On the other side of the Valley, but not terribly far as the crow flies, atop Spring Mountain, Stu and Charlie Smith have been making wine since 1971. Smith-Madrone produces Cabernet Sauvignon, also Chardonnay, Riesling, a red blend called Cook’s Flat and, recently, a rosé. “One of the things that I find interesting: How are we mere mortals, not scientists, to know if what we read in the newspaper is correct or incorrect?” asks Stu. “You can find anything you want to believe in the newspapers.” Stu, who consumes the New York Times, Napa Valley Register, San Francisco Chronicle and, for good measure, the Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, is perhaps uniquely qualified to say this.
“What I’m not sure of is whether what I’m seeing is climate—or merely weather. I accept that the weather is changing because there are a few things that can be separated with certainty from the cacophony of noise. One is that the glaciers are melting, and two is that, now, after 1,500 years, the English are able to grow wine grapes again.” But beyond England and Antarctica, the Smiths have witnessed dramatic changes in weather during their nearly 50-year tenure in the Napa Valley, as well.
“The winters of ’75–76 and ’76–77, those were the driest on record in the Napa Valley, maybe only 12.5 inches both years. Then in ’98 we had 102 inches of rain up here. I’ve seen temperatures as low as 12 and as high as 114 down on the valley floor. 2009, 2010, 2011—those were the coldest vintages in my memory, and talking with a bunch of people older than me, nobody had seen anything colder.... Andre did mention one year that they didn’t harvest until December.”
More recently, however, increasing extremes in weather have taken a serious toll. Labor Day weekend of 2017 is burned into the minds of most grape farmers in Wine Country. That weekend, the temperatures reached as high as 114°. The Smiths had already harvested their white grapes, thankfully, but the reds were still on the vine. “We won’t have a 2017 red wine for sale because of it,” says Stu, his voice softening slightly at the edges. Asked if he thought his mountain location might somehow protect him from changes to climate, Stu characteristically sticks to the facts: “We’re cooler; our Cabernet is still a couple inches out right now, while down on the Valley floor they’re probably out eight-inches, maybe pushing a foot by now. It takes longer for our soils to warm up because we’re up higher and it’s colder.”
Of course, that didn’t save the 2017 vintage. So what adaptations are the Smiths, who have been in business making wine in California just about as long as anybody, now making?
“I am rethinking dry-farming, and I have made a change in the way we farm,” offers Stu. “We don’t have a lot of water—our water supply right now is 11 gallons a minute, but I am going to water with what little I have to make sure my vines can get through the season. Our rainfall last year was 22, maybe 23 inches, from fall to now, and the distribution wasn’t very good. January and February we had virtually no rain.”
Limited rainfall has the Smiths concerned. “Also this year, in the older vineyards that go across the slope, we’re disking every other row, whereas normally we are non-till. I’m disking one field that hasn’t been cultivated since we re-cultivated in 2000. I’m doing it for two reasons: to minimize the cover crops taking water and, second, we have wildfire issues, so I want a certain amount of firebreak going through my vineyards. Cover crops burn.”
Stu has to get back to his taxes, so he ends by saying: “We’ll be able to get by, but I’m worried.”