Tradition on Spring Mountain – The Wines of Smith-Madrone
This past July, I was lucky enough to visit a few winemaking areas in California. My trip stretched from Table Mountain in Santa Cruz to vineyards hidden in the trees of Mount Veeder. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways – I had never visited the California wine country, having never made it out of San Francisco when visiting the area. Though it was my first time into the vineyards of California, I have been to vineyards throughout Spain and France. And while the iconic regions of Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja and the Ribera del Duero left an indelible impression on me, I felt completely connected to the vineyards of California. Perhaps it was the walk from Sky Vineyards to Mayacamas Winery on Mount Veeder. Or maybe it feeling the dirt of Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma passing through my fingers. Maybe it was these and countless other encounters with the vines, wine makers and vineyards that has me thinking that I might focus my attention on the wines of California for awhile.
I’ve certainly been drinking more California wine since my trip, both in an effort to understand the differences in styles produced throughout the countless viticultural areas and the rich history that the Golden State has to offer consumers and wine inspirers alike. And one quiet, secluded mountain left a lasting impression on my notes and wine psyche as I visited winemakers throughout the North Coast – Spring Mountain.
Part of the eastern flank of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, the Spring Mountain District is located to the south of Diamond Mountain and slightly to the north and west of Mount Veeder. In terms of production, the amount of wine coming out of Spring Mountain is a drop in the California bucket with only roughly 2,000 acres planted to vine. When you drive up the mountain along Spring Mountain Road, it becomes apparent why there are so few vines planted as much of the mountain is covered in woodland and grasses. If it wasn’t for the signs along the road indicating the location of the mountain’s wineries, it would be easy to miss the vineyards entirely.
In terms of climate, it gets very warm (on summer days it can reach into the 90s), but like many of the mountain vineyards in Napa, the temperature can drop into the 50s at night – even during the warmer summer months. This drastic swing in temperatures is one of the factors that make it possible for wineries such as Togni, Pride, Spring Mountain Vineyards and others to produce richly textured and fairly opulent wines, while maintaining a level of restraint and freshness to the fruit that is the hallmark of high elevation winemaking.
Another traditional estate located on Spring Mountain is Smith-Madrone. Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, Smith-Madrone has been crafting Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling atop Spring Mountain in the same fashion for decades. Though they have been at it for over 40 years, Smith-Madrone has an annual production of roughly 4,000 cases. Like their neighbors on Spring Mountain, the Smith brothers farm the vineyards at high elevation on slopes that can be dizzyingly steep. Though their output is miniscule by California standards, the quality of their wines speaks volumes.
I must admit, I didn’t know much about the wines from Smith-Madrone before I received an email from their PR folks asking if I wanted to samples their wines. I had heard of the winery, but never had the opportunity to try the wines. Within a few weeks, however, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Chardonnay found their way to my doorstep.* Though I did not have the chance to visit the winery while I was in California, the timing of receiving their samples was perfect as I sampled them upon my return.
If you know what I look for in win then you know that I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the wines I drink at the dinner table. The greatest wines, in my humble opinion, are those that preserve and express their sense of place. And for too many wines coming out of California (and just about every other major wine region in the world), there are too many examples of wines that taste as if they could have produced anywhere: devoid of character, depth and individual personality. Thankfully, the Chardonnay and Cabernet from Smith-Madrone are not only spot-on examples of what can produced with mountain fruit, but the wines are also exemplify everything that is right about winemaking in California.
Though they are clearly different wines, both bottles share a common thread: ripe, but restrained fruit with bright acidity and a depth of flavors that slowly unfold the longer the bottle remains open. The ’09 Chardonnay, barrel fermented and aged in French oak for 9 months, expressed clean, ripe fruit but was reserved in doing so. The affects of the cool vintage was apparent as the acidity was bright and gave the wine a welcomed snappiness that is often lost on too many full-malolactic, buttery Chardonnays comings out of California. As for the Cabernet, the 2006 is both elegant and powerful. A wine with focused and pure mountain fruit, the dry-farmed Cabernet has a structure that is firm but giving as the tannins and fruit open up after a little while in the glass. Like the Chardonnay, the Cabernet has very bright acidity that keeps the wine fresh. Though delicious in its youth, I can see the Cabernet lasting quite awhile in the cellar which will reward those with patience as the secondary characteristics of cocoa, black pepper and spice are buried in the wine now, but will come to the fore over time.
I do not give out scores, grades, stars or smiley faces, but I do like to write about wines that I feel are important enough for my readers and friends to drink. The wines from Smith-Madrone qualify as they are important not only because they represent value in their categories (Chardonnay $35, Cabernet $45), but they embody what has been lost by a number of California winemakers and their mailing list fans – wines that represent a California winemaking tradition that is rooted in the vineyard, not one that is the product of manipulation in the winery. Though it seems that an increasing number of winemakers have begun to rediscover the potential of the various terroirs in California, wineries such as Smith-Madrone have realized this potential for decades. And as a lover of California wines, I can only hope they continue to build upon this tradition for years to come.
4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, California 94574
*These wines were sent to me as samples. I did not pay for these samples. I made no promises to Smith-Madrone or their publicist that I would write about these wines, no matter how I felt about them. My opinions above are not based on the fact that these wines were given to me, they are based on my opinion that they were delicious in the glass.