Smith-Madrone is quintessentially Old School California. If you asked me for an authentic wine tasting experience, I would be remiss to not include them on any itinerary. They're the Deans of Old School.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, it's a long, twisty drive from either Santa Rosa or St. Helena to reach Smith-Madrone. Their low-key property is hidden between fancier neighbors like Pride Mountain, Barnett, and Schweiger. Walk around the property and you'll find magnificent views clear across Napa Valley.
Brothers Charlie and Stuart Smith, both pushing 70 years old, are a delightful anachronism. Their winemaking philosophy, not to mention the facilities, remains largely unchanged since the first vintage of 1977. The vineyards are dry farmed, which encourages terroir in the wine through the grapevine's struggle to find water and nutrients. Smith-Madrone is the definition of a small family operation: Stu manages the vineyard, Charlie makes the wine, and Stu's son Sam is assistant winemaker, the next generation to carry forward the legacy.
When you arrive for your appointment, you'll meet one of the brothers themselves in the old barn. Stu is a storyteller and humorist who'll keep you entertained for hours. The first time I met him, we bashed Australian wines for a good hour. Charlie is a bit more stoic, serious about his wine. Tastings are held in the shadows of the towering barrel stacks. There are no seats. There are no tasting notes. There is no paired charcuterie plate. What you will get is the incredibly priceless time with a Napa winemaking legend and samples of their three (four if you're lucky) wines.
Smith-Madrone only produces Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth wine is a premium Cabernet called Cook's Flat Reserve which eschews the extreme boldness of other Napa "Cult Cabs". Each of their wines fascinate me not just because they are good, but because they are approachable while young and supremely age-worthy.
And their Cabernet, at around $50 a bottle, is a steal. The most recent release, the 2014 vintage, has aromas of pipe tobacco, unripe black plum, blackberry, and exceptionally integrated oak. When you sip it, a rush of juiciness washes over your palate and the silky texture falls effortlessly down the hatch. The medium strength tannins cling to the insides of your cheeks to extend the long dark cocoa finish.
Not only is the Cab delicious upon release, but it can age for 30+ years. At Smith-Madrone's 2017 harvest party*, they opened bottles of the 1992, 1988, and 1979 vintages. I generally dislike very old wines because most fall out of balance, but these wines were impeccable.
Smith-Madrone's Riesling is one of my all-time favorite white wines. Period. It has all the mouthwatering acidity and crisp fruit of American Rieslings, but also the rare Petrol fume character that punctuates superlative Alsatian or German Riesling. Smith-Madrone's version marries all that with complexity and elegance.
If you're too hip for Chardonnay, the vinous target of all "mom jokes," you should rethink your position. The Smith Brothers craft an awesome Chardonnay. The new release, vintage 2015, is perfectly balanced with lush lemon, apple, and pear fruits, smooth body, and a precise amount of new oak. A whopping amount of acidity ensures this wine never even tip-toes near dullness, and the finish is as elegant as they come. This Chardonnay isn't your mom's Tuesday night crutch.
Whenever visiting Sonoma or Napa, you need to careen into the mountains for Smith-Madrone. You'll end your trip feeling like you've stumbled onto the best secret of your life.
Open by appointment, 11:00 or 2:00 M, W, F, & Sat only.
*Incidentally, the October 2017 Harvest Party I attended took place the day before the Napa-Sonoma wildfires started. Smith-Madrone was in serious danger, but luckily survived the fires unscathed.
My stop at Vigilance Winery in the Red Hills wasn’t planned. In fact, it was the result of a tragic accident on my initial visit to Lake County. Descending Highway 29 from Mount Saint Helena, which separates Napa and Lake Counties, a nasty motorcycle accident logjam forced me to miss my first tasting and threw off my schedule for the day. Looking to use my leftover time efficiently, I stopped into Vigilance’s hospitality center, conveniently located on the way to my next appointment. I’m glad I did, because Vigilance quickly became my favorite Lake County winery. The variety of wines produced, their excellent quality, remarkable value, and the magnificent setting far exceeded my expectations.
Winemaker Joy Merrilees, whose cheerful presence fittingly matches her name, guided me through the multiple brands and wines - 50 in total - produced here. Vigilance is one of six brands under the Shannon Ridge family of wines and is crafted solely from their Red Hills AVA vineyard. The “Vigilance” moniker is inspired by the dogs which watch over the 700-strong herd of sheep who graze the vineyards. Shannon’s massive sheep operation is a natural means of pest control and fertilization, just one of their sustainable farming practices. This Lower Lake location serves as the only hospitality center for the portfolio, including the brands Shannon Ridge, High Valley, and Buck Shack, which you can conveniently taste in one spot. The common characteristic across the multiple brands was a noticeably balanced texture and dusty tannins among the red wines.
Among my favorite wines, the 2016 Vigilance Sauvignon Blanc displayed medium weight, a silky finish, ripe peach, lemon, chalky mineral and faint cut grass aromas. While Lake County gets most of its public recognition from bold red wines, Vigilance has been doing lots of experimentation with Sauvignon Blanc. Merrilees told me she sees a big potential for high quality Sauvignon Blanc in Lake County, and this wine proves her right.
Lake County’s signature red variety, Petite Sirah, is crafted with elegance here. It is frequently overlooked as a single varietal wine and is instead used as a workhorse blending grape, found in popular red wines like The Prisoner. When bottled by itself, Petite Sirah’s dark fruit and chewy tannins can be oversimplified and overpowering. But skilled winemakers who understand the grape can create a wine as beautifully balanced and complex as Cabernet. Merrilees has done that here with the 2014 High Valley Petite Sirah. Copious dusty tannins, coffee, chaparral, blackberry, dark cherry, and a long finish punctuate this superb wine.
As for Cabernet, Shannon Ridge does that capably, too. The 2014 Shannon Reserve Home Ranch Cabernet is produced from half Red Hills AVA fruit and half High Valley AVA fruit. White pepper, bell pepper, caramel, ripe cassis, high tannin, full body, and a rich mid-palate make this a very compelling, textural wine.
The 2013 High Valley Barbera was another standout. With very aromatic ripe red fruit, the fresh acidity and hefty, yet balanced tannins, make this is a stunningly structured example of California Barbera. This powerful Piemontese grape is a rarity, with only around 5,000 acres planted in the state. In comparison, there are over 90,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Wherever you can find Barbera produced domestically, it’s worth a try, and this was my favorite wine of the day.
Beyond the wines themselves, Vigilance offers an alluring backdrop. This southern area of Lake County is defined by the strikingly rusty volcanic clay soils, which are on full display as Vigilance’s vineyard tumbles down to the southern shore of Clear Lake. The unembellished tasting house offers plenty of opportunity to enjoy the view while you sip wine on the wooden deck. Or enjoy the paved picnic area located at the edge of the vineyard, complete with a bocce ball court. I have three personal criteria for great wine travel experiences: exceptional natural vistas, high quality wines, and personable hospitality. Vigilance Winery nails all three at a price point that would cost over double in Napa.
Find them at https://www.vigilancewinery.com/
Open for tasting seasonally, 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM Friday through Sunday