Feature Article
  Sign In
Subscribe to our newsletter
Bookmark and Share  
print this article    

Feature Article

Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon -- unlikely neighbors on Spring Mountain

Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon...
...unlikely neighbors on Spring Mountain.

Spring Mountain District ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

Spring Mountain winegrower and vintner, Charles Smith

Three and a half decades on the mountain has given Charles Smith a deep understanding of what it takes to grow and produce great wines on these steep slopes.

by Alan Goldfarb
August 4, 2006

Although the Spring Mountain region above St. Helena has been a good site to grow grapes dating to the 19th century, Prohibition in the first half of the 20th century took its toll on the area’s vineyards. When brothers Charles and Stuart Smith decided to buy 200 acres there in 1971, only a few growers remained on the Mountain.

First there was Fred McCrea, who planted grapes on Spring Mountain in 1943 and started his winery, Stony Hill, 10 years later. That same year, School House Vineyard planted Pinot Noir on top of the mountain, where it straddles the Napa and Sonoma County line. Pete Minor had been growing grapes here since ‘66 eventually opening his Ritchie Creek Winery. Two years after that, Fritz Maytag, the scion of the Maytag washing machine company and the same family that produces Maytag blue cheese, planted a vineyard and started York Creek Vineyard. And finally, Yverdon (now Terra Valentine) began operations in ’70, and Jerry Draper was farming a vineyard from which Beaulieu sourced some of his Cabernet for its Georges de Latour Reserve.
Smith-Madrone 2002 Spring Mountain, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Smith-Madrone’s 2002 Spring Mountain Cabernet is now available in the Appellation America online wine store. Buy it here
So, there are but a few who know Spring Mountain’s terroir exigencies as do the Smith brothers and their Smith-Madrone Winery. There aren’t many in the Napa Valley either, who plant their Cabernet grapes next to their Riesling. In fact, there aren’t many that plant Riesling at all. Riesling was once the preferred white grape in the Napa Valley, but there aren’t many plantings remaining. Much of what’s left is on Spring Mountain.

Charles Smith admits that he was influenced by the white wines from Stony Hill, which became his neighbor, and by Draper and his Cabernet that went to BV. So, in ’71 he and his brother borrowed $72,000 to pay for 200 acres and seven years later, Smith-Madrone was born.

The Smiths have 45 acres in Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling and they’ll be planting an acre more of Cab Franc and 2½ acres of Merlot, which will be blended into their Cabernet-based wine; and they will also be putting in another 2 acres of Riesling, which will bring the total of that variety to eight. In all, Smith-Madrone produces 4,000-5,000 cases per year.

I wanted to know more about the Spring Mountain appellation; and I was also curious about why Charles Smith and his brother think that Riesling is a viable variety on the mountain, and if he thinks Riesling will make a comeback.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): Why did you and your brother decide to purchase land on Spring Mountain?

Spring Mountain – Napa Valley winemaker, Charles Smith Charles Smith (CS): I knew Stony Hill’s whites, and Draper was producing top caliber Cabernet. There was a definite feeling that moving into the hills (to plant grapes) was a good thing. Worldwide it’s not too difficult to define that (hillsides) are the place for making top level wines. It seemed like a fairly easy call.

It also turned out that there was water on the property. Contrary to what amateurs think, little grapevines really like water. When they are just a year old, you can’t have struggling little plants. It’s Basic Viticulture 101. I think the books give the wrong idea about that (stressing the vines by providing as little water possible).

AG: How much of an influence did McCrea and Draper have?

CS: Stony Hill is a real model for us. Stony Hill was one of the pioneering wineries in the valley. Their Chardonnay and Riesling were a huge influence; and the fact that there was so much good Cab coming off of Draper’s property. The connection between Draper and Beaulieu was terrific.

AG: How is Spring Mountain different from other areas of the Napa Valley?

CS: Spring Mountain has a great deal in common with Diamond Mountain and Mount Veeder; more so than with the valley floor directly below. We hear and we read about micro-climates, and I’m not entirely clear where the separation is between climate and micro-climate. (But) up in the hills it’s not just a different micro- climate, it’s a different climate. It snows, it’s a lot cooler, and there’s more rain. We have inversion layers where at night it can be warm. We’ve probably got more sunshine, too.

