Post-Fire Interview with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone plus 3 wines with pairings and a helping of gratitude

Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone

“I like wine – I think it’s my favorite beverage on the face of the earth,” said Stu Smith General Partner and Enologist at Smith-Madrone. “Wine’s first obligation is to give pleasure—it’s hedonistic.”

Thank goodness for wine in 2020!

In a year full of fire and disease, drinking wine is one of the few pleasures we can count on, and for that we’re grateful.

But making red wine in 2020 from Napa? May not happen.

“This year has been a strange year for all kinds of reasons,” Stu said.

In the Before Times, I visited Stu at Smith-Madrone high above Napa Valley on Spring Mountain among the Madrone trees — hence the name, a marriage between the Smith brothers, Charlie and Stu, and the Madrones which embrace their vineyards.

winemaker to winemaker: Gretel Compton of Clos des Amis and Stu Smith chat at Smith-Madrone

Two weeks ago, Stu and I chat again via cell phone. Service is spotty in the best of times up there, and because of the Glass Fire, there’s no land lines. Power only recently returned thanks to several hundred PG&E employees who formed a temporary city at Charles Krug.

“What do you see when you look out?” I asked Stu who has found a spot near the winery with reception.

“I’m looking at Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc to the right and olive trees to the left,” he responded. The white wine grapes were losing their leaves, while the reds were still holding on to theirs. In the valley, he reported that with the temperature dropping down to the 20s, vines there had more color. Between the rows of vines on Spring Mountain, the cover crop was starting to come in fresh and green in response to the first real rains of the season.

“Looking over the vines I can see the part of Howell Mountain that burnt,” Stu continued.

View towards Howell Mountain and vineyards of Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain in the Before Time: before COVID and before the Glass Fire.

Wildfire does not discriminate; it’s an equal opportunity operative, and California is a pyrogenic landscape, one prone to fire, with plants that co-evolved with fire, a fact that Stu understands well: “Charlie and I grew up in Southern California” where it

“burns every damn year! That’s what we grew up with!”

Stu credits this experience with Los Angeles county fires with understanding the importance of being prepared, and to having and using the fire protocols. “This is something we all should have been expecting,” Stu said of the most recent catastrophe.

Stu observed that the Glass Fire found access by roaring through dry creek beds to burn down historic buildings, wineries, businesses, vineyards, and more:

“Fires love dry river beds, draws, it’s like an artery for a fire. It goes up from tributaries and crosses the valley. These things can get going and burn. Humbling. The word humble is an important word. When it comes to fires, if you’re not careful, it will humble you in a bad way.”


Fire is humbling. That’s why Smith-Madrone has protocols that include managing the understory in the surrounding areas

but “we’re not going to rake our forests,” said Stu sardonically.

Managing the rugged, rural region around his winery is different than a suburban landscaped areas: “In the mountains you have to protect your buildings. You have to have the mindset that it’s up to you and only you.” The fire department’s job is to protect lives, Stu pointed out. “As a property owner you have to know it’s up to you. You have to be able to protect your property. If I leave, they can prevent me from getting back.”

As the Glass Fire streaked across the Napa landscape two months ago, that’s almost what happened — they almost didn’t make it back to the winery. 

When the red flag warning came in late September, the Smiths put their protocols in place, and headed down the mountain toward home.

“We were pretty anxious,” said Stu, “but we fared so much better than so many of our friends. It’s hard to think about. We were fortunate to be here.”

But it was a close one. They were in the midst of harvest, with just about everything in except the cab franc and a little cabernet sauv, with plenty of work behind and ahead. No time for fire preparations, but in what “I thought an overabundance of caution,” the Smiths followed the protocols before driving home on the evening of Sunday Sept. 27.

It’s a good thing they did what they did. No sooner had Stu arrived home, he got that dreaded phone call urging him to get back to the winery to protect it.

“A good friend called to say ‘your place is on fire’,” recalled Stu.

With son Sam and brother Charlie in vehicles not far behind him, only he and Sam got through before access was closed.

“This fire was unexpected,” reported Stu. “The Glass Fire was burning 3-3.5 miles away from us.”

A second fire was also burning at quite a distance away.

“It was inconceivable that fires would make it to our side of the mountain. It is still inconceivable,” said Stu.

