Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have a brilliant fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting

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Just some of the bottles we sampled. No oranges were harmed in this tasting.

Major reasons for the miserable commercial demand for riesling in the United States include, but are not limited to, the following myths:

  1. Riesling is too sweet. Sorry, but this is just a lazy myth. Yes, many Rieslings, especially those under the $10 price point, are stupid sweet. However, most riesling isn’t too sweet; you just have to try more of it.
  2. Riesling is sweet: Also a big myth, though slightly less lazy. Yes, much of the riesling on America’s shelves are sweet, but not all. It’s not a lazy myth because the labeling on many rieslings doesn’t indicate the sweetness of the wine, which is an industry fault. Still, shop at a dedicated wine store and the staff will be able to guide you to your desired level of residual sugar. Also, think you don’t like sweet riesling? Try it with foods that are rich, savory and salty to experience the brilliance of a little residual sugar in your wine; there’s hardly a better food-wine pairing.
  3. Riesling only pairs with vegetables and white protein. Ha, don’t even. Riesling is the most versatile food pairing grape alive and goes well with other colors of protein. Don’t believe me? Well-aged dry riesling hits gets rich and intensely nutty, and is a great pairing with red meat. Further, unless you’re eating a naked steak, it’s the sauce on the meat that should be the target of the wine pairing, and there’s a riesling for any sauce likely to be poured over red meat.

If you believe one of these myths, it’s time to prove yourself wrong. Keep reading. If you love riesling, keep reading. If you love wine, yeah, keep reading.

“Epic” is an appropriate way to describe our grand American riesling tasting. It all started when my friend and Terroirist blogger Isaac Baker submitted over Twitter that Smith-Madrone Winery in California makes the best American riesling. It’s a legitimate candidate for the title. I’ve reviewed the wine (and the winery) myself and I couldn’t think of a better suggestion, which got us thinking: how well do we really know domestic riesling? The answer was something like ‘not well enough to make that judgment,’ so we decided to become better informed. What followed was a month-long effort to collect samples from around the country that netted thirty-four bottles from eighteen of the best riesling producers we knew. Last weekend, we tried them all.

Before I get to the wine and the tasting, let’s discuss the status of riesling in America for a moment. The major headline is that demand for riesling is weak. According to the 2017 State of the Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank (an important annual industry study), “demand for premium wine has been healthy, especially for cabernet, red blends, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and pinot noir. Merlot, syrah, riesling and zinfandel haven’t seen the same degree of consumer demand, and the varietals have struggled.” A 2015 Nielson report showed that riesling was the only grape varietal with negative growth in the US market in terms of volume sold. Early this year, Wine Folly predicted that riesling “will tank,” arguing that while it “has had its chances [with] several waves of interest between 2011 – 2015 [and has] plateaued,” “you only get so many chances. It’s not you Riesling, it’s us.” I could list more statistics, but they all tell the same basic story: Americans don’t buy much riesling.

The ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ line sums up my diagnoses of America’s perception of riesling. Riesling is a wine geek’s wine. It’ reflects terroir like no other, and since it does well in many, many climates and is therefore grown all around the world, we can experience a lot of different terroir through the lens of one grape. Further, it ranges from bone dry to very sweet, which makes it even more diverse a grape to explore, especially with food (wine pairing: one of the most passionate interests of a wine geek). These factors combine to make riesling exponentially interesting to people who like to pay close attention to their wine, which makes riesling’s commercial struggles all the more frustrating because it puts an artificial ceiling the amount of production by providing a lot of financial disincentive for wineries to produce the grape, let alone put a lot of effort into it.

It is fitting that Smith-Madrone was the inspiration of the tasting as its owner and winemaker, Stu Smith, is an outspoken proponent of the grape who makes it despite the difficulty he has selling it because he believes so fundamentally in its importance and worth as a varietal that speaks to the very best of what wine can be. In addition to myself and Isaac, our tasting panel included other riesling lovers who we felt would understand why we were doing the tasting and enjoy the experience: Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntrye, wine consultant Alison Smith Marriot, and two serious oenophiles/drinking buddies of mine. And then we had a special guest…Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery!

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The man, the myth, the legend. Stu Smith.

Stu and his wife, Julie Ann, were in town for their daughter Charlotte’s high school graduation (congratulations Charlotte!) and were able to swing by about fifteen wines into the tasting, though Stu was able to catch up to the group by the end. It was a real pleasure to have Stu and Julie Ann join us in an effort to further appreciation of the grape Stu seems to feel the most passionate about. The wines were tasted blind in a randomized order and, knowing that his wine was the impetus for the tasting, the unveiling of his wine as a consensus top-3 pick came as what I would imagine was at least a little relief, though who were any of us, really, to pass judgment on the wine of a Napa icon? More than anything, I (and I imagine the rest of the group) am just thankful Stu continues to prioritize a high quality riesling given the lowly demand for it.

