Stu and Charlie Smith help Smith-Madrone Make The Uphill Climb

For 50 years, Smith-Madrone Vineyards has sat atop Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, powered by a duo of brothers who have remained committed to making the wines they enjoy, critics be damned.

The vineyard was launched on May 14, 1971, when founder Stuart Smith signed paperwork on the 200 acres that have remained family-run for its entire lifetime. Charles Smith — Stu Smith’s brother — is the head winemaker, and his son Sam Smith joined the winery as assistant winemaker in 2010.

Stu said he first walked the property in the fall of 1970. All that had remained of the original vineyard that had been planted in the 1880s were small redwood grape stakes and olive trees that competed for sunlight with 100-foot tall Douglas fir trees.

Despite being a relatively cash-strapped young man who had recently finished his studies, Stu took the plunge, buying the land in an auction and getting to work on it shortly thereafter.

“My degree was in economics and I should have known better,” Stu said. “I knew this was a ridiculous industry to get into. But we made it work. I have the tenacity and I kept going. My brother joined me two years into it. (My wife) Julie Ann (Kodmur) helps us with publicity and marketing and we’ve been able to survive.”

Smith-Madrone’s founder got into wine in the 1960s when he was in college. He liked beer more than he liked wine, he said, and as a senior undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, he applied to become an intercampus exchange student to study enology at the University of California at Davis. 

“I took that class, and I said ‘This is the industry for me,”’ Stu recalled.

All of the winery’s wines are made from the estate vineyards surrounding the winery, originally planted 50 years ago by the Smith brothers. The vineyards are primarily dry-farmed on steep mountainsides surrounding the winery on top of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley. At elevations between 1,300-2,000 feet, the vineyards extend in steepness up to 35% slopes. 

Smith-Madrone’s first vintage of Riesling — the 1977 — won Best Riesling in the Wine Olympics, an international tasting organized by the food and wine magazine Gault Millau in Paris in 1979.

Needless to say, much has changed in the world of North American wine in 50 years.

“What has happened since I started is that fundamentally, Napa Valley became Napa Valley,” Stu said. “Napa was a small provincial wine-growing community, but wine was not the beverage of choice for Americans. Coffee was what they drank with meals. They had cocktails before dinner. From a marketing point of view, we didn’t have Robert Parker or Wine Spectator, and you can make an argument whether that was a positive. 

“The industry has become so popular with celebrities from all fields. I read that Jon Bon Jovi was getting into the wine business, Sting is in the wine business. I was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that all of them going into wine was God’s way of telling them they had too much money.

“When I taught in Santa Rosa, I told the students that if they want to make money, don’t buy a wine business. Buy a McDonald’s franchise and retire to the Bahamas after 10 years. Because after 10 years, your winery says ‘Feed me. Feed me. Feed me.’ I know people who have been in the business 20-30 years and never made a nickel. They’re feeding the winery, not the other way around.

“Other people who come in and have cash, so much cash, are coming from other industries. They made a widget, and that’s what sold.”

That was not the business model the Smiths used when Smith-Madrone got underway. Stu and Charlie were from middle-class backgrounds, Stu said, and relied on elbow grease to get things underway.

Stu said he’d tell someone starting out that wine is like any other startup — have more cash than you think you need as you get started.

“Clearly we didn’t have enough money to start with, but we clawed our way up,” Stu said. “We were both young at the time and we did a lot of the work ourselves. We built the winery ourselves.”

Stu said you can either make wine for the critics or make it for yourself. Either has its risks.

“Charlie and I make wines for ourselves,” Stu said. “We think we have good taste. Our taste is world-based, and that is not the taste of Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. In the 1980s and 1990s, we wandered the desert for 40 years because we did not make wines Parker liked. But we simply won’t make wine for someone else’s palate that we don’t respect.

“It was a major stumbling block for us. But how we got around it is we went to everybody else who was more open-minded, who didn’t have favorites or enemies. It was the hard way to do it, but we did it.” 

Today, Smith-Madrone produces between 3,000-4,000 cases per year, is known for its hillside grape production, and all of its wines are made from estate-grown grapes. It grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay grapes and prides itself on each.

“We’re kind of a European-esque winery. We believe in balance, complexity, elegance, restraint, and layering,” Stu Smith said.

Their Riesling is a definite source of pride for the Smiths, who make terroir one of their priorities.

“We knew being in the mountains would differentiate Smith-Madrone from the wineries on the floor of the Napa Valley, and we valued and nurtured that difference,” Charles Smith explained. “The success of our Riesling is due altogether to being in the hills at altitude.”