“I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a big ball of fire on the Southwest of Spring Mountain. And I was gobsmacked how I didn’t even think that the two fires were connected.” But they were: “That was a difficult night. Monday was really the day with the fires for us.”

He listed a number of wineries and historic buildings that burned down including a ghost winery “a beautiful old stone building… just beautiful, and it perished. A lot of houses, wineries, homes of winemakers. A lot of damage.”

It’s been over a hundred years since the region burned like this: “1870 was the last large fire that went through these mountains,” said Stu. “A lot of us were trying to get the word out we were overdue.”

While some may assume that the land should just be left alone, the Native Americans performed controlled burns which increased ecosystem diversity including food and other resources. Natural wildfires were also widespread and regularly roamed where they willed. Stu reminded me that the Padres of the California Mission system fought the fires to preserve and protect the landscape for cattle and agriculture. The forest grew denser but then the construction needs of the Gold Rush and then rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake depleted the forests of timber– which also reduced the risk of the type of conflagration we’ve seen in the past few years in northern California.

Climate change plays a part, Stu agreed with me, “but the bigger part we can do something about is the amount of fuel left in the forest.” Following these fires, Napa has a unique opportunity to manage the lands: “Hopefully we can  create private and government coalitions that work together.” As people begin to rebuild, better locations and building materials are necessary.

So what’s to become of the 2020 vintage?

While Smith-Madrone had most of their grapes in except their cab franc and some cabernet sauvignon, “a lot of wineries did not have a single grape crushed,” reported Stu. “We did. We’ll see how it goes.”

It’s disappointing because, according to Stu, the reds had great color and flavor. So far, the juice seems to be really good but they’re also faced with the possibility of smoke taint which can give wines a tarry, ashy, smoky or even medicinal character that most people do not like. A layer of smoky residue and even ash can rest on the skins and smoke can seep through them as well. Red wines have skin contact while generally rose and white wines do not; this means that red wines are more susceptible to smoke taint.

To address the unclean grapes, the team “washed the holy bejesus out of them,” said Stu, “and we obviously do not intend to do any extended skin contact.”

Smith-Madrone has some experience with smoke-tainted wines; in 2008, Stu’s brother Charlie complained about the quality of the reds. While the scores weren’t bad, they sold their entire red crop: “We said we’re not interested in selling wine we’re not happy with. I think we’ll probably do the same with 2020 but we don’t know. It’s been a strain and it will be a strain.”

Right now,  Stu said that “I don’t know if there’ll be any Smith-Madrone in 2020. If we don’t like it, we don’t want to sell it to anyone.”

How did the Smith family land on Spring Mountain making wine in the first place? In 1971, Stu Smith was a grad student at UC Davis when he found a site on Spring Mountain which soars 1800′ above the Napa Valley dividing Napa from Sonoma county. They started out with five acres of riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cab.

“We got our lunch handed to us with Pinot Noir,” he admitted, with one good vintage in 1980.

But since one vintage out of 10 or 12 is not economically viable, in 1985 they grafted it over. In 1998 they added cab franc, and in 2000 added merlot but according to Stu, “Merlot doesn’t talk to me.” Little by little they’ve added more vines including Petit Verdot.

“One of the things we do here that’s different but maybe differently stupid is we don’t buy grapes here.

“In the new world we talk about the sense of place. The French can keep the term of terroir. What a small winery should be doing is making something that is unique to us and to the site. It’s your view of the world and your view of what wine should be so in making wine you make thousands of decisions all the time and you have a vision of what you make.

“We make wines for ourselves, our palate,” said Stu, “we don’t make wines for other people’s scores or reviews; we don’t do something just to get scores and reviews.”

With that being said, here’s how we paired three Smith-Madrone wines and what we thought.

Smith-Madrone Wines and Pairings
samples provided for my review consideration

  • Courses 1 and 2:
    2017 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
    with Caesar salad and a local shrimp/lobster bisque
  • Course 3
    2016 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
    with pasta con ricci (fresh, local spaghetti pasta with local uni sauce)
  • Course 4
    2016 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
    with jalapeño cheese sausages and tri tip from the grill

Since Gretel Compton of Clos es Amis joined me on the trip to Smith-Madrone, I invited Bruce and Gretel to join Sue and I in tasting the wines… keeping our distance and doors and windows open!

