It’s among the most popular of wine country photographs. From the cover of Sunset magazine to various books, Mt. St. Helena rises above fog-shrouded Napa Valley, while terraced vineyards arc across the foreground in the first light of morning. UC Davis graduate Stuart Smith established vineyards here in 1971, joined in a few years by his brother Charles. While the valley below churns with change, Smith-Madrone practices independent, artisan winemaking at the top of the world.
Well, fairly high up on Spring Mountain, anyway. When Stu Smith logged the dense, second-growth forest, he found old redwood grape stakes throughout. The land had once before been cleared for vineyards, in the 1880s. Smith says that he was among the first winemakers to return to the hills after Prohibition, 25 years before others ventured out of the Napa Valley.
Now and then, this column has had a little fun with the cult of the mountain vineyard; Stu Smith isn’t one to wax poetic about the magic of rocks. The brothers’ opinions, in fact, often run counter to the trends, and they’re not too shy to publish them on their website, along with more conventional stuff like wine data sheets. An FAQ about one of their most noteworthy wines turns into a detailed critique of tightly spaced vineyards. Smith-Madrone vineyards have been dry-farmed for three decades way up here among the madrone trees, and the brothers lambaste the water-wasteful trend toward planting de-vigorated little vines on thirsty rootstocks.
The winery’s remote location hinders tourism of the regular sort. It’s not even on the map, but appointments are made for dedicated visitors as time allows. An iconoclast, Smith is no recluse, having long been active in Napa County community politics, serving on committees and heading up auctions and charities.
As noted in these pages last week (“How Sweet Is Dry?” June 11), Riesling is Smith-Madrone’s main fame claim. Its Riesling has steadily gained fame while Napa Valley Riesling in general has become a rare antique. The 2007 Riesling out of the tank is styled dry, at just 0.7 percent residual sugar. This fresh, new Riesling’s austere citrus character is livened by a hint of honey and flowers. Smith describes the 2006 Riesling as being like a 60/40 split between typical Alsace and Germany styles. As for those Napa standbys Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Of course, and they’re quite good. To answer the question of just how good, one has only to climb the mountain.
Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena. Visits by appointment only. 707.963.2283.