Stu Smith Answers the FAQ's of Riesling

Why does Smith-Madrone label its wine "Riesling" while other producers use "Johannisberg Riesling," "White Riesling," "Dry Riesling" and "Gray Riesling?"

Because that's the true name of the varietal. When was the last time you had a red Riesling? White Riesling is redundant; Johannisberg is a cute little winery in Germany not too dissimilar from Smith-Madrone. Why should we call Riesling 'Johannisberg Riesling' if we don't call Pinot Noir 'Romanee Noir' or Cabernet Sauvignon 'Lafite Sauvignon?' The true name of the varietal is simply Riesling. In 1983 we started using just 'Riesling.' For more than 15 years we were the only winery to call the wine by its true name, Riesling, which I think goes to show the lack of seriousness and commitment that many vintners give to this variety. If they're not willing to call it by its true name, how can they make the wine into its true potential? Why does Smith-Madrone produce great Riesling where others have failed?

We've received enormous recognition for our Riesling since our first vintage in 1977. A bottle of the 1977 vintage, left over from a trade tasting in Europe, was casually entered in the Gault-Millau wine competition of that year, where it won the top honor as 'Best Riesling' out of a field of Rieslings from around the world, including many from Germany's best estates.

Growing great grapes is like a three legged stool - if any one of the three elements is missing the stool falls down. First and foremost, you need the right climate. It's why we can grow grapes in California and not Alaska. Then you have to differentiate the climates even more finely, such as between Fresno vs. Stockton and then the finer differences still of Napa vs. Sonoma. Historically Riesling in German climates has a long and cool growing season. That is why Riesling, in order to get ripe, is usually grown only on the southern slopes so that the grapes can get the greatest amount of heat and sunlight.

Second, you need the appropriate soil. For ordinary wine you want deep rich soil capable of producing many tons to the acre, enabling the winery to produce a low cost wine. For premium wine you want soil with moderate fertility and depth. The soil limits the grape production to just a few tons per acre, giving a higher leaf to cluster ratio and smaller berries, giving a higher skin to pulp ratio - all allowing for more concentrated flavors in the grapes and hence the wine. Soil that is too rich produces grapes without character and flavor. A very good grower can mitigate some of that, but most growers want more grapes and may even irrigate on those rich soils exacerbating the problem.

Thirdly, you need a grower who understands that he is growing grapes for wine quality. Historically, a farmer measures his success in a one step process. If he grows more corn, hay, cotton, carrots, etc. than his neighbors do, he is successful. But with winegrape growers it's not the amount of fruit he grows, it's the quality of the wine that is produced that is critical. This is a two-step process. We have all three legs of that stool. Our climate on Spring Mountain is cooler than on the Napa Valley floor; our steep mountain soils are less fertile than our Valley floor neighbors and we understand the Riesling grape and what it requires to grow those grapes better than others.

Why isn't there more Riesling planted on the California's North Coast?

Because of economics, Riesling will never be widely grown in Napa and Sonoma because of the value of the land. Cabernet Sauvignons priced somewhere between $25-75.00 a bottle and Chardonnay in the $20-$35.00 bottle range support current land prices. Riesling selling retail at $10-15.00 a bottle cannot support $50,000 - $100,000.00 per acre.

Are Smith-Madrone's vineyards 'sustainable'/'sustainably farmed?'

Yes; the term means that we are farming in as natural a method as is possible---minimal use of petro-chemicals, minimal use of pesticides and encouraging natural beneficial predators. Is 'artisanal' the right term to describe Smith-Madrone?

We are one of the few wineries who have stayed "true to ourselves." We are still artisanal in nature and practice. We don't have a cutesy gift shop and tasting room with Smith-Madrone tshirts to buy. What's important about dry-farming?

As we all know, California's population---and resource needs---are bulging, and we should be aiming towards more and more vineyards using less and less water. As we have done in the past, we're setting up our future vineyards to be dry-farmed. It is appropriate and necessary to irrigate young vineyards to an age of 5 to 7 years, but then the water should be turned off and the vines made to rely solely on Mother Nature for their nurturing water. We believe that what's going on on the Valley floor should be re-evaluated --- that is, using de-vigorating rootstocks, which then need to be irrigated. There isn't enough water in California and the one thing grapevines can do that most other crops can't is to be dry-farmed. If we can dry-farm vineyards on top of Spring Mountain, 1,800 feet above sea level, so can the Valley floor growers with deep, fertile soils. All of us here in the Napa Valley who grow wine grapes must never lose focus on quality.

