Snowed in with Smith-Madrone

The view from Virginia on Thursday.

March snow makes me a little a lot cranky.  When you flip the calendar to March, snow should be verboten (I know, I know — my German is showing).

And yet . . . it snowed all day on Thursday!  I stopped counting inches, but it got kind of deep out there (not Boston deep, but deep).  Enough to shutter the Federal Government and every school within 100 miles of Washington, DC for two days.

Hmmm.  What to do on a March snow day??  I finished watching Breaking Bad.  And I already made cookies (well, technically, I cleaned up after my daughter make cookies — call it our division of labor).  I could clean my house, but my teenagers are in the house, so that’s pointless.  I could shovel, but I’m on a shoveling strike — and besides, I have teenagers for that.

Which brings me right back to — what to do on a March snow day?  And then — Eureka! Last week, I received three sample bottles from Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa Valley.  As I unpacked them, I thought to myself, I need to set aside some time and food for these guys.
Well, time and food are two things I have in abundance on a snow day, so why not give these puppies a whirl?

Before things got deep . . .

Brothers Stu and Charlie Smith founded Smith-Madrone Winery (in the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley) in 1971 — that’s some serious longevity.  If your winery has been open for 44 years, you’re doing something right.  So, I get the Smiths, but who is Madrone?  Turns out, Madrone is a what, not a who.  Madrone is a type of tree found on the winery grounds.
I guess if you’re going to hyphenate your winery name, Smith-Madrone sounds more Old World sophisticate than Smith-Smith.

I made Chicken Marbella for dinner on Thursday — a dish that’s in constant fall-winter rotation at Casa Armchair Sommelier.  It couldn’t be easier to make — the only tricky part is remembering to thaw the chicken and get it into its marinade bath several hours before you want to eat it.


Chicken Marbella is a recipe that came out of the Silver Palate Cookbook in 1979.  If you’ve had Chicken Marbella before, chances are, its because someone made it for you.  Because if you were simply flipping through the cookbook and read the list of ingredients, you’d think, “Eeeew!  What kind of unholy alliance of foods is that?!?”  But once you try it, you’ll fall in love!  I’ve made this dish dozens of times for dinner guests, and dozens of guests have gone home with a new recipe (everyone always asks for the recipe).

But here’s what I mean about the ingredients:

  • chicken thighs
  • garlic
  • red wine vinegar
  • olive oil
  • prunes
  • green olives
  • bay leaves
  • oregano (oregano isn’t my cup of tea, so I never use this)
  • capers
  • brown sugar
  • white wine
  • parsley

That’s a pretty eclectic mix of ingredients.  Prunes and green olives?!?  Together?!?  And a real head-scratcher as far as a wine pairing.

So . . . since I have three bottles of Smith-Madrone wine, I thought it would be fun (and educational) to taste all three wines with the Chicken Marbella.

But first, I wanted to taste the wines solo.

If I’ve been able to distill any kind of wild generalization for Napa Valley terroir, it boils down to this — wines from the Napa Valley floor tend to be more powerful and fruit forward.  Wines from the mountain area AVAs tend toward a leaner style, with great acid, and mineral & spice elements taking center stage.

So, here’s where Napa Valley terroir becomes important.  The Spring Mountain District is a cool climate, mountain appellation — the vineyards there are planted on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains (the range separating Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley). Elevations range anywhere from 400 to 2,600 feet.  The vineyards at Smith-Madrone are planted at 1,200 to 1,900 feet with 35% slope grades.

Will my wild generalization be reflected in the Smith-Madrone wines?

L to R: Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet

Riesling 2013  ⭐⭐⭐⭐ / 92
100% Riesling.  Easily one of the best US Rieslings I’ve tasted of late.  So many American Rieslings succumb to the off-dry siren song (and end up being cloying), but not this one.  This one is gloriously dry with teeth-twinging acidity and precise balance. Pale golden hue.  Nose is chalk and minerals with a passing whiff of grapefruit.  Flavors of peach and green apple.  Acid lovers of the wine world — this one’s for you!  Retail price = $27 (and worth every penny).

Chardonnay 2012  ⭐⭐⭐⭐ / 92
100% Chardonnay.  Fermented in new French oak for 8 months.  Pale amber color.  The nose is somewhat restrained — some faint buttered toast and pears.  Lean and elegant, with superb acidity and a graceful oak presence.  Definitely more to an old world style than new.  Creamy mouthfeel with flavors of lemon curd and allspice, I feel like I’m drinking a lemon meringue pie. Finishes with a wedge of minerals that goes on for a minute (which is as long as I could wait before having another sip).  Retail price = $32 (bargain alert!).

Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 
⭐⭐⭐⭐ / 92
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 7% Merlot.  Aged for 19 months in French oak.  Lovely garnet color.  Nose is all funk (I’m Team Funk, so this makes me giddy) — white pepper, leather, tar, cedar.  Shows great restraint and finesse.  Fruit definitely takes a back seat to funk (I’m struggling to come up with a dominant fruit note).  I’m thinking currants in a cigar box.  Great balance with layers of complexity.  A massive finish.  Retail price = $48 (a massive bargain — I’ve had Napa Cabernets that weren’t this good at twice the price).

I’ve been told (more than once) that I’m a little stingy with my wine ratings.  I certainly don’t mean to be stingy, just honest.  If I rate a wine 90+ points, it’s because it was memorable — it blew my socks off, and I didn’t want the bottle to end.

Smith-Madrone . . . consider my socks blown off!

All three of these wines are a textbook study in the expressions of cool climate, mountain terroir.  They’re lean, restrained, and focused.  I’ll admit to pushing Napa Valley wines (especially Napa Chardonnay) to the back of my wine bus as too much for too much (a little over-done and more than a little over-priced).  But after tasting these wines, I think I’ve found my Napa sweet spot — the mountains!

And how did each of the wines fare with the Chicken Marbella?

  • Riesling — 👍👍 1⃣ Excellent.  The acidity is perfectly balanced with the food.  Especially adept at taming those green olives.
  • Chardonnay — 3⃣ The oak and heat become slightly more pronounced with food.  There’s a bitterness that gets you on the back end now.  Still, not an unpleasant pairing.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon — 2⃣ There’s something about those prunes that ties this pairing together — it really emphasizes the cigar box note.  Food throws the acid slightly off balance, but even then, it’s not until the back, back end.

Thanks, Smith-Madrone, for bringing a little sunshine into my cold, gray, and snowy March day.



  1. Kirsten, you are becoming either more lucky, or more forgiving – 3 in the row 92 ratings from you? Wow! And I’m fully with you on the snow – at this point, I can’t stand a look of it – which means I have to peer into the walls and avoid looking through the windows…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s