By Allison Levine
Since purchasing his vineyard at the top of Spring Mountain in 1970 and founding Smith-Madrone in 1971, Stuart Smith has become the leading voice of the hillside grower. While Smith believed that the best grapes come from the mountains, a hypothesis had been written that vineyards on hillsides are detrimental to the land. In response, Smith began arguing in favor of hillside vineyards and land-use issues. Being the leading voice was “thrust upon me,” Smith shared. “It was not my intent. When I first got a permit to log the property from Department of Forestry, I was warned that there would be protesters once I brought out a chainsaw.”
Stuart Smith was born and raised in Santa Monica, California and moved to Berkeley in the 1960s for his undergraduate studies. It was at Berkeley that he realized that he liked wine more than beer, atypical for a college student. He became friends with people from the Napa Valley and over several years became enamored with wine and the Napa area. The seeds of his passion had been planted.
Smith pursued his master’s degree at UC Davis and in 1970 purchased 200 acres with his brother. Napa was a small provincial wine-growing town when Stuart Smith first arrived, and he was among the first, along with Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Spring Mountain Winery, Sterling Vineyards and Chateau Montelena, to plant in Napa. However, Smith selected property that was a forest on the remotest and highest part of Spring Mountain. “I wanted to be in the mountains. I believed then, as I do now, that there are two fundamental foundations to wine. One, you cannot make great wine from anything but great grapes. And, two, all things being equal, the best grapes come from the mountains.”
There had been vineyards on Spring Mountain, yet they had all been abandoned in the 1900 due to phylloxera. The property Smith purchased was a dense forest with good soil and 90-foot Douglas Firs. He got a logging permit in 1971 to reclaim the vineyard and logged one million board feet of timber, sold the logs to a saw mill, picked up rocks and burned slash piles all to re-clear the vineyard.
Publicist and wine blogger Tom Wark described Smith as “very passionate about all the things he does – making wine, growing grapes, defending the right to grow grapes. The first thing you learn about him when you meet him, he does not mince words and he calls it as he sees it.” Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) expressed with great love and admiration that “Stu is a very powerful presence, to say the least. When he is in a room and talking, there is no mistake about where he is on an issue.”
Smith-Madrone hillside vineyard, photo credits: Kelly Puleio
Senator Dodd first met Smith almost 20 years ago when he was running for the Napa Valley Board of Supervisors. The issues of mountain vineyards were rapidly becoming controversial and Smith was very involved in the Hillside Task Force. “I came from the business community and knew very little about wine and viticulture.” Smith offered a different angle, sharing what the growers were going through. “Stu and his brother were not only educated but were both on Spring Mountain every day. They became involved in critical areas to promote accuracy and truth and not let hysteria take over.”
For 47 years, Stuart Smith has championed the rights of farming in the Napa Valley, especially mountain vineyards. “I have always been willing to take tough stances that others shy away from,” Smith explained. Just as he was getting started, he wrote his first letter to justify hillside farming in 1971, which was printed on the cover of the St. Helena Star. Groups, such as the Sierra Club and others, look at the people farming on the mountains as the enemy. But, Smith argues that taking land and converting it from one agricultural product (timber) to another (grapes) is not destructive. And, vineyards on hillsides have many benefits, including fire prevention. Many others who have planted vineyards in the hills over the years have benefited from what Smith started 48 years ago and Smith will be recognized long after he leaves the industry for the advocacy he has done for the right to farm.
“Looking back at 18 years in the Napa Valley and at the environment, Stu was right on so many things,” Dodd shared. “What he accomplished was more selfless as it affected the entire industry. History has taught me that when Stu talks, I listen. His opinions, philosophies, values and techniques have stood up over time to the highest scrutiny. Whether I agreed with him or not, he has huge integrity and is willing to speak his mind, even if not politically correct.”
From developing trellising systems to cover crops to dry farming, Smith has also focused his passion on viticulture and farming advances in the mountains. And when not fighting on land-use issues on behalf of the hillside growers or working in the vineyard, Smith has been involved in the local community. “Being in the wine business means being involved in community,” Smith explained. He served on Napa County’s Watershed Task Force for several years as well as the Napa County General Plan Steering Committee, both appointed by the Board of Supervisors. He taught enology at Santa Rosa Junior College and Napa Valley College. Smith has also been involved with the Boy Scouts of America for 24 years, serving as Scoutmaster for St. Helen’s Troop One and continues as the Troop’s Chair today. “The Boy Scouts are an important part of my life. I have had a lifelong love for the Boy Scouts having been one and then getting back into it with my two sons.”
Stuart Smith, photo by Thomas Sanders
According to friend Tucker Caitlin, “Stu is iconic. I hate the word but he is. It comes from being part of the pioneer generation of Napa Valley. He really values the things that matter in life. He knows what matters in life and knows life is short. He is a very considerate and deliberate person, very thoughtful with a great reverence for history which informs his thoughts and what he does. Stu is someone you tend to listen to and if you listen, you always learn.”
Stuart Smith says that his “whole adult career has been doing things the hard way.” It may not have always been easy, but he was driven to make the best wine humanly possible. “It has been a lot of work, a labor of love.” It has been 47 years and Stuart Smith continues to be driven by his passion.