Saving the Idea of “Reserve” At Smith-Madrone Winery

Here’s something relatively rare in the wine business: An established Napa Valley winery that has never affixed the term “Reserve” to a wine.

You can swing a dead cat in this Valley and knock over five or six “Reserve” wines before the feline makes a full revolution. But, say what you will about the term “Reserve” on wines (The term isn’t regulated”. “There are too many synonyms for the term”. “It’s just a marketing gimmick”), the fact is it can be saved.

I’m perhaps one of the few people remaining who gets curious when I see a wine granted “Reserve” status. As it turns out, I have seen numerous “Reserve” wines that are more exceptional than the rest in the same portfolio. Plus, there’s always the fact that you can usually justify a higher price for a “Reserve” wine. These are just a couple of the reasons why nearly every winery in this Valley has offered its customers a “Reserve” wine.

So, I was very curious when I heard that after 41 years of making wine up on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery has only now gotten around to releasing a wine they designate as “Reserve”: THE 2007 COOK’S FLAT RESERVE. “Curious” isn’t actually the right word. “Shocked” hits the mark more squarely 

As far as I can tell, there are only three reasons why the folks at Smith-Madrone would have waited 41 years to release a “Reserve”:

1. They are just lazy
2.Smith-Madrone had no need to produce a Reserve wine.
3. They just couldn’t figure out what a “Reserve” wine should be

If you know or have followed the work of the Brothers Smith, you can rule out #1. So is it #2 or #3?  Here’s what the Smiths say:

“We founded the winery in 1971 and as we planted the estate we identified one specific 8-acre block as an unusual, distinctive terroir,” says Stuart Smith. “Local oldtimers called this vineyard block Cook’s Flat, in honor of George Cook, and over the years we have watched and studied the grapes from this plateau in the midst of our mountain vineyards,” he adds. “We have spent 41 years here meticulously farming, making wine and ruminating on what would go into a wine we’d call a Reserve,” explains Charles Smith, the winemaker (and Stu’s brother). “The Cook’s Flat Reserve represents the very best of which we are capable in a given year.  It can only be made in small quantities and will only be available when warranted by superior quality.  It is the ultimate distillation of our experience and expertise.”

Sounds like #3 to me, with probably a little of #2 thrown in there too.

Here’s the thing about this undefined, ambiguous designation: The term “Reserve” CAN have real meaning that ought to give wine lovers pause. In my view, the guys at Smith-Madrone got it right. It strikes me that a “Reserve” wine must, above all, be made in small quantities relative to similar wines in a producer’s portfolio and must be made in small quantities because there is no other alternative. That’s clearly what’s going on at Smith-Madrone. Furthermore, what’s really compelling about the new Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve is the promise that it will be made only when the quality warrants it. You hear this occasionally, but you rarely see it. Given the 41 years it took Smith-Madrone to put “Reserve”  on a bottle, I have justified confidence that they’ll truly reserve the Reserve for vintages that warrant the designation.

Finally, while I’m not necessarily wed to the idea that a brand new producer can’t have the chops or experience to produce an authentic “Reserve” wine, I admit I am prejudiced to the point that I put much more stock in the idea of a “Reserve” being produced after a few good years of contemplation, experimentation, observation and dedication. Though 41 years does seem like an excessive bit of contemplation, experimentation, observation and dedication.

As for the wine? Only 171 cases of the 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc red blend from the 2007 vintage were produced from a single vineyard plot of vines in the neighborhood of 1,800 feet on Spring Mountain on the west side of the Valley. The blend was aged in French oak for two years before settling and aging in bottle for three years before release. The wine will retail for $200 per bottle.

I’ve not tasted the 2007 Cook’s Flat Reserve from Smith-Madrone.

I want to.

8 Responses

  1. harvey posert - December 7, 2012

    anyone interested in wine and words has watched with dismay as industry marketers have corrupted word after word, literally (!). it would be interesting if smith-madrone could lead a group of wineries who take language seriously. “Truth springs from the arguments of friends,” a quote from David Hume, the Smith brothers’ direct antecedent, literallyt. harvey

    • Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka - December 10, 2012

      Great response here, Harvey. Great suggestion.

  2. doug wilder - December 8, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this Tom. If I get a sample, I will give you a call and we can taste it together.
    I tasted their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon in the spring and thought it was great. Real old school style and very well priced at $45.

  3. JohnLopresti - December 9, 2012

    I am glad Stu and company are ready for a reserve red release. It was very difficult for me during Smith-Madrone’s early years to ponder my own impressions upon finding one of their premium whites…. I would ask, ?whether their vineyard site primarily was too cold for a solid Napa red?.

    Stu had been a prof in a respected local viticulture curriculum, and clearly his drive and experience appeared to encompass what could be a world class endeavor upon the elevated terrain on Napa County’s Spring Mtn. A 40+ year first tranche of study of their own site’s production specifics seems a thoughtful, noble amount of monitoring and research. I would suggest that Smith-Madrone is preparing us for a new special tradition for their winery. Congratulations to them!

    And, yes, it’s a long way temporally now from the contentious times of the arguments about whether a bottle of wine ever is worth a pricetag >$45.; though at the time Stu was discussing such concepts in public venues with farmers in the AVA, he certainly obtained a degree of humorous notoriety! That was a few years ago…

  4. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka - December 10, 2012

    Tom, I was able to taste the reserve pre-release this summer. (why the hell, then, didn’t i write about it.) It’s well worth it. Great write-up here on the question of Reserve, and two people devoted to the proper meaning of the term.

  5. Don Clemens - December 10, 2012

    There are still some names to be trusted. Stu and Charlie are very much among those names. I also would love to taste anything they make, let alone something with the “Reserve” added to the name.

  6. mike wanless - December 10, 2012

    Actually harvey, given that their antecedent Hume was married to my antecedent Wanless they are just as antecedantly related to me, so I am not sure how that affects their perception or the use of Mike TateDog Wanless

  7. Chicago Pinot - December 14, 2012

    I am still waiting for the first winery to come out with the first “Reserve Reserve”. Anyone want to guess who will go first?

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