Stu Smith Is What You Might Call A Wine Artist

I always picture winemakers like they're portrayed in TV ads or on labels: walking amid the vines, looking pensive, touching the grapes. I can't picture Stu Smith doing anything so passive. The co-vineyard manager and winemaker for Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa would more likely philosophize with his grapes, cajoling them to produce better wine. The bearded Smith talks through a thick mustache, and over two lunches I had with him in NYC in the past two years — one at the NoMad and one at Resto — the California winemaking lifer has proven himself more opinionated than a Sunday morning political talk show guest.

Only the subject for Smith isn't what's happening Inside The Beltway, but in the vineyards. And clearly, this is a man of conviction. He and his brother Charles have been producing single-estate wines from a Napa mountainside since the early 1970s, and as the region has grown up around them, they've resisted any urge to go commercial, instead keeping the grapes and the wines at the center of their attention even as celebrity winemakers and celebrities-turned-winemakers popped up around them.

To wit, Smith's visits to New York are part business/part pleasure. At The NoMad last year, we drank Smith-Madrone's excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, pairing it with courses on the then-new restaurant's menu. More recently, I had suggested he meet me at the Belgian-themed Resto, and I walked in to find Smith enjoying a craft beer. That tells you a lot about the guy, probably more than an interview could. But combing through the transcripst of our two lengthy chats, I came across this passage, where Smith walks through his beliefs in a way that I think conveys what goes into Smith-Madrone's oft-praised wines. Here it is in Smith's own words:

I've said for years that wine quality has four basic parameters.

One is that the Cabernet should smell like Cabernet. If it's Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, it should smell like those varietals.

Two: wine should be hedonistic. It should give pleasure. We shouldn't pour a glass of wine and go, "Oh boy, that will be really good in about 50 years." Now that doesn't mean that we have to concede all aging. It's just that there was a period of time, which is now gone, because we're talking about back in the '70s and '80s, where some of these red wines from California were so tannic that by the time the tannin had worn off everything else had worn off too.

So it really violated the other thing, which is complexity and balance, which go hand in hand. Balance is a whole bunch of things that are in small quantities. And if you have one thing that dominates like tannin, oak, alcohol or sugar, then by definition the wine is singular and no longer as interesting. You know, wine should be layered and it should have good texture and long mouth-feel.

And then the fourth parameter is that premium North Coast wines — wines that people drink because of their quality — need to have what the French call "terroir," what we think of as an ephemeral concept of art. It should be unique. Smith Madrone Cabernet has to be different than somebody else's Cabernet. And it should give pleasure. It should be complex, it should be balanced, it should be layered, but it should also be unique like a piece of art.

We did our Cook's Flat Reserve because we were looking at these very high-end cult wines. And we don't like them. They're a great deal of money and they are wines that are over the top. And they don't have complexity and balance and elegance, they are just a whole bunch of fruit coming at you and they are wines of extremes. And once you hone in on them, they're relatively simple wines. Now I'm being a little heretic here, but frankly that's where you look at what Europe has given us, and Europe has given us balance and complexity and elegance. How do you define elegance? You know it when you taste it.

Now is Chateau Lafitte or Mouton or Romanée Conti — are these [European] wines that are over the top? No. The reason California went over the top is because they could. It differentiated them from everybody else, and everyone needs their little place in the sun and that's what California did. They did something that nobody else could do. The issue is that it takes more restraint and more (frankly) balls to do it... just because you can do it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

But there's a big movement coming back. My brother and I are artisan winemakers. we believe that if you make wine for your palate, and you trust your palate, there will be a whole lot of people out there that agree with you.