The thirty-four wineries represented were scattered across California, New York, Oregon and Washington State, America’s four largest wine producing states, and came from many of the most respected riesling producers in the country. The largest contingent came from New York, the region whose reputation is probably most dominated by riesling. Though Washington used be known as the riesling state and still produces more of the grape than New York, it’s far less a signature grape for Washington than it is for New York at this point. The New York passion for riesling is evident in the wine we sampled, and here I need to make a special shout out to Peter Vetsch of pop & pour wine blog and Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards for hooking us up with so many good Upstate wines.

The wines ranged from syrupy sweet to bone dry, and, despite the reputable producers on-hand, we were surprised to find no dud among the cohort (though each of the tasters found at least one wine they didn’t care for), which spoke to the effort the wineries put into the commercially struggling varietal. If you’re a riesling lover, and/or want to ensure America keeps making high quality riesling, and/or want to become a riesling lover, buy from those on the list below.

These wines form a great shopping list for another reason as well: a major takeaway from the tasting was that while the riesling market isn’t doing well in America, America’s rieslings are in very good shape quality-wise. We threw a few imported ringers into the blind tasting from highly respected German, Australian and French producers, and while they tended to show up among many of the tasters’ favorites, none stood out as clearly better than the American wines nor did any of them dominate the discussion of consensus favorites. This truly was a Tour de Force showing from the red, white and blue.

With so many wines to taste, I didn’t score them beyond rating each one on a 1 to 5 star (asterisk) scale. I’m including my tasting notes below, but want to call out seven wines that really captured my attention. Washington’s Rasa Vineyards gave me the only five-star wine of the evening with their 2013 The Composer. This gorgeous wine has enough bottle age on it to have developed some secondary notes, but it has the legs to develop tertiary ones as well. Their 2011 The Lyricist was also fantastic, receiving 4.5 stars (the equivalent of “****(*)” as you’ll find below). Close behind Rasa was Stu Smith’s 2014 Smith-Madrone, the inspiration for this event. Fellow Californian Chateau Montelena’s 2015 Potter Valley is a real achievement as well. Chehalem’s 2014 Corral Creek Vineyard offered the best schnoz of the lineup and some very diverse flavors, and was my favorite of the offerings from Oregon. Fox Run’s 2012 Lake Dana, with its perfect play between fruit, Earth and Spice, and Hermann J. Wiemer 2014’s HJW, with its awesome profile of spice, sweet fruit and bitter banana, demonstrated that New York is producing exceptional riesling.

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A major, major thanks to the wineries who supplied the samples, not only for making this event possible but for taking a risk by producing them in the first place. There isn’t a riesling in this lineup that I would discourage anyone from trying. We were quite lucky to have had this experience, and I hope it lights a fire under a few butts to dive deep into American riesling. For more coverage of the tasting, and likely some differing thoughts on the wines, head over to Terroirist and check out what Isaac Baker has to say.

2015 Penner-Ash Hyland Vineyard Old Vine (OR) – a little soapy and reticent on the nose, with grass and lime zest emerging. The body is lean with cutting acidity. Quitely limey with good minerality, it gets a little creamy with air and adds marzipan and dried fruit. ***

2015 Charles & Charles Den Hoed Vineyard (WA) – the nose is still a bit musty and tropical, quite pleasant. It offers a voluptuous structure with big lime, stone fruits, tropics and hay. ***

2015 Anthony Road Dry Riesling (NY) – class riesling nose with a leaner, crisp body that delivers peach, apricot, Meyer lemon, white pepper and parsnips with a mouth-drying acid streak. ****

2015 Sleight of Hand The Magician (WA) – rich, tropical nose with a very interesting palate offering savory saline, stone fruits, banana and a little effervescence. ***

2015 Chehalem Three Vineyard (OR) – very mild, young nose waiting to offer more with age. The palate is round and ripe with white pepper, lemon curd, petroleum, apricots and a lot of grass. This one offers real depth and a lot to consider. ****

2015 Red Newt Cellars Knoll (NY) – gorgeous nose dominated by grass cuttings and honeyed fruit. The palate is driven by big acid and is quite dry. The flavors are dominated by lemon pith, celery seed, cilantro, lemon and strong pepper. One of the more unusual profiles, it really spoke to me. ****

2013 Rasa The Composer (WA) – classic tennis ball canister gas on the nose with an amazing palate offering sweet fruit, almond paste, petrol, vanilla and honey. Tastes like a sunset. ******

2013 Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks (NY) – a truly biting nose that tingles the nostrils with high toned citrus and pepper. The palate is lean and quite crisp, balanced by vegetal flavors. ***

