Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two Smiths, no Madrones at Smith-Madrone

Charlie and Stuart Smith
Visiting with brothers Stuart and Charlie Smith, owners of Smith-Madrone Winery, is like being on stage with a veteran comedy team. They don't tell jokes -- they bicker and prod each other -- but they're hilarious. The act is even better if you're opinionated about wine, because they sure are.

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."


  1. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 22, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    I like their wines and their comments (oftentimes). But wonder sometimes about Stu criticizing certain styles of wines (the high alc, low pH styles) not tasting like the varietal any longer when the Cab is aged in new American oak for 22 months.

    Seems at odds with the other stated goals (but, I like the Cab).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. As a longtime consumer of Smith Madrone wines, I am puzzled at the comment from Mr. Lee. Stu Smith was simply commenting about his opinion of the current high alcohol, low acit style of Cabernet that is in vogue among certain Napa producers.

    I for one will continue to purchase and enjoy wines that are styled for enjoyment with food such as those from Smith Madrone.

  3. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 22, 2011 at 1:34 PM


    When I was in retail I carried the Smith Madrone wines and do enjoy them. Stu certainly hasn't shied away from controversy, from authoring the blog "Biodynamics is`a Hoax" ( to writing comments on the Wine Spectator site such as "IMO wines with high alcohol mostly come from grapes harvested at 28 to 30 + degrees Brix, require water and acid additions and result in wines that are boring, simple and short lived. Yes, those intense jammy, fruit forward wines can be very seductive in the beginning, but once you hone in on the overripe flavors of prunes and raisins, the wines become simple and boring. Additionally, the chemistry from these overripe grapes is so messed up that the wines will be short lived with no staying power. Unfortunately, high scores for these wines are misguided and are leading to a sameness in winemaking that is boring and antithetical to all the qualities which define great wine." ---- My only comment was that complaining about sameness in winemaking seems odd from someone who uses all new American oak on their wines as American oak is very strongly flavored and all new oak is also quite strong.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Adam: It's an interesting point and not one I raised with Stu and Charlie, but if perchance they visit this post, perhaps they will address it themselves. I don't want to put words in their mouths, and besides, that would take an army.

  5. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 22, 2011 at 2:51 PM


    I'd love to hear about it from them as I love much of what they say and do.....and, although I am controversy averse myself, I appreciate their comments on issues!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. I've known Stu since my earliest days making Acacia in Napa. I love the courage of his give a f__ attitude towards biodynamics, and was gratified to recently see Richard Smart one of the most respected viticulturists in the world say more or less the same thing. That biodynamics and organic are not based on fact, and are not better for the enviroment. Most of the experienced viticulture guys I know and respect feel the same way, but are reluctant to go public with this. Kudos to Stu for his agressive dismisal of the biodynamic bullshit.

  7. Larry: The way I read Richard Smart's comments was that organic and biodynamic viticulture are ignoring his main fear, which is climate change. I don't think he addressed whether or not they're better for the environment. If I'm misinterpreting this, let me know.

  8. Adam,
    Are you sure Stu was not just channeling Joe Davis of Arcadian in his comments about high alcohol/low acid wines? ;-)
    Bob Davis

  9. Adam: if you are saying that the use of oak, American or French, leads to boring, innocuous wines, then I reject your notion. I believe that most wines benefit from the judicious use of new oak. Using new oak doesn't diminish the uniqueness of wine or the ephemeral element of wine as art. Balance is the key---when wine becomes dominated by the heavy hand of oak the wine does suffer and a sameness can result. At Smith-Madrone we use French oak for our Chardonnay and Reserve and Missouri white oak for our Cabernet. I would go one step further and say that our mountain grown grapes produce structurally robust wines which can handle, balance and benefit from the use of new oak. The great chateaux of Bordeaux and the great domaines of Burgundy all use new oak. Certainly you wouldn't accuse those wines of being boring and exhibiting a sense of sameness? Would I be correct in assuming that by repeating my quote from the Spectator bulletin board that you agree with it?
    Stu Smith

  10. Blake,
    Maybe you've been able to find the full text of Smart's talk, I haven't. But, to quote;
    "Many of the concepts behind organics and biodynamics are nonsense. They're not good for the environment."
    This seems pretty unambiguous to me, and coincides well with what most of my peers in the practical business of winefarming believe.

