Under the Madrone tree…


One scorching hot Saturday, I was invited to take a Napa mountain adventure, up past St. Helena, past Spring Mountain’s Falcon Crest set, to Smith-Madrone Winery high atop Spring Mountain road.  As I drove, and drove, and drove, and worried that my car was overheating (or just plain flipping out in protest) as I climbed the hill, Shana pulled up behind me to ask where the heck we were.

We arrived, after a couple of wrong turns and iPhone reception-less, at Smith-Madrone Winery, high atop Spring Mountain.  Smith-Madrone was founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, the enologist, and is run by Stuart and Charles Smith, the winemaker.  All of the wine is made from estate fruit, which is planted between 1300 and 2000 feet.  The mountain soil is on steep hillsides, on the highest point in the Spring Mountain AVA, with different exposures for each varietal. this interesting geography and (hrmm what is the science of exposure called anyway?) creates some distinctly delicious wines and they treated us to a lovely tour and tasting on the property.

The property was 100% dry farmed until they had to replant, at which point they irrigated to make sure the new vines too hold.  Up here on Spring Mountain, it’s unusual to have chardonnay, so it was nice to find people doing it their own way.  Smith-Madrone is not organically farmed, but they strive to be as sustainable as possible while still being successful.  The land on this estate has been farmed for somewhere around 500 years, so clearly someone is doing it right.  Along with the chardonnay, Smith-Madrone was actually the first California winery to be awarded a European award for their Riesling.  This is pretty big stuff considering they were up against some of the German big boys.

After a dusty tour of the 200 acre estate vineyard, including the big Madrone tree, we came back down to the winery to taste.33

Stuart Smith

2007 Chardonnay – the first wine we had was full of scents of vanilla and sandlewood.  The flavors were quite citrusy, with lemon curd and meyer lemon.  For a French Oak aged Chard, this was still crisp and refreshing with vanilla bean and green apple flavors that I really enjoyed.  I also had a touch of Asian pear and ginger ale.  I was really surprised I liked this so much, since I prefer an unoaked chard, but I give this a STRONG BUY at $30 for it’s unique sense of place and wonderful flavors.

2008 Chardonnay – This new release had tons of vanilla and custard, followed by egg nog.  Not just the nutmeg, but the eggs and the nog!  I tasted ginger spiced pears, and while this was interesting I wasn’t thrilled.  $30

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon – Overwhelming aromas and flavors of olives, wood, and dried cherries, figs and chocolate.  Quite tannic and woody.  I didn’t like this one as much because it represents what I don’t enjoy in cab and was too funky for my taste.  $45

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon -Coffee, chocolate, tobacco.  This was soft and round with bright blackberry.  BUY this for a nice steak.

2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (pre-release) – I loved this wine.  Even though it was a baby, it had green pepper, black peppercorn, lots of baking spice and black cherry, and blackberry juice.  STRONG BUY at $45

A rare treat was a 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon.  We actually didn’t know it was a 79 until after it was poured, and I never would have guessed that it was as old as it was.  This wine still had all of its color and most of its fruit, and had aromas of orange rind, tasted of spice and earth with candied orange slices, with amazing balance and acidity.  Please go out and SPLURGE on this wine for a special occasion.  you will no be disappointed (if you can find it!)

Next up we tried the 2008 Riesling.  this is an off dry example with grapefruit and spice on the nose, and just a touch of sweetness that would be perfect with Thai or Indian foods.  For your homemade curry, BUY this for $27.

Stuart and Charles were welcoming characters in a mosaic of a wine quilt, and these two are why I love wine.  It’s the story, and how you get there that makes all the different.  Anyone can make 100,000 cases in a warehouse.  It take soul to make 1000 cases by hand on a mountain top.

These grapes were safe from bloggers on this day…but I will see you in 7 years!

Many thanks to Russ Beebe for arranging this, and Smith-Madrone Winery for the wine and tour!


Giving them the Finger

The Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York, was not one that I expected to be drawn to.  I had always had that joke in my head that the Finger Lakes were low quality, high sugar, wines for the masses.  Happily, I can report that I was wrong.

Recently, I was invited to participate in TasteNY, where several bloggers around the country each were offered 12 Rieslings from the Finger Lakes to taste and share.  These were offered as no strings attached samples, and we were told that we could blog and tweet about if we wanted to, but the real goal was to get the word out that these wines existed and were an exciting region to explore.

Being from California, and more specifically, the Bay Area, where I have at least 4 wine growing regions nearby, I am somewhat narrowly focused on where my wines come from.  I like to taste things before I buy them, and it’s difficult tot find a place to taste such variety outside of the comfort of my own couch.  This has caused me to have a love affair with California wines, but also, more negatively, to live with wine blinders on.  For that reason, I always love the opportunity to taste outside of my comfort zone, and to share with friends.
The Finger Lakes area is New York state’s largest wine producing region, but certainly not the only.  There are more than 100 wineries and vineyards, that are clustered around the small Finger Lakes.  The climate that has developed as a result of the lake effect keeps the summer warmth in the soil through the winter, and mitigates the cold northern new York climate.  The grapes are naturally protected from frost, and results in a similar climate to the Alsace region of France and some parts of southern Germany.  The primary vinifera varitals that are produced here are Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc.  There are also some native American varietals produced here, but there are not as well known.

On the day I planned to taste these 12 wines, I invited several wine lovers and wine bloggers over to my house to help me drain the bottles.  The only thing I asked them to bring was food that would pair well with the wines, and we had some tasty tid bits as a result.  We of course had a lot of Thai food, something that is a natural pairing in my mind, as well as some excellent cheeses and other snacks.  The spicy Thai food really paired well with the wines, which ranged from bone dry and minerally, to slightly sweet and refreshing.

the 12 wines we experienced were:

  • Heron Hill Winery 2005 Old Vines Riesling
  • Ravines Wine Cellars 2006 Riesling
  • Red Newt Wine Cellars 2006 Reserve Riesling
  • Sheldrake Point 2006 Reserve Riesling
  • Atwater Vineyards 2007 Dry Riesling
  • Wiemer Vineyards 2007 Dry Riesling
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank 2007 Dry Riesling
  • Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards  2008 Homestead Reserve Riesling
  • Anthony Road Wine Company  2008 Semi-Dry Riesling
  • Billsboro Winery 2008 Dry Riesling
  • Fox Run Vineyards 2008 Riesling
  • Lamoreaux Landing 2008 Red Oak Vineyard Riesling

I did not take copious notes on this occasion, but I will tell you that my personal preference was for the dryer versions of the wine.  Even paired with the sweet spicy curries and sauces, the petrol, grapefruit and mineral characteristics of the bone dry Rieslings were refreshing and a lively alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.  All of these wines are value priced under $20, so they are very affordable as an everyday white that is not the standard Chardonnay or Sav Blanc which is de rigours.

I highly recommend that you go out to your local wine shop and seek out some of these wines.  I know I will!