Today’s ‘tree falls in the forest’ enigma, my friends: If one digresses before one begins, is it still a digression?
Because, before I get involved in all this boring ‘old vine’ Smith-Madrone crap, I would like to take a moment out of your busy schedule to discuss hyphenated names. When I was first married, it was fashionable for a strong-willed, newly-wedded woman to declare both the sanctity of her union and the power of her own identity by hyphenating her ‘maiden’ name with that of her husband. Not my wife, naturally—I purposely chose someone meek, submissive and entirely dominatable who, incidentally, I would not allow to have friends and constantly compared unfavorably to my late, saintly mother.
On the surface, the hyphenated-name solution seems like a politically correct win/win, but in truth, it winds up being unwieldy, pretentious and perplexing—whose last name comes first and why?—and really, who wants to have to spell their name, letter by letter, to some zit-smeared teenage phone jockey every time you order pizza??
Not only that, but the name that the woman keeps on one side of the dash or the other as an assertion of her ‘non-spousal-ownership’ feminism is probably her father’s family name anyway.
I actually knew a dude who changed his name to a hyphenated version of his last name and his new wife’s last name, just like she did. Five minutes after being impressed with his loyalty, conjugal commitment and selfless pluck, I began to think of him as a wimpy dingledouche. And I still do.
You want a hyphen, my boy, try this: P-Whipped.
My second wife simply kept her own last name, and that seems to be the optimal Band-Aid. For different reasons, our oldest has her last name and our youngest mine. When this causes confusion in school, at the doctor’s office or in social situations and folks ask why they have different last names, I have found that the most satisfactory and expedient response is: ‘None of your fucking business.’
Now, I am not suggesting that Smith and Madrone are married, and even with California’s liberal legislative super-majority, it’s not likely that the definition of matrimony will be expanded, in our lifetime, to included a union between a man and a tree.
Nonetheless, according to Stu Smith, Smith-Madrone vineyard manager, that’s where the winery’s name comes from:
“It sounds better than Smith-Douglas Fir, Smith-Manzanita, Smith-Oak and certainly, better than Smith-Poison Oak—the predominant trees and shrubs on the property in 1972 when my brother Charles and I first began planting. ‘Smith’ is not exactly a grand Mediterranean wine name, and certainly we couldn’t call it just Smith Winery. Smith-Madrone, however, has a nice ring to it—and the madrone is now the most prominently cultivated tree on the property. It fits, too: The madrone tree never stands out alone in the forest; it’s always clustered for shade and protection with others…”
Smith then goes on, somewhat interminably, about madrone taxonomy, distribution and habitat, referring to it by its biological tri-nomial Arbutus menziesii Pursh—but I will not transcribe the lecture here because if anyone is going to bore my readers to suicidal catatonia, it will be me, not Mr. Stuart Smith. Capisce?
We shall turn instead to Stu’s big brother Charles, who refers to himself as a ‘factotum’, which I was terrified might mean ‘somebody with as many boring scientific segues as Stu’, but which apparently means ‘a person having diverse activities or responsibilities’.
This is Charles’s modest way of saying that he is the vintner responsible for the trio of Smith-Madrone wines, all from the brothers’ dry-farmed Spring Mountain estate: Riesling, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The recent releases (2011, 2007 and 2010 respectively) have each taken gold medals in various competitions this year, including The San Francisco International Wine Competition, The Critics Challenge International Wine Competition and The Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition.
Despite such skill with the centrifuge and the cross-flow filter, and despite being a witty, charming and bright fellow (18th century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume is a Smith forefather), Charles is hardly off the hook in the brain-busting banality department: He’s also a world-class croquet player who boasts of having been a co-participant in the longest single game in the history of the World Croquet Federation. *
*How do I know that the Smith brothers will take this column in the spirit of good humor with which it was intended? Because they are members of a group called G.O.N.A.D.S—the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society—an informal group of Napa winemakers founded at around the same time the Smiths released their first riesling.
Wake Up Call
So, among the multifarious minutiae making Smith-Madrone a prize-winner—including vineyard elevation (at 1,300 and 2,000 feet, ranging in steepness up to 35%, these are among Napa’s highest vineyards), low yields (a total of 4000 cases from a 200 acre ranch) and volcanic soils unique to California’s coastal ranges, an indispensable part of the program are the age of the Smith-Madrone vines, which—fair, fat and forty—have truly come into their own.