  11. Adam,
    I don’t think it is inconsistent to criticize this high-Brix/low-acid/watering/bleeding/acidifying/spinning fad (or trend) and simultaneously age wine in new oak for 22 months.
    Ridge Montebello is aged in new American oak for 18 months and is one of the best (and most balanced) Cabs one can find anywhere.
    Furthermore, one can manage the oak influence by using heavy toasted barrels 100% air seasoned for 2-4 years; or even mixing large-grain salt in boiling water inside the barrels for a few hours. And the longer the wine remains in barrel the lesser (and subtler, with more tannin integration) the barrel will impart it´s flavor.

  12. Larry: If you find the full text of Smart's remarks let me know. As is, we disagree completely about its ambiguity. Which are these "many" concepts? Will address this soon in a post you won't like.

    Stu: Thanks for visiting.

    Peter: Ridge is a nice example. Paul Draper makes a point of saying all American oak is not the same. (Like all organic grapegrowing concepts?)

  13. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 23, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    Stu (and Peter),

    I guess I would start by saying that to say that European wines are the standard and then using all new American oak is interesting.

    I also think that the use of new oak in Europe has increased (in part due to the perceived demand of the American market) and wasn't so prevelant when I started drinking European wines (nor, I would guess, when Stu did either).

    As far as overripe wines go, I certainly don't care for wines that have what I perceive to be overripe, pruney fruit. Quite frankly, I find that more often than I find wines where the alcohol bothers me. But there are plenty of wines that I taste that are picked at the same brix level that don't taste overripe to me. And there are wines that taste overripe tome that were picked at lower brix levels but at higher pHs that might taste overripe. --- Because of that I am less likely that Stu (apparently) to make sweeping statements about wines of a certain brix level being antithetical to all that defines great wines.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  14. Adam: Is it fair to say you'd like to make a sweeping statement against sweeping statements?

  15. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 23, 2011 at 12:38 PM


    I don't even like to sweep at the house. much less sweep statements.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. I now know of 2 cabs that are aged in 100% New American Oak -- Silver Oak, which is barely tolerable tasting like dill-coconut juice and Smith-Madrone, which have routinely been good to exceptional and never in a million years would I have guessed at the barrel aging regiment. I guess it is all about "balance" and no one factor can be sited as creating or destroying it.


    PS always have the most reasoned comments

  17. Adam,
    Your statement, “that to say that European wines are the standard and then using all new American oak is interesting”, conveys the impression that you’re not very enthusiastic about the Spanish wines listed below; which rely heavily on new American oak:
    Ribera del Duero – Vega Sicilia (Unico, Reserva Especial, Valbuena); Pesquera (Janus, Gran Reserva, Reserva); Perez Pascuas (Gran Seleccion, Vina Pedrosa).
    Rioja – Marques de Riscal (Baron de Chirel, Gran Reserva); Artadi (Pagos Viejos, Grandes Anadas, El Pison); Contino (Vina del Olivo); Lopez de Heredia (Vina Tondonia, Cubillo, Bosconia); Ysios (Reserva).
    VDLT de Castilla Y Leon – Mauro (San Roman. VS)
    Jumilla – El Nido (Clio, El Nido)

  18. Adam Lee/Siduri WinesJune 27, 2011 at 4:50 AM


    You are correct that the Spanish wines you listed are aged in American oak. And I did think of them. But I think the fact that you can list them all implies that American oak is the exception rather than the rule in Europe and certainly the exception on Cabernet.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines