The pandemic makes some people feel like they’re treading water. Vintner Stuart Smith is one of them.
“The work for the last year has been harder than ever because of the bumps in the road to a smooth operation,” Smith said. “Almost everything that went easily before the pandemic is now difficult. Getting equipment and supplies, getting things repaired, ordering supplies, glass, label, corks, chainsaws — it’s all more difficult.”
The plainspoken Smith is behind our wine of the week winner — the Smith-Madrone, 2017 Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley Riesling, 12.9%, $34. It’s a gorgeous riesling with aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, mineral and grapefruit. It’s intense yet nimble and light on its feet, and it finishes crisp. It’s striking.
Other tasty whites include runner-up Naidu, 2020 Kick Ranch Vineyard, Fountaingrove District Viognier, 13.9%, $35; Anaba, 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, 14.2%, $40; Rodney Strong Vineyards, 2019 Charlotte’s Home, Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc, 13.5%, $17, and Rombauer Vineyards, 2020 Napa Valley and Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc, 14.2%, $25.
As for the Smith-Madrone riesling, Smith said he prides himself in his hands-off winemaking.
“The amazing thing about riesling is that it’s the only varietal where you get the purest expression of the grape in a great wine,” he said. “If there’s ever such a thing as terroir, this is the wine. And there’s no other varietal that’s at its best with this absolute minimalist intervention. Here, the grapes speak loudest, and it’s truly a case of the winemaker shepherding the wine and its flavor.”
What’s surprising about riesling, Smith said, is that the vast majority of Americans don’t know what a compelling grape it is.
“They don’t understand that there’s such a thing as a dry-style riesling, and I’ll be bold to say our 2017 vintage represents a great wine at a very affordable price,” he said. “Riesling is also one of the most versatile wines. It’s the most versatile varietal when matching food and wine together.
“The other interesting thing about riesling is that it ages every bit as well, if not better than, the best cabernets at half the price.”
Smith, 72, never knew his calling would be to bottle grapes. He grew up in Santa Monica and earned a degree in economics from UC Berkeley in 1970. But he later was fascinated by the art of fermentation and studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis before he founded St. Helena’s Smith-Madrone in 1971.
What gives the Smith-Madrone riesling the edge, Smith said, is that it’s mountain-grown.
“I think what sets our riesling apart from others is our steep mountain vineyard, our volcanic soil and our cool mountain climate on Spring Mountain,” he said. “What also is inextricably there is my brother Charlie (Smith), my son Sam (Smith) and my commitment to the varietal. We love this varietal. We think it’s one of the greatest varietals in the world, and as such we treat it with the respect that we think it is due. And that respect comes out in the quality of our wine.”
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-479-3880.
Wine, The Press Democrat
Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.