In 1971, Stuart Smith and his brother Charles ’67 established Smith-Madrone, located on the remotest and highest part of Spring Mountain. The winery’s name, “Smith-Madrone,” represents Stuart and Charles’ hard work to create it, and nods to the Madrone trees that distinguish the property. Smith-Madrone’s 1977 riesling won Best Riesling in the international Wine Olympics in 1979, and its later wines helped Napa Valley gain international recognition. In 2022, Stuart and Charles received a congressional resolution for Smith-Madrone’s role in popularizing Napa Valley wines.
Stuart studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis. Over the last five decades, Stuart has been a visible leader in the wine industry, chairing the 1986 Napa Valley Wine Auction; co-chairing the auction in 2006; and serving on Napa County’s Watershed Task Force and Napa County’s General Plan Steering Committee. Two of Stuart’s children are also Cal alumni.
The Cal Alumni Association spoke with Smith for our Bears in Business series, where Cal alumni connect their time at Berkeley with their professional ventures.
Cal Alumni Association (CAA): Where are you from? How did you choose UC Berkeley?
Stuart Smith (SS): I was born and raised in Santa Monica. I went to Cal because it was a good university, my brother had gone there, and the football people were interested in me.
CAA: What’s a snapshot of what you were like at UC Berkeley?
SS: I worked as a volleyball referee and as a pool lifeguard. I was an athlete, played freshman football, and went on to play rugby for Cal. I enjoyed life at Cal during the ’60s. I was in a fraternity for a short while. It was a fascinating place to be especially during the period of the “Blue Meanies” [a nickname for Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies given by demonstrators, based on the cartoon antagonists in the 1969 Beatles movie Yellow Submarine]. It was the beginning of the anti-war movement, the free speech movement. I was a kid with his head on a swivel; it was a big interesting dynamic place. I enjoyed classes, I enjoyed the community, meeting new friends, playing rugby. As a junior, I became more serious in my studies and developed an interest in wine. One of the things I loved about Cal was being able to take a lot of different classes. I was an econ major and really enjoyed many of my professors. I really enjoyed many classes outside my major, such as forensic psychology with Dr. Bernard Diamond, who was Sirhan Sirhan’s appointed psychologist at the time; a wonderful Shakespeare class. There were so many cool classes to take.
CAA: What are your favorite memories at UC Berkeley?
SS: My most striking memories are of the campus protests. The first People’s Park riots with tear gas, the Blue Meanies, and the numerous broken storefront windows on Telegraph. Of course, the Kent State killings galvanized the entire student body to go to the Greek Theater to both protest the killings and show solidarity for change.
CAA: Did your UC Berkeley experiences shape your postgrad goals?
SS: In some ways yes, because I came to maturity at Cal and realized I didn’t want to go back to Southern California. I had made lots of friends from the Napa area and by working in a local wine store I realized the direction I wanted to go with my life included going to grad school in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.
CAA: What advice would you give current UC Berkeley students?
SS: I was surprised when my family did a campus visit for my youngest daughter five years ago, because the presenter discouraged students from changing their majors during their tenure at Cal. To my way of thinking, that approach isn’t realistic. The whole point of going to university is to expand your horizons, knowledge, and experience. As an entering student you may think you want to go in one direction, but there’s a good chance that an interesting class will really pique your interest to go in a different direction; that’s the point, to expand your horizons. So I believe Cal should encourage that exploration and expansion. My advice to all university students that want to change their majors—go for it.
CAA: How does your UC Berkeley education and experience influence your business decisions today?
SS: While at Cal I started to become a critical thinker. My Cal experience also taught me that I had to become my own best advocate, that nobody would advocate for me. One of the things is that at Cal you’re anonymous; it’s up to you if you flunk out or do great. I think that anonymity creates self-reliance and that was part of the maturing process from a boy in a man’s body to being a man. That’s been with me all of my adult life now.
CAA: Who influenced you most as a mentor, either at or outside of Cal?
SS: I really didn’t have mentors in the true sense of the word, but I will say that my experience at UC Davis was as close to mentoring as I’ve ever had. As a grad student, you have a much closer relationship with your professors. I was the first teaching assistant for the Department of V and E working with Professors Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, then with Dr. Lloyd Lider. Amongst those three professors, they were as close to mentors as I’ve ever had.
