2014 Winery Of The Year: Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery

Wine-lovers who live in the United States are blessed. No other country in the world has access to such a wide range of bottles — wines great and small, bargain-priced and preposterously expensive, classic and experimental; wines from every region of Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and more and from countries many people don't even realize produce wine (Switzerland, Turkey, Lebanon, Mexico, India, Japan); and of course wines from all over the United States, from the major players like California, Washington, Oregon, and New York to a roster of states with small but sometimes promising production, from Alabama to Wyoming.

All this wine means that there are many, many thousands of labels in the American wine market today, from many, many thousands of wineries around the globe. Some estimates put the number of individual commercial wine producers internationally as high as two million! That may be an exaggeration, but there are at least 8,000 in the U.S. and 28,000 in France — and Italy boasts some 900,000 registered vineyards (not every one corresponding to a winery, of course, but still...).

For the past four years, The Daily Meal has named two Chefs of the Year, one American, one international, and for the past two years, we've also singled out an American Restaurant of the Year. Now, for the first time, we are honoring a Winery of the Year, as well. Reflecting the availability of wines from just about everywhere on our wine shop shelves and restaurant wine lists, we threw the field open to the whole world.

Our intent was to choose one property or enterprise, anywhere in the world, that has not only produced excellent wines consistently over a substantial period of time but has also served as an innovator and/or inspiration in the wine business, whether dynamically or simply by example.

Our editorial staff collaborated with some of our regular contributors on wine to come up with a short list of nominees for the honor. We then sent the list to select members of The Daily Meal Council and a number of writers and bloggers with particular interest in wine, including our own wine contributors. We asked them to pick one winery from among our nominees as most deserving of praise as an industry leader this year, and to name a runner-up if they wished — or, if appropriate, write in a deserving winery they thought we'd unjustly missed.

These were the nominees, with notes on why they were given consideration:

Charles Smith Wines (Washington). For earning consistently high scores in major wine publications (including an accolade as 2014 Winemaker of the Year in Wine Enthusiast), for championing unfashionable riesling, and for opening a new 32,000-square-foot winery and event space in downtown Seattle that functions as a showplace for Washington State wine.

Château Pontet-Canet (France). For raising standards of this old Pauillac estate, and for being industry leaders by converting to biodynamic farming and using amphorae to minimize oak aging.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (France). For setting and maintaining the standard for Burgundy.

Domaine Paul Mas (France). For turning out an immense quantity of excellent regional wines — "Old World wines with a New World attitude" — in the Languedoc.

Linden Vineyards (Virginia). For producing consistently elegant and well-made wines from Bordeaux varieties in a challenging wine region and becoming a benchmark for quality East Coast wines.

Ridge Vineyards (California). For being industry leaders, making fine, traditionally styled wines for over 50 years, and for inaugurating ingredient labeling in 2013. 

Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery (California). For creating, without fanfare, some of Napa Valley's best wines for almost 45 years, for industry leadership in labeling reform, and for utilizing innovative vineyard techniques that have led the way for other producers.

Tablas Creek Vineyard (California). For being a leader in use of Rhône varietals in the Paso Robles region, for leading the fight for approval of 11 sub-districts in the area, and for advancing sustainable and biodynamic vineyard practices.

Taylor Fladgate (Portugal). For innovations in vineyard management, winery processes, and grower relations, and for continuing to produce top-level current Ports as well as limited releases of single-barrel vintages that date back to the late 1800s.

Tyrell's Wines (Australia). For continued leadership in the Hunter Valley since 1858, for pioneering chardonnay and bottle-aged sémillon in Australia, and for maintaining consistently high standards across a wide range of bottlings.

We would have happily given honors to any of these properties, but as it happened, the majority of number-one votes from our panelists went to a 44-year-old Napa Valley winery that is highly respected within the industry, though neither a household name nor the object of a cult following. Two other nominees got an equal number of honorable-mention votes, another California property, this one headquartered on the Central Coast, and a legendary French estate that produces some of the most sought-after (and expensive) wines in the world.

Here, then, are our two runners-up and our Winery of the Year for 2014.

Honorable Mention (tie): Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

When celebrated wine estates in France talk about having roots, they're not just talking about the tendrils of the vines. Take the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in the Burgundian commune of Vosne-Romanée, which dates its origins back to 1232, when monks from the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vivant-de-Vergy bought a plot of vineyard land here covering about four-and-a-half acres (the abbey itself, largely destroyed after the French Revolution and only recently partially restored, is remembered today by the name of the appellation Romanée-Saint-Vivant). The abbey gradually acquired more acreage, until the property was sold to a secular owner in 1631, acquiring the name Romanée, for unknown reasons, along the way. After the prince of Conti took it over in 1760, it became known as Romanée-Conti. (The current owners are Hubert de Villaine, Henri-Frédèric Roch, and Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet.)

