Winery Focuses on Forestry Fire Risks

Stu Smith doesn't have much time for biodynamics – or uncontrolled forestation.
© Misty Roudebush | Stu Smith doesn't have much time for biodynamics – or uncontrolled forestation.
Smith-Madrone's Stu Smith is an unconventional figure in a region where many conform to Parker's principles.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 27-Aug-2021

I wish I could give you a detailed breakdown, after my recent visit, of the Cabernet clones planted at Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain, and the soils underneath it, and the fermentation and barrel regimens.

Maybe it's worth knowing that stuff. Smith-Madrone consistently makes some of my favorite Cabernets from Napa Valley: they're balanced, first of all, even during Robert Parker's peak years, about which Stu Smith says: "We wandered the desert for 40 years because we wouldn't bend to the Parker style."

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Beyond that, in good years they have an aromatic complexity and intensity that you don't experience often from Napa Cab. Maybe it's the Spring Mountain terroir and the winemaking philosophy: "The day you pick the grapes, there's an inherent quality in the grapes that can't go anywhere but down," Stu Smith says. "Our job is to get the vintage into the glass."

We sampled three Cab vintages during my visit and I couldn't keep my nose out of the 2018 Smith-Madrone Cabernet; it is so pretty, with fresh herbs and flowers and fruit, that it's like walking through a garden.

It takes a gruff man, and his mild-mannered older brother, to make a pretty Cabernet, and to do it consistently for nearly 50 years. In Napa Valley, Stu Smith is as famous for being irascible as for his wines, because good wines are a dime a dozen there (well, $1500 a dozen, but you get the idea) but people willing to take political stands of any kind, especially unpopular ones, are rare.

Stu Smith never avoids controversy and sometimes courts it. For about a year he ran a blog called "Biodynamics is a Hoax". He is a Republican in a Democratic county – let's get that out of the way – but he's not your Southern grandpa's Republican. He believes that systemic racism is a problem the US must confront and that we need to welcome more immigrants. He can't stand Donald Trump, who he says has made his Republican party unrecognizable.

Smith's biggest political issue historically is property rights. He fights battles on the editorial pages of the Napa Valley Register over measures that limit how people can use their land without compensating them; he is usually one of the loudest voices against countywide environmental ballot propositions. I'll be honest, I like Stu but I never agreed with him on any aspect of that issue until last year, when he fought with the county to go up to his property to defend it from the Glass Fire. Now he is beating the drum for thinning forests for fire protection, and that is hard to argue with.

One thing I like most about Stu Smith is that we can have a four-hour lunch and disagree about most everything over several bottles of wine, and that's OK. His older brother Charlie is a conciliator (except for that time when he flew to Japan to beat its national champion in croquet) but Stu is a debater; I have had many conversations with him and none have been short.

The reason for Riesling 

Before we had lunch, Smith gave me a tour of the 165-acre property, so you'd think I would have gleaned the wine details. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot go into the Cab. I also learned they have a surprising amount of Riesling planted; in 2017 they made more Riesling than Cabernet. I like Smith-Madrone Riesling; put it together with Trefethen's and Stony Hill's and you can make an argument for Napa Valley as Riesling country.

"I think it's great that we have one of the few places in the world where Riesling and Cabernet are grown side-by-side," Charlie Smith said. Stu pointed out that Riesling had a long history in Napa before them, and it was one of the first varieties they planted in 1972. Smith-Madrone's version is refreshing with good minerality and a hint of alpine herbs.

"Charlie and I once tried adding Riesling to Chardonnay, to give a little zing to the Chardonnay," Stu Smith said. "It didn't work. We added less and less and we got down to 1 percent and it still tasted like Riesling. That just emphasized why we like Riesling. It's pure. There's no blending, no French oak, no battonage. No other wine can be treated like that and come out wonderful."

But most of my tour of the property was of trees. Stu Smith takes great personal interest in the trees on his property, even if he will defend his property rights to the death. He created a conservation easement on the property with Save the Redwoods to protect some redwoods as tall as 60 meters that are estimated to be more than 1000 years old. But he knows and likes the other trees too; he was mournful when we came upon a black oak that had fallen victim to oak root fungus.

"God, what a great tree this was," he said, before pointing out an area where he cut down trees to form a meadow so that the wildlife on his property would have some grasses to eat.

"People have a visceral reaction to forests, but they don't want to listen," he said. "An unmanaged forest is a disaster waiting to happen." He pointed out that native Americans did controlled burns, in part to create meadows like the one he made to feed animals they could hunt. "We talk about deforestation, but what we've been doing for the last 120 years is aforestation. The forests are getting deeper and deeper."

I learned something about tree resistance to fires from this tour. Fire spread through their property last year; he spent several nights fighting it with his family, a harrowing experience he recounted to me afterward.

Eleven months later, many trees are burned and are dead where they stand. The Smiths have been plugging away at removing them and have also installed hydrants for the next fire.

But the redwoods are noticeably coming back; there is fresh green growth up the sides of many of them, even when they are blackened, have lost all of their top branches, and are surrounded by dead trees of other species. There's clearly a reason redwoods live more than a thousand years.

Smith-Madrone has lasted 49 years, not bad for a small winery with no tasting room that was unloved by the most influential critic of their time. The Smiths have always charged reasonable prices – even now, their main Cabernet is less than $60. It's estate-grown – the Smiths do not buy any grapes – carefully farmed and is a product of its vintage, and I would (and do) choose it over many Napa Cabs that cost five times as much. The Riesling is less than $35, making it another of the best values in Napa Valley.

It's a shame that each bottle doesn't come with a four-hour argument with Stu Smith, but you can make that happen – just ask him if he's farming biodynamically.

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