WH Smith Wines is a small winery & estate located high in the hills of the Howell Mountain sub appellation south east of the community of Angwin. Founder, Bill Smith moved to Bakersfield California from Illinois when he was 2 years of age. Later in life he became involved in oil and gas exploration – taking a job at Buttes Gas and Oil (based in Oakland), he soon moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. He then founded Montara Petroleum with several partners – looking for additional land investments while exploring the Napa Valley he located the old stone La Jota Winery high in the hills of Howell Mountain.
Bill & his wife Joan purchased La Jota winery (the winery dates from 1898) and property (40 acres) in 1974, and oversaw the planting by hand (with help from his family), putting in 2 acres of vines. His first commercial vintage from this property under the La Jota Winery label was in 1982. Bill credits, one of his neighbors, prominent winemaker Randy Dunn as being an initial early influence during his formative winemaking years. In the early 1990s Bill let winemaker Helen Turley borrow some production space within La Jota Winery (the sister of Turley Winery owner Larry Turley). The roots of W.H. Smith and their Pinot Noir began here.
In exchange Helen gave Bill valuable insights about how to make Pinot Noir and even connected him with the owners of the Hellenthal Vineyard in Sonoma County (a vineyard that W.H. Smith continues to source from). Deciding he needed a different label to differentiate from La Jota, he bottled this first Pinot Noir as W.H. Smith. Eventually they purchased 375 acres in what is now the Fort Ross Seaview part of Sonoma County – what they called the appropriately named Maritime Vineyard. They produced wine from this site for a number of years before selling it in 2006 to Del Dotto Vineyards – who then renamed it to Cinghale and still produces exceptional wines from this site (based on our personally tasting several vintages over the years).
Bill was the winemaker for La Jota until he sold the winery to Markham in 2001 (La Jota is now owned by Jackson Family Estates). Eventually retiring from his former career, Bill became the winemaker for W.H. Smith Winery until his passing in 2017. After the sale of La Jota Winery, Bill remained on Howell Mountain where he built the W.H. Smith Winery (a tiny winery with a cave and crushpad nestled against the side of a hill – and is where we first met with Bill many years ago). The one vineyard under their ownership, Piedra Vineyard is also on Howell Mountain – nearly 7 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.
And Bill was one of the founding members of the Howell Mountain Appellation along with Mike Beatty, Randy Dunn, Bob Brakesman and Mike Lamborn. Howell Mountain along with Los Carneros were the first two sub appellations formed within the Napa Valley (both founded in 1983)
Despite the winery being located on Howell Mountain (Cabernet Sauvignon country), the bulk of their production as of our latest update to this review, is Pinot Noir (four different Pinots produced) as this variety was one of Bill’s favorite wines, as well as several Cabernet Sauvignon wines, a Sauvignon Blanc, a rosé and a Cabernet Franc. Bill used to produce big bold high tannic Cabernet Sauvignons but later in life he told us that he began to enjoy softer wines with finer grained tannins – with mouth feels more velvet in nature; these are the style of Cabernet Sauvignon that the winery currently produces. To produce these “softer” wines their winemaking team removes the seeds during every step of the winemaking process. Grape seeds have a lot of tannins and when they are sitting in alcohol, the actual alcohol will cause the seeds to release their tannins into the wine.
While W.H. Smith began their production with Pinot Noir – their wine portfolio is now primarily both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first commercial vintage of W.H. Smith Wines was in 2001. The source of the Cabernet Sauvignon is from their Piedra Hill Vineyard, located next to the winery. The location is above the fog line which provides a cooler overall climate compared to the Napa Valley floor. This means longer ripening, higher acidity and a more even ripening of the grapes.
W.H. Smith selects only the most intensely flavored and aromatic wine from select barrels for the final blends. They also keep fruit from individual clones separate until the final blends are constructed. We tried several barrel samples during our visit including what would become the components for the W.H Smith 2006 bronze label. This dark wine has a very rounded mouth feel; even so young, it is already an elegant style of Cabernet Sauvignon.
We thought it was impossible to find a Howell Mountain based winery producing high quality Pinot Noir until we visited W.H. Smith. Of course this isn’t Pinot Noir country and while they do grow a small block of Pinot Noir on Howell Mountain (only one of two vintners we know growing this variety on the mountain – the other being Prim Cellars, although we heard Abreu Vineyards has a small experimental block) the majority of their Pinot Noir is sourced from premium vineyards located along the Sonoma Coast region in Sonoma County.
During our visit with Bill, we tried numerous Pinot Noir wines while still in barrel. Our favorite was the Pinot Noir produced from the Hellenthal Vineyard – located at about 1800 feet. This is a very dark wine with earthy notes on the bouquet followed by vibrant cherry and raspberry flavors. A number of area wineries have discovered this vineyard and source fruit from it. The vineyard site is only 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean so it receives a fair amount of wind and fog, which are perfect growing conditions for this variety.
The Maritime is their premium Pinot Noir and the fruit for this wine is selected from several vineyards all within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Compared to their Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir this wine is generally darker and more shows more concentrated fruit both in the bouquet and on the palate, all the while retaining the wonderful elegant smoothness. The palate shows a variety of fruit including plum and cherry with a soft lingering finish.
The bronze label 2006 W.H. Smith Wines Howell Mountain estate wine has a distinctive nose that shows hints of evergreen mixed with aromatic dark fruit followed by a palate that is surprisingly smooth for this mountain grown wine. The tannins are balanced and form the structure of a pleasing finish. The 2006 W.H. Smith purple label, also an estate wine from their Howell Mountain vineyard is a decidedly bigger wine than the bronze label – its a wine for serious Cabernet Sauvignon lovers. Hints of vanilla and ripe black fruit show in the bouquet followed by rich concentrated dark fruits on the palate.
In mid 2009 W.H. Smith Wines opened a beautiful tasting room in the town of Calistoga. At one point, what was probably a Napa Valley record at the time – three tasting rooms were lined up in a row (although one of their neighboring tasting rooms has since closed). Downtown Calistoga is not large; W.H Smith is within easy walking distance of other tasting rooms, boutique shops and plenty of restaurants. Street-side parking on Lincoln Ave (the main street) is the closest although there is some limited parking curbside on neighboring streets.
The tasting room is small but has never felt crowded during our several visits.
Wine enthusiasts looking to further their education should inquire about “Wine Sensory Experience”, a 1 hour course filled with very educational sensory exercises about wine. The class is taught by Bill and Joan’s daughter, T’Anne (by appointment only) Friday-Sundays in the mornings. She has over 30 years experience in the industry and during this course provides information about how to recognize wine aromas, wine profiles and soil characteristics and how they affect wine.
At the end of the class guests will taste all wines offered in the tasting room as well as cheese and light appetizers. This course is always held in the mornings before their general tasting room is open and as a result the course is entirely private.
Sometimes you can find Bill’s wife Joan in the tasting room. On occasion, W.H. Smith Wines will hold special events from time to time in this tasting room.
Total production is usually around 4,000 cases annually. For more information about W.H. Smith wines and or to join one of their Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon centric wine club membership levels, visit: www.whsmithwines.com