The domaine today produces seven wines, six of them made from pinot noir, the seventh from chardonnay. The wine called simply Romanée-Conti is considered the apotheosis of pinot noir, at once powerful and delicate, rich and ethereal — as well it might be, considering its fantasyland price (recent vintages typically sell for $6,000 to $12,000 a bottle). Considerably less expensive but still regarded as great wine are the estate's La Tâche, Richebourg, Échezeaux, Grands Échezeaux, and the aforementioned Romanée-Saint-Vivant, all remarkable expressions of pinot noir. The estate's sole white wine, the chardonnay-based Montrachet, of which only about 250 cases are produced annually, is the domaine's second most-expensive wine, and is considered by many to be the single greatest white Burgundy.

One member of The Daily Meal Council who cast a vote for the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Anne Willan, founder of the famed La Varenne cooking school in France, noted that the property "brings a whiff of the glorious Burgundian past to the present with their traditional methods and perfectionist approach applied to some of the finest vines (with a 'v,' not a 'w') in France." Contributor John Tilson, of The Underground Wine Letter, adds that the domaine has been "the historic leader in Burgundy with an unparalleled record of excellence and consistency. Burgundy has centuries of history and the DRC is the one by which all others are judged."

That, ultimately, is the point. Though not many wine drinkers can afford the wines of this venerable estate, anyone who drinks quality Burgundy (or other good pinot noir-based wines) of any kind likely benefits, by extension, from the standards that the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has established and maintained through so many generations.

Honorable Mention (tie): Tablas Creek Vineyard

To begin with, at this 25-year-old Paso Robles property owned by noted wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel (Rhône Valley royalty), there are the wines: the rich, juicy whites (largely roussanne) and reds (mostly mourvèdre) sold under the Esprit de Tablas (formerly Esprit de Beaucastel) label, as well as the more approachable Côtes de Tablas offerings, and the limited-edition single-variety wines released from time to time based on a wide variety of grapes. Beyond what's in the bottle, Tablas Creek has been an undisputed industry leader in the Paso Robles region, championing biodynamic farming and other sustainable agricultural practices and fighting for the identity — or identities — of their region. Late last year, largely through their efforts, the federal government's Tax and Trade Bureau (which regulates the American wine industry) approved the division of the Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area — our version of France's appellation contrôlée) into 11 sub-AVAs.

"It was so important that Paso be split up into appellations," says contributor Elizabeth Schneider, a certified sommelier and popular wine blogger. "The area where Tablas Creek grows grapes is nothing like the hotter, inland areas. Distinctions between this large, varied place will help people get the styles they desire. For that, and for just making kick-ass wine year after year, Tablas Creek is my selection!" John Tilson hails Tablas Creek "for bringing Old World know-how to a new viticulture area. Sustainable agriculture practices and traditional winemaking have established them as a role model for Rhône varietals [in California] and the wines are consistently excellent."

Winery of the Year: Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery

A couple of amiable, bearded-and-mustachioed brothers, Stuart and Charles Smith (no relation to prolific Washington State winemaker Charles Smith) — vineyard manager and winemaker, respectively — grew up in Santa Monica. Stuart studied enology and viticulture at California's most famous wine school, UC Davis, working as the first teaching assistant for the school's legendary wine gurus Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, and then starting Smith-Madrone in 1971 (the second half of the name is a reference to the red-barked madrone trees that grown on the property). Charles taught school for a couple of years before joining his brother at the winery. Smith-Madrone produced its first vintage in 1977.

The winery property covers 200 acres near the summit of Spring Mountain, long known as the home of some of Napa Valley's best producers (one of the first high-quality boutique wineries in the state, the celebrated Stony Hill Vineyard, is practically next door). When the Smiths started working the land here, they discovered evidence that there had been vineyards on the site as early as the 1880s. Today, about 34 acres are planted to grapes — cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and riesling, with small quantities of merlot and cabernet franc for blending. Production remains small — about 5,000 cases a year — and Smith-Madrone wines seldom show up on "trophy" lists. Connoisseurs who really know California wine, though, tend to love them. The chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon regularly wine gold medals around the country, and the winery's exquisite riesling was named "Best Riesling in the World" in 1979 at the International Wine Championships sponsored by France's Gault-Millau magazine.

Wine writer and contributor Gabe Sasso cast his vote for Smith-Madrone "for all the reasons listed" — the quality of the wines and the winery's industry leadership — but added "They continue to sell wines at drinkable prices!" (Their first-rate cabernet costs around $45 a bottle, and that acclaimed riesling goes for about $26.)

Contributor Anne Montgomery is a particularly enthusiastic fan of the winery. "In addition to creating fabulous wines," she says, "the brothers are impressive industry activists: Stu took on the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and lobbied relentlessly to be able to change the name of the varietal from the confusing moniker 'Johannesburg Riesling' to simply 'Riesling.' The BATF informed him that his only option was 'White Riesling,' as if the wine could magically be produced in other colors. Stu persisted, and the government finally caved, freeing American producers to properly identify their home-grown product. They also fought for their right to clear their land and then fought for their vines instead of quitting after being devastated by [the vine pest] phylloxera. These two brothers are just so passionate, and their wines are superb value. I love French wine, but these guys are true American pioneers." (For more on Smith-Madrone by Montgomery, click here.)

For their passion, then, and for their activism, but most of all for a long history of quietly making excellent wines at sensible prices, we name Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery as The Daily Meal's first Winery of the Year.