My Interview with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone

My Interview with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone

It’s a wine writing cliché to compare the style of a wine to the character of the person who made it. But in the case of Smith-Madrone, it’s true. Like his wines, winemaker Stu Smith is a Northern California original — direct, approachable, down-to-earth, and, yes, a real straight-shooter. (This is a much more interesting photo than the usual staged “winemaker lovingly cradling a bunch of grapes shot” don’t you think?) Here are some highlights from our recent conversation, after I had a chance to taste some of their recent releases.

Q. How would you compare your 2008 Riesling to your other Rieslings?

A. That’s like asking me which kid I like the best! It’s hard for me to say at  this early age, it really takes three to four years before we get a real sense of the vintage. Our Rieslings will age 15 to 20 years – that’s assuming a good vintage and good storage of course. They improve and pay back your patience.

Q. How would you define the style of your Rieslings in general?

A. Well, I like to say that nobody makes a better Smith-Madrone Riesling than we do! I think of our wines as a 60-40 split between Alsatian and German.  I think the Germans finish a little too sweet, and the Alsatians finish a little too dry and specific. We like a softer finish – that’s kind of the way I’ve backed into our style. Our Riesling is fermented and aged in stainless steel, never in wood. There’s no malolactic fermentation, no aging sur lees, which means you’re getting the pure essence of the grape itself.

Q. How have you seen consumers’ attitude toward Riesling change over the years?

A. Frankly, I think my entire adult life I’ve felt like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill [trying to get people interested in Riesling.]What changed was young people! They’ve come to Riesling with fresh eyes and without prejudice. In the past there were so many nasty Rieslings made in America, it has taken a long time to get rid of the generation who only knew those wines. Now the younger generation has come along and they’re not prejudiced at all about Riesling.

Q. What other Rieslings do you like – and what do you like to pair with Riesling?

A. Trefethen makes a nice one. Eroica, that’s a pretty doggone good one, too. There are a couple of good wines that come out of the Finger Lakes. I think Riesling goes well with almost everything, although I do draw the line at beef. I have too many reds to drink with cow. Any fish, especially real saltwater fish and true stream fish. Asian fusion food and Indian food too.

Q. What are some of the biggest winemaking challenges you face at Smith-Madrone and on Spring Mountain in general?

A. Farming on the mountain, that’s just hard. We have 38 acres. Down on the valley floor, you could harvest that in a day. Up in the mountains, that takes 2-3 days, then another day or two fixing the equipment because of the rocks. [The rocks and rocky soil are tough on farm equipment.] When you’re in the mountains, you are your own suppliers of everything that people take for granted, like water. We have our own pumps and pipes. It’s a great deal of work.

Q. What do you think makes Spring Mountain wines so special?

It’s really hard to say what makes the difference. [Here we break so that he can lovingly chastise his Springer spaniel Curly for stealing something from his daughter’s room.] Upland soil is very different from soil on the valley floor. It’s less fertile, it’s better drained, and it’s rockier. The weather is different, it’s cooler. The berries are smaller, there are fewer grapes, there’s a greater leaf to cluster ratio, and the vines do struggle just to grow.

Q. I really loved the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. How would you define the style of your Cabernet Sauvignon? It seems like you have a more restrained style than a lot of other California Cabernet Sauvignons.

I like the 2004. It’s unfined, unfiltered and done with American oak.  I believe there are four hallmarks of wine quality. The first obligation of wine is to give pleasure. After that, wine should have varietal character. [Meaning it should represent the typical qualities of the variety or varieties it’s made from.] Third, a wine should have balance. The fourth one, which is so hard to get hold of, that’s what Charlie [brother and winemaking partner Charlie Smith] and I call “sense of place.” There should be something that’s interesting and different about the wine. That’s what we call a sense of place. It’s also our goal get the vintage into the glass. Whatever that vintage is imparting, we want that in the glass.

There are two styles of California Cabernet Sauvignon I don’t like: first is the low acid style. They’re impossible to drink. I simply can’t drink them. The second is what I call the high maturity, Parker wine. Those wines can be very seductive. But once you hone in on the singularity of the wine, you realize there’s no complexity, there’s just a prune or raisin flavor. Once you home in on that, that’s all you can taste.

I think there’s more bad wine being made today that ever before in California. There’s a lack of education for some of these winemakers who are self-taught. They don’t understand the basics of winemaking, the importance of clarity and consistency.

But I do think what goes on here on Spring Mountain is a wonderful thing. Many, if not most, of us are small and family-operated. People are very passionate about what they do. It takes a certain kind of person who would want to go into the mountains and put up with the heartache and the hard work that we do. But there’s nothing that’s quite as much fun.

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