Happy new year!
Sometimes wine is work. Sometimes it’s fun. When the two overlap, it’s always a joy. But when it’s pure fun, the experience can be truly transcendent.
That’s what it felt like when I visited the Smith-Madrone winery on Napa’s Spring Mountain in late December.
That’s Stu Smith, one of the founders, in the image above, with his new dog Tucker (both are sweethearts).
That’s a view of the northern tip of the Napa Valley as seen from Stu and his brother Charles’ property. They first planted grapes their in 1972. Today, their wines are one of California’s top wines. Think of that! 1972! Think how the world was different then and how different our perceptions of wine.
I was actually in wine country for an Italian client of mine, believe it or not (that’s another story for another time).
But I was long overdue to visit one of my childhood friends. And she happens to be married to Stu. When they learned I’d be in the “neighborhood,” they invited me over for delicious lasagne and Hanukkah candles. Julie Ann, who’s just a few years older than me, was my babysitter when we were children. Back then, we lived just a block away from each other in La Jolla where we grew up. Our parents were close friends.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the wines and I was stoked to get to spend some extended time with them when I worked on the Slow Wine Guide.
When you taste these expressions of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon (“86.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 7.5% Cabernet Franc” in 2018, to give you an idea), the first words that come to mind are clarity of fruit, focus, balance, and that unbearable lightness of power that the Spring Mountain District and winemakers like Stu and his brother seem to capture more nimbly than farms and winemakers in other subzones of California wine country.
During our vineyard tour, we talked about training methods (he likes cordon for his Cabernet Franc), about row orientation (he’s done some interesting things with contour vs. non-contour planting), and fire prevention.
Stu and his brother have managed to avoid the worst of recent megafires thanks to their work to protect their farm. But it’s a constant struggle, he told me. And the worst part, he said, is their literally Herculean efforts “do nothing to improve the wine,” he said. They just keep the grapes and the people safe.
After dinner, I said to Julie Ann, “wow, that was like getting to have dinner with Bruce Springsteen!” It’s not every day that you are invited to sit at the table of one of the winemakers you admire most.
But then again, I had to remind myself, I’m just a lucky son of a… well… gun, who happened to grow up on the same block as Julie Ann.
It was a night I’ll never forget. And man, the lasagne and the Cabernet Sauvignon… off the charts good. Tasting the Riesling with Stu and his brother the next morning at the winery was one of the most magical experiences of my life in wine. It was just pure fun.