|Charlie and Stuart Smith|
Stu, 63, and Charlie, 67, have been in the Napa Valley wine business since 1971 when Stu, then working as a lifeguard in Santa Monica, got the crazy notion to buy property on Spring Mountain with money raised from family and friends. Land was cheaper then, but Stu and Charlie put in a lot of sweat equity clearing forest that had retaken vineyard land abandoned during Prohibition.
They planted Riesling because they liked it and Cabernet Sauvignon because everyone recommended it for Napa Valley, and from their first vintage in 1977, they have done most of the work themselves, with a staff of only 4 full-time workers, tiny for a 3500 case/year winery.
Their efficiency has made their wines, year after year, one of the best bargains from Napa Valley. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is $45, and until now it has been their top-of-the-line, competing with Cabs from their neighbors priced more than three times as high. For years Stu mocked the idea of creating a higher-priced reserve wine, taking a vineyard's best grapes out of the main Cabernet.
However, they've finally made a reserve, which gave me the opportunity to give them the kind of hard time they give everybody else. (I mentioned the word "biodynamic" and got a 15-minute joust, after which Stu said, "I'm glad to hear your points so I can be better prepared for future arguments," and, "There are occasions when I'm wrong. But it's been a while.")
I'm going to try to capture the comedic flavor of a conversation with Stu and Charlie Smith, but to hear them yourself, check out the video (at the bottom of the post).
Me: I'm surprised and disappointed to see you're doing a reserve wine. Why do it after all these years?
Stu: We thought about it for a long time. We never got around to it.
Charlie: So why are we doing this now? That's the question, right? Because we can. I don't think there's a better answer than that.
Stu: We've always been priced at the higher end of the drinking world. This takes us into the collecting world.
Charlie: It's a wine we couldn't produce in any quantity because of the blend. We couldn't make 22% Merlot in a large quantity.
Stu: The blend came after the intention. We wanted to. We've made a lot of changes in the vineyard. But we're not changing our stripes.
Charlie: I don't think we're sacrificing the quality of the larger production wine.
Me: That's what everybody in Napa says. You guys were always different.
Stu: Part of the reason for doing it is, we had replanted a number of vineyards. We've been in a 10-year replanting program. To me, the biggest difference between what we did 40 years ago and today is what we're doing in the vineyards. Not just Smith-Madrone, but everybody.
Me: Did you make your reserve wine bigger, bolder, oakier?
Both: No. No way.
Stu: There's an awful lot of wines out there in that reserve category that I just don't find appealing. I think it's a temporary phase, this high-alcohol, low-acid stuff. It's a fad. California has the ability to go into fads. What motivated me was looking at these high-end wines and not liking them.
Me: You're preaching to the converted here, but I'm not the $150 Cab buyer.
Stu: We have people on our mailing list who have been there from the beginning. And they're older. They're not who we're selling this wine to. We've got people who have been with us since we sold Riesling at $5 a bottle. (It's $28 today.) I have people tell me we've been in the wine business too long because our prices are too low. I think prices have gotten out of control. But other wineries look at us and say, "Would you raise your prices? You're making us look bad."
Charlie: We can talk about how and why we're doing the reserve project, but the truth is, it keeps us interested. We're nuts about wine.
Me: How do you divide up the work?
Charlie: Stuart, he's Mr. Outside and I'm Mr. Inside. Stuart travels (for sales and marketing) and handles the vineyards. I show visitors around and handle the heavy lifting in the winery. Stuart and I do everything around the winery during harvest. We're very efficient.
Stu: You know how many boxes you have to lift to move a ton of grapes? 800 boxes. It is heavy lifting.
Charlie: Nothing goes into the bottle unless we both like it.
Me: Do you like the same things?
Charlie (to Stu): I like acid more than you do.
Stu: I like acid, but not as much as he does. But I can't stand this new low-acid, high-pH wave. We learned wine drinking the European wines. That's the standard for us.
Me: Why the name Smith-Madrone?
Charlie: When I'm showing people around, everybody asks, who's the Madrone guy? I think the reason we added the Madrone -- it's a local tree -- is that we were totally crazy for hyphenated French names like Lafite-Rothschild and Romanee-Conti. We're going to call it Chateau Smith? A friend suggested Smith-Madrone and it's worked out OK. There's been one problem: I've had to give this explanation for the last 35 years.
ABOUT THE VIDEO: I tried to ask them about their decision to make a reserve wine, but instead they told me they were going to talk about the process of creating a new label for it, which doesn't sound all that interesting, and must be hell for the participants as apparently they've been working on it for months. But if you want to see what I mean about these guys being a comedy team, press "Play."