Straight-Talk with Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith

A note from the editor: the last half of February, we’re dedicating our articles to winemaker spotlights. To those of you who have wondered what a day in the life of a winemaker is like, I’d encourage you to check out our Harvest Boot Camps—a hands-on approach is about the best way you’ll find out. – Jonathan Cristaldi

Story by Joe Roberts

Iconoclastic Santa Monica native Stu Smith first established Smith-Madrone’s Napa Valley vineyards in 1971. Along with brother Charles, Smith is still going strong, acting as enologist and general partner of Smith-Madrone. Along the timeline of his impressive winemaking career, Smith achieved his Master’s in Viticulture from UC Davis, was twice a chair of the Napa Valley Wine Auction, and served stints on the Napa County General Plan Steering Committee.

Smith is well-known for crafting excellent wines and is regularly cited for his expertise in mountain viticulture. He’s also famous for his straight talk and informed opinionated views. As you’ll see from our interview, Smith’s ability to cut to the chase and call it as he sees it when it comes to the world of wine hasn’t dulled one iota over his nearly five decades of winegrowing.

Joe Roberts: What do you see as the biggest challenges to the California wine business right now?
Stu Smith (SS): It’s style. We’ve taken red meat and thrown it in front of the wolves. One of the styles that’s most hurting the industry is not having enough acidity in the wines. The two biggest magazines in the world of wine preferred over-extracted, flabby, and frankly uninteresting wines. Good wines should be complex, balanced, interesting, integrated, and elegant. At Smith-Madrone, we’re eurocentric, we prefer our wines to go well with food. I can smell the OTT [Over-the-Top] wines – I don’t need to taste them, I can just smell them – and tell you that they’re not bright or fresh. You’d think that after 8000 years of making wine, we’d learn when to harvest the stuff! One of the problems we have in California right now is a great deal of high-priced wines that don’t deliver. We call them four-by-fours – wines that have a pH of 4 and a total acid of 0.4. They don’t last very long; few of those wines can make it to ten years. We have a challenge to attract young people with wines that are too expensive for the value that they’re giving.

Q: What do you think the immediate future holds for the US wine business?
SS: The industry is going to go through a tough time, I think, especially with consolidation. The argument could be made that it’s not a good time to get into the industry. We have a lot of competition. Thirty years ago, we only really competed against ourselves. Now, a buyer can buy from 250,000 SKUs. If [the recently sold and iconic producer] Stony Hill can’t make it, that should say something to the industry here about how hard it is. Regulations [in Napa] are also threatening the viability of small producers. In California, we need better [vine] rootstocks that use less water, especially with climate change.

Q: Are there developments within the wine world that you find exciting right now?
SS: The whole sommelier concept is terrific, especially the expansion of women into this male-dominated industry, especially in New York. It’s good to have diversity in that area. And rosés are fun, that’s been an overlooked category that’s getting its due.

Q: What’s your advice for those thinking about getting into the wine business, or becoming winemakers?
SS: There are always ways of getting in; the question is do have the passion and tenacity to stick with it? If you’re young enough, do as many harvests as you can. Get like-minded friends together and do a tasting group. Work as a “cellar rat.” The key… it’s tasting a lot of wine, and being passionate.

Q: It’s been nearly a decade since you published your controversial blog Biodynamics is a Hoax. Have your views about Biodynamic viticulture changed?
SS: America does Biodynamics to copy the Europeans; Europeans do it for a reason. It occurred to me that Biodynamic people were saying ‘we went to Biodynamics, and the worms came back!’ They talked about the health of the soil. The EU recognized that Bordeaux spray [a mix of copper sulfate used to counter pathogens] is toxic to the soil. It’s a desperate measure to respond to one hundred and fifty years of copper toxicity in their soils. So some organic growers are using material that we know is bad for the environment, even if it’s ‘natural.’ It’s complete horses**t.

Q: What are you drinking these days?
SS: Lots of stuff! Definitely rosés. But still plenty of Cabernets, especially Cabernet Sauvignons with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc. Here, with small producers, we all swap wines back and forth, it’s great.