2014 Chehelam Wind Ridge Block (OR) – clean nose with little to write home about, but the palate really delivers with parsley, lime, root vegetables and under ripe stone fruit. It’s a very strange profile that simply works. ****

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling (CA) – reticent nose but a compelling palate with streaky flint and slate, dandelion and orange zest held together by perfectly balanced acid and weight. It just needs more time in the cellar to bring that nose to bear and fully develop. ****(*)

2014 Lauren Ashton Riesling (WA) – the nose is dominated by peaches, but also offers marzipan and papaya and, if you close your eyes real tight, a little smoky. The palate is almost overwhelmed by guava and papaya, but thankfully has some white pepper kick and really nicely balanced acid. ****

2014 Fox Run/Anthony Road/Red Newt Tierce (NY) – the nose is all about fresh asphalt as the palate offers nice florals, bitter greens and under ripe stone fruit. The acid is nice but it seems just a little watery, which holds back the concentration. ***

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee semi-dry (OR) – very honeyed nose with stewed peaches and apricots, parsley, and vanilla bean custard building out the  palate. Very cool ****

2012 Fox Run Lake Dana (NY) – a lot of pine and baking spice on the nose, which made me suspect Washington. The body is full, ripe and delivers perfect acid. Flavors include sweet pineapple, mango and arugula. My favorite wine of the day from New York ****(*)

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 239 (NY) – not a lot on the nose at the moment but time will rectify that. The palate has lime sorbet, green pepper, apricot and petrol. A solid ****.

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee Dry (OR) – young nose with a bit of lemon zest and pine, the palate is a little watery but has nice lime zest, red pepper flake spice and apricot. I think it needs some time. ***(*)

2015 Eroica (Chateau Ste. Michelle) (WA) – the nose has honeyed citrus fruit and Evergreen, while the body has a lot of pine, apricot nectar, quince and coriander. ****

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Magdalena (NY) – this big nose is dominated by almods, while the palate delivers big quantities pineapple, banana and pine. The acid is on-point here, but I think this would benefit from a few more years of rest. ***(*)

2015 Anthony Road Semi Dry Riesling (NY) – not much on the nose, but the palate is round and lush with vanilla, banana cream pie and lemon-lime soda. ***

2011 Rasa The Lyracist (WA) – the nose offers quintessential NW pine, tennis ball canister gas and starfruit. The palate has no hard edges but maintains great acidity, and delivers honeyed starfruit, crystalized lime zest, slate and just a little bit of fat. ****(*)

2014 Red Newt Cellars The Big H (NY) – the nose is a little fungal, in a good way, musty and tropical. The palate offers lime, vanilla and under ripe peach. ***

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer HJW (NY) – the young nose is still reticent, while the palate delights with Asian 5 Spice, restrained stone fruits and banana leaves. The acid is in great balance and this clearly has a long and prosperous life ahead of itself. ****(*)

2014 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyard (OR) – The nose is almost plummy, offering honeysuckle and a jasmine tea aroma. Might be my favorite nose of the lineup. The palate is also floral and honeyed, offering additional pepperiness and lychee. Really cool stuff. ****(*)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling (NY) – a funky and engaging nose, the palate is all about lime sorbet but gets a little diversification with pepper. ***

2016 Trisaeutum Coast Range (OR) – a must nose with an earthy palate that is zesty and creamy. I love the complementary play between acid-driven zest and creaminess, as well as the real sense of place this one has. It’s not a typical riesling. ****

2016 Tirsaeutum Ribbon Ridge (OR) – the nose gave off what I can only describe as a fenugreek aroma, whle the palate was round and full with barely enough acid to keep it on keel. The dominate flavor was Sprite. **

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 198 (NY) – Unfortunately not much to write home about with this one, the main element I wrote down here was “sweet.” *

2015 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley (CA) – the nose is still in hiding, but the palate is zesty, spicy and high toned with big limestone and even some mint. Very good. ****(*)

2015 Galerie Terracea Spring Mountain District (CA) – a honeyed and flora nose, quite pleasant, with a big but well integrated palate featuring banana cream and big zestiness. ***

2015 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley (OR) – a lot of sweet cream on the nose with Meyer lemon and Key lime. The palate offers lovely honeyed orange blossom, ginger, graham cracker and a lot of texture. Enjoyable but not particularly layered. ***(*)

2016 Long Shadows Nine Hats (WA) – not a lot on the nose yet (clearly young), but the palate had exceptional acidity with a little saline, sweet citrus, flowers and spice. If the nose is awoken, this will be lovely. ***

2015 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap (WA) – pine and lime on the nose, with big lime zest, orange, petrol and banana on the palate. ***

 

Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

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I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

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Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

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Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-