch with a chili garlic sauce that would have been an interesting combination.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $25
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.