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St. Helena's Smith-Madrone celebrates 50th anniversary

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  • 3 min to read
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Sam, Stu and Charles Smith

From left, Sam, Stu and Charles Smith of Smith-Madrone.

Smith-Madrone launches a year of 50th anniversary celebrations on May 14. It was on May 14, 1971 that founder Stuart Smith signed the paperwork to close on the purchase of 200 forested acres on top of Spring Mountain outside St. Helena.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Smith-Madrone has dug deep into its cellar and will be re-releasing wines on the 14th of every month through the anniversary year. In May there will be a six-bottle vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon, a horizontal collection of 2013 Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Cook’s Flat and several other unusual wines. The re-released wines are very limited in availability and will appear on a specially designated page on the winery’s website.

The winery will also offer a monthly Zoom tasting and discussion with the winemakers: the first one will be at 4 p.m. June 12. Stu, Charles and Sam Smith will open wines and taste and discuss them with the Zoom attendees.

Another element of the year-long 50th anniversary celebration is a collaboration with Point Reyes-based Cowgirl Creamery. Purchasers of any of the winery’s wines will receive a discount code to use for purchases of Cowgirl Creamery’s artisanal cheeses.

“It was in the fall of 1970 that I first walked the dense forested property that would become Smith-Madrone,” said Stu Smith.

All that remained of the original vineyard planted in the 1880s were small redwood grape stakes and a towering allée of olive trees competing for sunlight with the 100-foot-tall Douglas fir trees.

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Stu and Charles Smith

Stu Smith (left) and his brother Charles in an undated photo from the early 1970s.

Stu's brother, Charles Smith, joined Stu at the winery in 1972. “We knew being in the mountains would differentiate Smith-Madrone from the wineries on the floor of the Napa Valley and we valued and nurtured that difference,” he said. “The success of our Riesling is due altogether to being in the hills at altitude."

When planting the vineyard, the brothers planted the first twenty acres (five acres each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir) on their own roots, which was unusual at the time.

Sam Smith, Stu's son, joined the winery in 2010. “After working harvest around the world, including at Dr. Loosen in Germany, I brought new opinions and expertise to what my father and uncle had been doing,” he said.

All of the winery’s wines are made from the estate vineyards surrounding the winery, originally planted 49 years ago by Stuart and Charles. The vineyards are primarily dry-farmed on steep mountainsides surrounding the winery on top of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley. At elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet, the vineyards extend in steepness up to 35% slopes. With its signature deep red Aiken loam soil, Smith-Madrone is located near the top of the Spring Mountain District appellation.

“The wine industry has seen many changes in the 50 years since we carved Smith-Madrone out of the forested mountain top," Stu Smith said. "Napa Valley wine has evolved from a small provincial business, second in economic importance behind livestock, to an industry of worldwide pre-eminence. While there have been many technological advances in both viticulture and enology, the fundamental of great wine remain the same: climate, soil, site and a sound understanding of science."

The winery has been recognized as a pioneer of mountain grapegrowing and winemaking. Smith-Madrone’s first vintage of Riesling, the 1977, won Best Riesling in the Wine Olympics, an international tasting organized by the food and wine magazine Gault Millau in Paris in 1979. This accolade launched the winery’s identity as a pre-eminent producer of Riesling in the United States.

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Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone vineyard with Mt. St. Helena in the background.

Among many other accolades, Smith-Madrone’s Riesling was named one of the best 20 Rieslings in the world and the only one in North America referenced by British wine writer Stuart Pigott in his 2014 book "The Riesling Story: Best White Wine On Earth."

In 1983, Smith-Madrone was the first American Riesling producer to use only the name Riesling on its labels. No other winery did this for the next 15 years. Stu had an extended battle with the then-BATF to change the label from Johannisberg Riesling to Riesling. He explains, “While White Riesling is legally correct, it is none-the-less both wrong and redundant — when was the last time you had a red Riesling? This is just one example of our commitment to this wonderful and somewhat overlooked varietal.”

Stu Smith was one of the key vintners profiled in James Conaway 2002 book "The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley." In 2018 he was named one of Wine’s Most Inspiring People as a pioneer and champion of hillside grapegrowing by Wine Industry Advisor.

In 2020, Smith-Madrone was chosen by the University of California, Berkeley, to be the only winery offering a virtual wine tasting to the attendees of Homecoming events: Stu was honored as an alumnus of the class of 1970.

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Charles and Stu Smith with Alice Waters

Charles and Stu Smith with Alice Waters celebrating the 40th anniversaries of both Smith-Madrone and Chez Panisse in 2011.

Last fall the winery battled the Glass Fire, which was documented almost daily on the winery’s Instagram page and later by Food & Wine Magazine in a documentary short film. Among other impacts, respecting the enormous damage all over Spring Mountain and the northern Napa Valley, the winery lost telephone service for the next 100-plus days.

Smith-Madrone will be profiled in an episode of the "Behind The Glass" series on SommTV, with the segment airing in June 2021. The winery's current releases are the 2017 Chardonnay, 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2017 Riesling, 2016 Cook’s Flat Reserve and in very limited availability, magnums of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cook’s Flat Reserve.

Smith-Madrone will re-open for tours and tastings by appointment only in June: smithmadrone.com, info@smithmadrone.com.