Why do I do this job? Why am I more excited about it than ever before? Because of people like Stuart (left) and Charles Smith (right) of Smith Madrone estate on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Before I visited them yesterday I knew that they’re two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling, but since my visit I would say they’re also unsung heroes of American Chardonnay and American Cabernet Sauvignon. These are actually all world class wines, however I think it’s important to emphasize that although the Smith brothers are inspired by certain Western European wines, those which they produce are American thru and thru. What their wines never do, however, is neatly fit into any of the currently Fashion Wine stereotypes, American or global, because they all have genuine style by the bucket load. Of course, that means that certain critics, somms, collectors and wine fans don’t take them seriously, and maybe never will. The most refreshing thing of all about the Smith brothers is that – as I think you can clearly see from my picture – this situation doesn’t get Stuart and Charles down in the least, quite the opposite. Their quiet confidence derives from the conviction that they’re doing the right thing (also that they’ve considered all the other options and rejected them with good reason), and from the fact that there are more than enough wine drinkers out there who appreciate the Smith-Madrone wines for them to sell out at healthy prices.
At least part of the secret of this is their location on Spring Mountain where they’ve planted 35 acres of vineyards (9 acres of which are Riesling), an area of mixed forest (pictured above is a stand of redwoods) and some grassy hillsides, part of which they use as a shooting range. From up here they look down upon the floor of the Napa Valley where wine can be produced more cheaply and sold more easily the waves of well-to-do tourists who pass through at this time of year. Up on their section of Spring Mountain there are almost zero tourists and wine is far more arduous and expensive to produce. This has encouraged the development of a very different spirit and I think you can read that in their faces. When Stuart Smith said to me, “California goes over the top. That’s what Hollywood is all about,” he was defining the Smith Madrone position as one of opposition to that. That’s not a willful form of opposition though, but a very considered one. The Smith brothers have a position and that, no less than their special location, is what makes these wines so very different from the Napa and Californian norms.
Of course, the mere fact of growing Riesling in Napa Valley (the vineyard is pictured above) seems like a revolutionary act to some people in the California wine industry, but the wines I tasted ranging from 2013 back to 1994 were not only of consistently high quality, they were also also utterly distinctive. “I think the reason we’ve done so well with Riesling is that the concept of balance is fundamental to what we do. We’re in a different and warmer region than Riesling’s homeland in Germany, so we’ve been able to make the wines with less sweetness,” Stuart Smith explained. In fact, recent vintages have been properly dry and wonderfully expressive (see the hit list of the best 20 dry wines on Planet Riesling in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH). The aromas range from white peach and lemon to dried flowers and herbs, the acidity is bright and enormously refreshing without a hint of sharpness. With age a note that reminds me of quince jelly develops. If you want a “dry” white that tastes lush and creamy, sweet and heavy like the Rombauer Chardonnay, then run for cover! This is not the wine for you! However, if you want to feel fully alive and you aren’t afraid of acidity, then you could find this wine seriously exciting.
It was interesting to taste how when the wines are young the Chardonnay and the Riesling from Smith Madrone share some aromas, and the Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons share something vital in a less direct way; dry elegance and brightness. That says to me how strongly the personality of this site asserts itself. More words are not necessary to convey the essentials of these wines, except perhaps to mention that the Smith Brothers 1996 Riesling was one of the best mature American Rieslings I ever tasted. Which other American Rieslings can match its vitality and uniqueness of flavor? The current vintage costs just $27, making it one of the great dry white wine bargains.