So there’s no mistake, when you find ‘Old Vines’ on an American wine label—or ‘Vieilles Vignes’ on a French label—there is no legal precedent ensuring that you are getting anything but a kiss and a prayer from the labeler. Both phrases are, like ‘Reserve’, simply marketing tools.
However, certain physiological changes do occur in grape vines as they age, and nearly all equate to a higher-quality end product. After about twenty years, a vine begins to produce fewer grape clusters and smaller berries, but those that form tend to yield more intense sugars, color and concentration of flavors. Another key factor is the plant’s root system: In newer vines where roots are shallow, they are much more susceptible to the ravages of drought and excessive rain. Especially in the former scenario, in coping with water stress, a vine calls in sick to the photosynthesis lab and switches to respiration—a survival technique that burns malic, resulting in grapes lacking in sufficient acidity to produce the correct sweet/sour ratio. In older vines with a deeper root system, water can drain away in a flood or be located in a drought. Note that Smith-Madrone drip-irrigated for the first few years of their vineyard’s life, only switching to the dry-farm (non-irrigated) system after the vines were firmly established.
All of which is not to suggest that old vines always produce better wines—or even smaller yields—and like the cellaring potential of wine itself, of which no catch-all statement can be made, not all vines grow old with grace: Plenty no longer produce a viable harvest when they reach the age of so-called maturity. In fact, when a winemaker insists on the superiority of quality from wines harvested from old vines, you can be certain of only one fact: He has old vines.
Not so for the Brothers Smith, who are not so crass as to spackle their labels with any sort of old-vine phraseology, hyphenated or otherwise—they hold the truth within the bottle to be self-evident.
And it is.
Thus, Those Questions Are Answered And But One Enigma Remains:
‘If a madrone falls in the forest and no one can hear it, will Stu and Charles get off their kiesters and pick it up…?’
Smith-Arbutus Menziesii Pursh (has no particular ring to it, does it, Stu?) Riesling, Spring Mountain, 2011, about $25: As a viticultural area, California has not enjoyed much success with riesling, especially lately—a lot of the attitudes are hold-overs from the pre-chardonnay era, when Napa riesling, though widely available, was not particularly good. Formerly Napa Valley’s most widely planted varietal (five times as much as chardonnay), a lot of it was the wrong clone put in the wrong vineyard. Too much heat and insufficient drainage produces flabby, character-free riesling, and once the bar of wine-drinking sophistication was raised in this country, such rieslings were back-burnered by those few vintners who didn’t rip them out in favor of trendier grapes. Smith-Madrone has hung in there, and it shows: Among the best rieslings produced in the United States, and certainly in California, the complex, inviting, multi-layered depth of flavor is astonishing, with nuances of lemon zest, pear, honeyed apple, apricot and fresh pineapple laced with minerals. At 12.6%, the alcohol is high by riesling standards, but a subliminal amount of residual sugar (0.07%) keeps the wine on track alongside its bracing backbone of acidity. (Incidentally, ‘off-dry’ is another hyphenated label word that has no legal meaning).
Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain, 2010, about $30: 100% fermented in French oak followed by eight months in the barrel, the wine shows a rich golden color that you might otherwise associated with slight oxidation. Not here, that’s for sure: A brilliant nose filled with honeycomb, chamomile, beeswax, apricot and nectarine leads into a balanced body, with malolactic creaminess and a pH of 3.41 on a play date. The mid-palate is luscious with tropical fruit notes as well as Golden Delicious apple and Bosc pear; the finish is studded with vanilla, butterscotch and petrichor.
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, 2007, about $45: Grown at the very top of the mountain and on the steepest slopes, from harvest to Happy Hour, this is not a wine for the faint of heart. Nearly black in color, the nose is extracted and condensed with scents of warm berry cobbler, cassis, cedar, smoke and yes—Smith Brother’s Cherry Cough Drops. It had to be said. The mouthfeel is lovely—silken smooth, with a nice nip of tannin; there are layers of black currant, fresh tobacco, pie spice and a solid earthen core and a long, luxuriant finish. A worthy wine for the cellar, since I would be willing to bet my next court-ordered digression that it isn’t going anywhere bad any time soon.