We caught up with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone at Le Peche in New York City earlier this month and had a great, no-nonsense conversation. His winery is located in the Napa Valley and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling wines.
Smith-Madrone was started in 1971 before the oil embargo, before Sonoma, and before Napa. Stu and Charles (his older brother) were normal, middle-class guys. Stu did his Master’s work in enology and viticulture at U.C. Davis, and was the first teaching assistant for wine industry pioneers, Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton. Upon completion, he and Charles had a dream of starting a winery, so they moved to Napa. At that time, there were only thirty or so vineyards. It was really small, provincial, and familial, and everyone helped everyone. Instead of being secretive with their plans, like this day and age, the wineries were out to help each other to move themselves and the industry forward. An example is back then, many folks lived in a mobile home when tending to the vineyards. In 1975, Stu's mobile home burned down and it was a real downer. Lori Woods, of Freemark Abby, walked a 1/2 mile to give Stu a case of wine to lighten his day. Tim Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery stop and chat with Stu Smith at the gas station about the industry. It was a true case of making sure that folks were always responsive to each other's needs.
Besides being more secretive, it is also easier to sell wines today, although there were more distributors and less wineries in 1971. In the last 40 years, wines have become culturally more available and accepted. The problem though is there are fewer distributors and inconsistent (and weird) laws. Combine that with the global Internet community, it becomes difficult to effectively distribute wines. Also, it is much more expensive, almost impossible, for most individuals to open wineries. It has started to become a hobby for the rich. And, to that end, celebrities from John Madden to Peggy Fleming want a winery, not as a business, but as a private social ground. This has brought a level of separation from the original winery owners, and the new class of winery owners, who have little interaction with the local community.
A big positive change today is that there are more opportunities for women in the business, with Zelma Long being an example of a highly successful winemaker that came up through the ranks. In the late 1970s, she was the winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, and today, she is an owner and winemaker of her own vineyard, Long Vineyards, and runs a consulting company.
Finally, sales and marketing has changed since the beginning. In 1971, it was mostly liquor distributors and restaurants that did not know how to handle wines. The Gallo Brothers, who Stu Smith met during their elderly years, helped change that.
When asked how Smith-Madrone worked since starting, two basic things have not changed:
- They are a low-cost producer who does not spend a lot of money on extravagant items.
- They run the winery themselves, with Charlie as the wine maker and shipping department, and Stu as the vineyard operation and overall office manager.
It's this philosophy, their tenacity, and hard work (this is not a 9-5 job, this is a 60-70 hours/week job) that allowed them to survive for the last 39 years.
Finally, for Stu himself, he believes in 3 things to survive:
- Be a personality
- Learn the hard way
- He's here to work, not to be loved
Stu himself is a great believer in giving back (which dates from his Boy Scout days). He promotes, and is a staunch advocate, of mountain vineyards. One example of his commitment to the Napa Valley is having been named by the Napa Valley County Board of Supervisors to serve on The General Planning Steering Committee in July 2005.
What does the future of Smith Madrone hold? In the short run, two major projects to complete are a Reserve Program (they are developing a 2007 high-end Cabernet) and replanting of vineyards (which is almost done).
When asked if his children (he has 3 daughters and 2 sons) would take it over, his response is most wineries do not survive three generations, so let the kids do as they please. That said, one of his sons has shown some interest in the industry. An interesting trivia: only 3 wineries have survived 3 generations: Mondavi, Sutter Home and Gallo.
On a final note, taking a nostalgic retrospective look back, if Stu could talk to Little Stu again, he would tell him "There have always been opportunities in the wine business (and still are), you just have to be creative, flexible, and entrepreneurial. 1971 was more fun, but you didn't know it then. And if it's really a passion, just do it, but be realistic about it."
During the conversation we had a wonderful 2008 Riesling with .75 sugar, 2007 Chardonnay, and a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. All are, in this author's opinion, some of the best he's had in their categories.