What's your opinion on close spacing so fashionable in vineyards today?

I disapprove of the very close spacing used by many winegrowers today. First and foremost, the defining element in wine quality from a specific vineyard is not whether the vines are spaced 3x3 (feet), 8x5 or even 12x8. Vineyard wine quality is defined by the site, the climate and the soil of the vineyard, along with the cultural practices of the grower.

What are the problems with close spacing?

There are at least four as I see it---wine quality, water, farm worker housing and ergonomics.

  • Wine quality: Close spacing with a low fruiting wire may be detrimental to wine quality in California's North Coast because the grapes come too close to the soil and thus are hotter than clusters higher up from the ground.
  • Water: Close spacing uses too much of our most precious resource -- water. Close spacing of 3x3 (feet) has 4,840 vines/acre; medium spacing of 8x5 has 1,089 vines/acre and wide spacing of 11x6 has 660 vines/acre: these have a major impact on our environment. Theoretically, using 7 irrigations of 15 gallons per irrigation on approximately 30,000 acres of irrigated vineyards in Napa County, close spacing would use 46,000-acre feet of water versus 6,000-acre feet with wide spacing. This would be a saving of 40,000-acre feet or 1.2 billion gallons of water per year.
  • Farm worker housing: simplistically, 35,000 acres of grapevines planted with close spacing results in 170,000,000 grapevines that need to be planted, pruned, tied, suckered, cultivated and harvested versus 40,000,000 plants with a medium spacing. The Valley would need four times the number of farm workers with close spacing than with medium spacing, which means we would need four times as much farm worker housing. Farm worker housing needs are not even being met today.
  • Ergonomics: Close spacing requires short stakes and thus the worker must bend over to work on the vines and to harvest the crop -- sometimes as low as twelve inches off the ground. Medium spacing and wide spacing can have the fruiting wire 36-42 inches off the ground -- a comfortable work height for people. Additionally, tractors, gondolas and/or machine harvesters can work within medium and widely spaced rows to facilitate harvesting the grapes. In many, if not most, close-spacing harvesting requires the picker to hand-carry the harvested grapes out to the end of the rows before reaching a gondola.

How do you feel about all of the 'post-office box' wineries and people producing wines which are not estate-grown and estate-bottled?

"Produced and bottled by"---who 'produced and bottled' that favorite wine of yours? That bottle of very expensive and limited production "Sky High Vineyards" says at the bottom of the label that it was "produced and bottled by Sky High Vineyards, St. Helena California." But was it really? Most likely, it was not. It may well have been produced and bottled by Rombauer Vineyards, Merryvale Vineyards, Miner Family Vineyards or The Napa Wine Company. I believe that the label should not mislead and defraud the consumer as to who actually makes the wine. I believe that the rightful producer and bottler of the wine should be stated on the label. The label should read: "Sky High Vineyards, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, produced and bottled by Rombauer/Merryvale/Miner/whomever."

This practice is currently legal. The custom crush winery simply files an amended dba with the BATF showing that Sky High Vineyards is now a second label of that winery; then it is legal for them to crush and ferment the grapes into wine, age and bottle and label the wine as "roduced and bottled by Sky High Vineyards." The owners of Sky High Vineyards did not in fact produce or bottle the wine that they are now selling as wine produced and bottled by them.

Originally, wineries were granted this right of producing wines in this way because those labels were, in fact, second labels of the winery. Red Mountain wine is made by Gallo and at the bottom of the Red Mountain label it says that the wine was "produced and bottled by Red Mountain." Red Mountain is a dba of Gallo; Gallo owns, produces, bottles and markets the Red Mountain wine and label. "Sky High Vineyards" contracts with the "custom crusher" to make their wine and retains ownership of the barrels, wine and labels. The custom crusher, Rombauer (or whoever) does not own the grapes, the wine, the barrels or the bottles, nor are they responsible to market and sell the wine. The custom crusher's only job is to 'produce and bottle' the wine.

The consumer is not misled when they read that their wine was produced and bottled by Red Mountain because it was. When the consumer reads the their wine was produced and bottled by "Sky High Vineyards" they are misled and defrauded because Sky High Vineyards did not produce and bottle that wine.

I'm aware of this practice and disagree with it because we've done it in the past. There is no "fault" or "blame" to be given; the practice should be given the light of day so that it can ultimately be changed. Don Quixote tilted at windmills and Sisyphus rolled rocks up a hill; they must be related to me….!