2017 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
SRP $40
sample for my review 

Today they have 7.5 acres of chardonnay and it’s “a good example of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get the vintage into the glass of wine.”

The Smith-Madrone style is more Eurocentric; he’s not interested in making wines that taste like a  4×4: “too much wood is not correct chemistry. We believe in complexity and elegance and balance and layering and restraint and all those wonderful things.”

They use 80-100% new French oak from “France in the mountains where oak grows slowly producing a tight grain that doesn’t release the oak as much as Limousin which expresses the oak much more, according to Stu.

“We hope there’s enough people who like our style of wine to stay in business. We’re acid whores so we harvest a  little earlier.”

Color: Daffodil, golden, liquid gold

Nose: Butterscotch, vanilla, fresh herbs…

…like walking through a garden in the autumn when everything is ripe and ready to harvest.

Caramelized sugars of a creme brûlée, sugar pine, or sugar cedar made us consider the oak used — and how well it is used to bring further  harmony and complexity to the wine.

Palate: Sign me up for this Chardonnay I said right off the bat. This is right on the verge of being a buttery rich Napa Chardonnay but it’s not over the top. The finish has a nice creaminess. Lemon curd brightness with enough acid to balance it out. Gretel felt that the finish for her was bright with notes of vegetation on the finish.

Pairing: Great pairing with our shrimp bisque. The chardonnay brings out the earthy leeks and the sweetness and the complexity of the soup including a dash of madeira. I just wanted to go back and forth to the wine and the food over and over again.  Sue agreed with Gretel stating that when she went wine then bisque, it worked, but when going back to the wine, it was not as pleasurable. Sue felt that the Chardonnay was much better with the Caesar salad — the richness of the wine loves the anchovies and the salt of the parmesan.

2016 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
ABV 12.8%
SRP $35
sample for my review 

“Riesling is one of the best wines of the world – not just one of the best white wines but wines of the world,” says Stu.

Color: Very pale lemon gold, in some light there is a bit of green

Nose: Sue stated gasoline right off the first sniff. Bruce: “The last chance Texaco.” This wine shows the ability to capture the true essence of the grapes. This style of riesling might be a little austere for someone not used to this style wine. Tons of baking spices, clove and nutmeg, there are also some flowers in there like chamomile, elderflower, hibiscus tea, and an herbaceous quality to the aroma. We stayed very connected to this wine and the different aromas it presented. taking us to places that reminded us of the aromas we were smelling.

Palate: Guava mid-palate, pine tar, petrol, very nice slick mouth feel.

Pairing: The riesling likes the freshness of the pasta, the kick of the red pepper, and the richness of the uni. We were not convinced that this pairing would work, but it was fabulous. The flavors married so well. The mouthfeel of the wine and the mouthfeel of the pasta worked so well together.

2016 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
ABV 14.3%
SRP $58
sample for my review 

Color: Very dense, Burgundy color with a purple rim.

Nose: Bruce and I noted lots of green, while Sue found nice baking spices, eucalyptus, green pepper, green bean, and cherry tobacco.

Palate: Bruce and Sue enjoyed the nice ripe tannins. There was still a bit of green bean on the palate for Bruce. This reminds me of coffee beans that are not roasted super dark and that offer other flavors and complexity than what you get with a dark roast. While I don’t want my  Cab to have green notes, Sue totally appreciates and loves the green notes in wine.

Pairing: Ridiculously fantastic with the blue cheese. I loved this wine with harboson cheese, a spruce bark wrapped creamy cheese that Gretel found in LA. Gretel also brought these fantastic sausages  from Gaviota Givings. They make their own sausages and went perfectly with the wine according to Sue. If you like pork, this place has some great options. You may have to get online and reserve early to get what you want but it is well worth it. BBQ tri tip with a rosemary garlic pepper crust worked so well with the wine, and this wine is crazy good with the sausages. It brings out the cherry fruit, and a smoke in the wine. The wine opened up nicely as the evening progressed. At the end of the meal, as much as the tri tip was good, the sausage was so much better with the wine. Really fun and delicious.

As we close Thanksgiving and November of 2020, let’s raise a glass to our hard working first responders and reflect on gratitude. While it’s been a strange year and we’re not through yet, there’s much to be grateful for — including fine wine like these made by the team at Smith-Madrone!

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