Stu Smith was 22 years old in 1970, the year he walked through a Douglas-fir forest that had been a vineyard back in the 1880s. Abandoned during Prohibition, the land was densely wooded, but Smith could see redwood grape stakes shoved over sideways by the two-foot trunks of trees. “I imagine a bird sat on the stake, pooped out the seed, and up popped a tree,” Stu told me, on the telephone. He said he had loggers cut out all the trees, and then he and his brother dug out the rocks and roots from the soil and burned back the stumps. This was all at a time when the American wine industry was a provincial one: “I don’t think there were 35 wineries,” Stu says. “It was much slower.”

Anyway, one thing led to another and Smith-Madrone has become a venerable name in California Cabernet, and Stu’s opinions have taken on the tone I hear from a lot of the good winemakers these days: “We frankly have been making wines to our taste ever since. We don’t really make wines for judges, and we don’t make wines for wine critics. We make wines we think are relatively classically structured and have elegance and balance and complexity. We think it’s our job to get the vintage into the glass of wine, to provide something unique. I like to say that terroir is like the foundation of a house—it’s the same every year—but vintage is the house you actually build on that structure, and in some years there’s very little change, but in others it’s as different as a Frank Gehry or a Queen Anne Victorian.”

Why do I care? Because I had a sample of his 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon recently, and I drank it alone—wife and girls out that night—with a pan-fried sirloin and a good magazine and a view of some glittering city lights in the darkness. And the wine brought me immense satisfaction: Every sip was a little journey, enriching and interesting and yet well balanced and not at all challenging. I thought it was fabulous.

Here’s Stu’s take on the 2003:

“Well, it’s unfined and unfiltered, it’s still evolving, it’s got a little Cab Franc, a little Merlot. … It’s a big wine, an interesting complex wine, not excessively tannic. Some people think it’s excessively soft, but it gets people talking about the wine. It’s also a wine that gives people a lot of pleasure. It’s what I think a wine really should be: It makes a statement, it has character, and yet it’s not over the top. My brother liked it better than I did in the beginning; it’s a wine that’s really evolved in the last couple of years being in the bottle. It’s got a good future ahead of it; I think they’ll last 15 years or more.”

2003 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon

Grapes: 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc
Wood: 22 months in new American oak
Alcohol: 13.8 percent
Price: $40 from the winery
My Tasting Notes: I’ve given them above, more or less. It’s a deep and lovely wine, rich and interesting and balanced, and transporting if you’re in the right mood. Everything I want out of a Cabernet.

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