By Glen Martin | Nov 09, 2020
St. Helena, California
Stu Smith and his family are anomalies in the Napa Valley premium wine business. They're not a multinational corporation. Or cinema celebrities. Or mega-rich retired lawyers. And they don't churn out tens of thousands of cases of wine made from grapes purchased hither and yon.
On the contrary: Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery produces only 5,000 cases of ultra-premium wine a year. Further, all of it is estate-bottled -- meaning Stu, his brother, Charlie, and his son, Sam, grow all of the grapes for their wines on their 38-acre vineyard located on the steep slopes of Spring Mountain, a heavily wooded promontory on the west side of the Napa Valley. They prune the vines, cultivate the vine rows, crush and press the fruit, and ferment, age, and bottle the wine themselves.
"We do it all," says Smith. "And we've been doing it since 1971. Given that wine is a hyper-competitive industry, we figure we must be doing something right."
That's an accurate assessment if the products are any indication. Smith-Madrone is known for elegant, complex wines that express the unique terroir of the Spring Mountain viticultural area. As Smith says, the wine business is cutthroat as any -- but the family has held its own in marketing and sales as well as product quality. "We do a lot of D2C, we ship to 21 states, and we export to Japan, Germany and Canada," he notes. "Just like in the vineyards and winery, we work at it."
The Smiths harken back to an earlier Napa Valley -- one that is still evoked in lush advertising and breathless PR hype, but has largely disappeared. When Stu Smith started out, the Napa Valley wine business was characterized by small, family-owned enterprises, most producing estate-bottled wines. Robert Mondavi was the biggest fish in that small vinous pond. You could still drive up Highway 29, the main route through the valley, without tapping your brakes.
Now it's gridlocked traffic from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, and the wineries have proliferated like mushrooms after an autumn rain. Very few of the newcomers produce only estate-bottled wines, and many buy grapes from around the state, relying on the cachet of their Napa Valley addresses to move their products.
And the owners? "Well, I don't think they prune many vines," Smith says. "I sometimes say that I never went down to Hollywood to act in movies -- so why are they coming up to Napa County to make wine?"
Over the past few years, the Smiths have had to contend with a challenge far more menacing than celebrity competitors: catastrophic wildfire. Flames threatened their wooded estate during the disastrous Tubbs Fire of 2017, which burned more than 5,600 homes in Napa and Sonoma counties and killed 22 people. In 2019, the Kincade Fire burned 120 square miles not far north of the winery, destroying 374 buildings. And the September 2020 Glass Fire swept across Napa and Sonoma counties, scorching woodlands all around the Smith-Madrone property and immolating 1,555 structures, including many palatial homes. Thirty-one wineries were damaged or destroyed by the flames -- and Smith-Madrone was almost one of them.
"The only reason we didn't lose it all is because we had done a lot of work reducing brush and other fuels around vulnerable areas, and we were up here sleeping in our trucks for seven nights fighting the fire when it came up on us," Stu says. "As it was, we lost eight gates, 2,000 feet of water line, and more than a hundred vineyard anchor posts."
Climate change -- which has been associated with the sharply increased incidence of wildfire in the West -- is a topic of considerable discussion in California Wine Country. Much of the concern centers on the possibility of shifting viticultural zones: in a warming world, the Carneros region at the southern terminus of the valley may no longer be able to produce the cool-weather pinot noir and chardonnay that made its fame. The mid-valley, now planted largely to cabernet sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varietals, may have to switch to more heat-tolerant grapes. But Smith isn't worried about any of that at this point.
"Climate change is real, but the aspect of it that concerns us right now is wildfire," he says. "This is about raw survival. Our forests have been mismanaged for so long that they're tinderboxes. We need to streamline regulations so we can reduce the fuels and return our forests to a healthier -- and safer -- state."
Challenges: "To get back to a normal baseline by repairing and rebuilding after the fires, and making and selling wine," says Smith.
Opportunities: A healthier forest. "At this point, they're more in the forest than the winery, vineyards, or marketplace," notes Smith. "The fires have greatly reduced the fuel reservoir in our regional forests, so this is a golden opportunity to begin managing them properly with regular prescriptive fire and thinning."
Needs: "First, to get a solid week of good sleep," muses Smith. "Second, some relief from regulation so we can conduct proper forest management. The irony is that both conservationists and the wine community want it -- but we must somehow find a way to cut the regulatory Gordian knot."