I think hillside wines have a lot of structure and a lot of intensity of fruit. Wines up here can be characterized by a kind of compactness. Parenthetically, a good vintage (up here) is a good vintage in all varieties for us. … You see flavors that are penetrating.

AG: What possessed you to plant Riesling – and continue to plant the variety – when all your neighbors, with the exception of Stony Hill, apparently think that only red grapes do best on the mountain?

CS: Stony Hill, of course, was and is something of an influence. It was our judgment then as it is now, that those four varieties (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling) are the most interesting and important varieties. We had invested to make quality wines, just like anyone else. The Smith-Madrone Vineyard on Spring Mountain

Riesling wasn’t risky in those days. It was widely planted and it was good quality. Pinot Noir was more risky. It was planted for the love of the grape. Leon Adams and Nathan Croman wrote about it. And there was very little planted in the hills. It seemed like an interesting thing to do.

We made it in the old-fashioned, rich, round Burgundy style. It didn’t work for us. It’s a little too warm up here. We were on the same learning curve that everyone else had to go through. Our 1980 (Pinot) was a world-beater but we couldn’t do it again.

The very first wine we made – Riesling (in ’77) – won this huge tasting in Paris. We were on the front page of the International Tribune. It wasn’t difficult to plant, and it didn’t seem viticulturally or oenologically difficult in any way. The tricky part was keeping it (growing).

People who move up into the hills, generally are people who tend to go their own way. With us (Charles and Stuart), we had a running debate for a long time in the mid-80s about whether or not to pull out the Riesling and plant Chardonnay. Stuart Smith Chard was so huge and Riesling was so clearly in decline. So, I thought we should seriously consider abandoning Riesling.

Fortunately I lost. Stuart kept saying, “We won this tasting, it’s easy to sell, people love it.” He said we should keep on making it for collateral reasons. If everyone stopped making it, we (knew) we could do it very, very well. It would make us a little more visible.

We didn’t understand at the time how beautifully these wines age. There would have been no way to find this out if we had abandoned it. It’s a little miracle when you get to taste the old Rieslings. We didn’t see it coming. We didn’t understand we’d want to drink these wines in 12, 15 years.

AG: Do you foresee a time when Riesling will make a comeback in the valley?

CS: It appears to be making a small comeback (now). But what the extent is isn’t clear to me. There does seem to be an increased interest, especially with the under-40 group.

Smith-Madrone-Spring Mountain-Napa Valley Riesling Of all the wines we make, no wine represents terroir evidence as does Riesling. We’ve never fundamentally changed the way we make it. It is directly aligned from vineyard to bottle. We’re not manipulating or fooling with the wine. We don’t have extended skin contact. You crush it, you ferment it, you bottle it. When you taste a vertical of our Riesling, you are tasting the same wines. The differences are in the vintages.

AG: Do you think then that Spring Mountain is the best place in the valley for Riesling?

CS: I wouldn’t have any idea. I don’t know. It’s entirely likely. If I say yes, I’m putting down Trefethen (which makes the varietal) and I don’t want to do that. … There’s so little Riesling around to comment on that. (But) it’s clear that off the valley floor is very good for Riesling.

AG: Why on Spring Mountain?

CS: It’s cooler and the vines have to struggle. We’re also very pleased with the quality of our Cabernet, and it’s quite reasonable to grow Riesling and Cab side-by-side. It’s quite remarkable, and I think we’re showing that it’s entirely possible. It’s unusual, odd and it’s interesting.

AG: What about your Cabernets? You always seem to have lower-than-14 percent alcohol Cabs. How come you pick less ripe and produce lower alcohol percentage wines, when all your colleagues are pushing those numbers in the opposite direction?
(see Alan Goldfarb's review of the

Print this article  |  Email this article  |  More about Spring Mountain District ~ Napa Valley  |  More from Alan Goldfarb

Featured Wines


Reader Feedback

To post your comments on this story,
click here

Most Popular