CAA: How did you get interested in the wine industry?
SS: I had friends who came from the Napa Valley, and as a junior I did a paper on the wine industry for one of my econ classes (maybe 1969), and visited a number of wineries and interviewed several vintners for my research. The Napa Valley wine industry was just starting to grow. With those visits and interviews I recognized there was meaning, an ethics there that I didn’t see or at least didn’t recognize in other industries. It was very attractive to me.
CAA: What does a typical day look like for you?
SS: I rise pretty early, 4:30ish, though I wish I didn’t! The first thing I do is to sit at the computer and see what emails have come in over the transom and need to be addressed. Hopefully, it’s more purchase orders. And then I address issues over incomplete duty and/or transit documents. With my French press coffee, I first read The Napa Valley Register to keep up with local news and issues, then I read the Chronicle, and then skim The New York Times and read their opinion page. Their Tuesday Science section is wonderful. I head off to work with a list of things that I really want to get done that day. Once at work I get pulled in many directions so I’m rarely successful with my lists, yet I still keep making them.
CAA: What’s your favorite place in your winery? Favorite part of your job?
SS: Favorite place: Entertaining or hosting visitors on the ‘wedding grove’ a grass lawn that looks out over much of our vineyard and the entire upper part of the Napa Valley.
Favorite part of job: Working in the vineyard, working harvest and working the crush. Because of the Glass Fire, I’m now trying somehow to manage the devastation that the fire created in our forest. It’s a long-term problem and it’s humbling, frustrating and depressing all at the same time. Working with the land had been one of my favorite things to do, but that’s changed with the Glass Fire and continual threats of wildfire and drought.
CAA: What are some parts of the wine-making process and business that most people don’t know about?
SS: I’ll share three. A UC Davis study found that being a hillside farmer of wine grapes in Napa County makes us the most regulated farmers in America. What most people don’t understand is the enormous number of regulations that both Napa County and the state of CA apply to the wine industry.
The second one is that though we are a very small winery, our sphere of sales, our marketplace, is world-wide; we not only sell to the entire US but we also sell on the international market, to provinces in Canada, the UK, Japan, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, etc. Most small businesses the size of ours have a sphere of influence of maybe a 30 or 40-mile radius we have to compete on an international scale. In essence we have to duplicate a Procter & Gamble on a smaller scale; we have to have a marketing program that reaches the world, a publicity campaign that reaches the world….that’s a daunting necessity.
The third issue is that much of our competition is wineries that don’t need to be profitable. There are many high net-worth folks, celebrities, sports figures, that are in the wine business just to have a trophy winery on their mantle as an ego boost. If they lose money for 20 years or longer they don’t care. They simply offset their losses with income from their other more profitable business. So it’s hard to operate in an industry that isn’t driven by profit. We’re a little old-fashioned at Smith-Madrone because we think that the winery should feed us.
CAA: What’s your go-to wine?
SS: It’s our riesling, which is dry. When I am looking at a serious dinner that is suitable for red, then obviously I go with our cabernet sauvignon, but for that day to day glass of wine at home or a casual meal, I almost always go with riesling. It is the most hedonistic of wines with great flavors and is a constant joy for my palate.
CAA: Which classic Cal campus eatery (e.g. The Cheese Board, Top Dog, Mezzo) pairs best with your wine?
SS: I’ve been out of Berkeley for 51 years, but when I was at Cal The Red Lion on Northside was my hangout.
CAA: What was it like to start your own winery?
SS: It took a tremendous amount of arrogance and tenacity and at the bottom of all of that was fear. I was 22 years old.
CAA: What have been the three most valuable lessons you’ve learned as a business owner?
- Carry no debt, or as little as possible.
- Understand that the wine industry is all about people, it’s not a widget industry. You have to enjoy people to be in the wine business.
Learn more about Stuart Smith and shop Smith-Madrone wines and products on their website, smithmadrone.com, or follow Smith-Madrone on Facebook and Instagram.
Enjoy tasting fine wines and supporting the Cal Alumni Association? Join us in celebrating incredible alumni-made wines by signing up for The Graduate Wine Collective, UC Berkeley’s alumni wine club. Members receive three shipments of wine each year and exclusive invitations to wine-tasting events.