Stu said he enjoys Riesling and likes to produce it because of its versatility.

“We harvest it in the vineyard, we bring it right into the crusher, to the press, and it’s clarified and bottled right out of stainless steel — no French oak, no American oak, no heavy toast or medium toast, no blending — none of that,” Stu said. “It’s the purest expression of what a grape can do. If you did it this way with other varietals, Cabernet would not be Cabernet, Chardonnay would not be as interesting, but with Riesling, it’s the purest expression of the grape. We all banter about terroir, an ephemeral sense of place and sense of art and we should all be into Riesling because it’s been grown in the same spot, farmed by the same people, and made by us the same way for the last 50 years. I can’t imagine how anything could be more expressive of that terroir. They turn into stunningly wonderful wines, but I feel like Sisyphus rolling the rock over the hill. Just when I think the industry is going to embrace Riesling, the rock rolls right back down the hill.”

The vineyards used to also include Pinot Noir, but that varietal wasn’t a fit for the Smiths. Forcing that grape to grow in adverse conditions was not these mountainside growers’ hill to die on, as it is for some winemakers.

“When I first ordered the vines, I ordered the four most important varietals,” Smith recalled. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Being Americans, we were arrogant and thought we could do all of these very well. We got our lunch handed to us with the Pinot Noir. We tried very hard for 11 years and said no.

“Pinot may well be the dark side of the wine business. You need to have an awful lot of money to make a go of it. This doesn’t mean I don’t like Pinot Noir. I do. I love great Pinot Noir, but you only have a couple of great Pinot Noirs in your life.”

Stu said it was important to remember that growing and making Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley was not a magic bullet.

“Having to grow Cab because you’re in Napa Valley is a mindset that is getting people into trouble,” he said. “Not all of the soil in Napa is suitable for Cab, but Mr. and Mrs. Gotrocks who sold their widget company in Silicon Valley tell their vineyard manager they’re planting Cab. And the vineyard manager says, we can do that, but it’s not going to be very good Cabernet. It’s not going to be what you think. They say, if it’s good enough for Robert Mondavi, then it’s good enough for me. So the vineyard manager does what they’re told and they plant the grapes on soil that has no business growing Cabernet.”

The soil at Smith-Madrone is the right fit for Cab, Stu said.

“A Cabernet soil needs good drainage,” he noted. “You can’t have heavy clay soils and you can’t have too much fertility. You need enough to have the vines grow well but you want the vines to change from vegetative to naturally ripening. A few rocks and pebbles are fine, but you don’t want gumbo. You don’t want stuff that holds water and doesn’t let it penetrate through.”

It isn’t just the fact Smith-Madrone is at such a high elevation that makes it so favorable for Cab.

“Being high up helps, but it doesn’t mean all mountain soils are equal — they’re not,” Stu said. “I think of us as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid is all of the young boys going into Pop Warner football, and over time, the desire, skill, and accidents winnow the field down until you get up to the very top. It’s the same thing with Cab. You can’t just plant it in all soils and expect it to work that way. I had a knock-down, drag-out with one of my professors on soils and climate. My argument was that soil was a defining element. Climate is first, but second is soil because there is nothing you can do about modifying it once you plant your vineyard. Climate is not going to overcome bad soil.”

Smith-Madrone shoots for an ABV in the low 14% range with its Chardonnay and has for the last half-century. Keeping this tradition is more difficult than it was years ago.

“What has changed in 50 years is the yeasts have become too efficient,” Stu said. “When I was at UC Davis, .55 was the conversion factor for turning yeast and sugar into alcohol. Now it’s .62 and that gives us much higher alcohol levels than we had in the past.” 

“We need yeast that is less efficient. We like the character of slightly higher sugared grapes but we’re not interested in getting into the high 15s, high 16s in alcohol.”

The tastes of some consumer-focused wine writers and critics have perpetuated that conundrum for Smith-Madrone, which doesn’t favor making low ABV wines but steers clear of making wines with higher ABVs. But the Smiths have stuck to their guns and plan to continue doing so.

“We don’t care what they think,” Stu said. “We want wines the way we want them and as long as other people like them too, we stay in business. 

“If we ever drop our position to make scores for reviewers whose palates we don’t like, we shouldn’t be in this business.

“If we were going into business just to be in business, we would be down on Highway 29 hocking our stuff to tourists going by, not stuck up on a mountain where everything is hard and nothing comes easily.

“We’re making the best wine we can at an affordable price and we’re being authentic while doing it.”

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