The growers of California's Spring Mountain District don't go in for hype, but that doesn't mean that they haven't got a lot to shout about. NORM ROBY reports.

The growers of California’s Spring Mountain District don’t go in for hype, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t got a lot to shout about. NORM ROBY reports.

Decanter Magazine, January 1998

  • The Spring Mountain District is one of the Napa Valley’s oldest wine regions.
  • Close to a dozen top-notch small wineries have settled in and are now making first-class wines from their estates.
  • The entire sub-appellation now covers about 400ha, with 80% planted to red varieties.
  • Spring Mountain District is definitely evolving into magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon country.
  • Tucked away in the hills to the west of St-Helena, the Spring Mountain District is one of the Napa Valley’s oldest wine regions, but today tourists seldom, if ever, venture there. Apart from the 1980s when Falcon Crest, a painfully popular soap opera, used a Spring Mountain winery as a setting, visitors to Napa Valley had neither reason nor desire to locate the narrow backroad that dissects the Spring Mountain sub-appellation as it meanders to the top of the Mayacamas Mountain range.

    For over 100 years, the Spring Mountain District has been home to people in search of a quiet retreat. In truth, more than a few residents are a bit quirky. In the early 1970s a winery named Yverdon made tremendous Cabernets, but owner Fred Aves, a fascinating inventor-recluse, never got around to making wines again. Even the long-awaited revival of its most famous winery, Spring Mountain Vineyard (the Falcon Crest location), has been moving along at a slow pace with no attempt at hype.

    However, Stony Hill Vineyard, one of the original cult wineries founded in the 1950s, still acts as a model for others attracted to Spring Mountain. Close to a dozen top-notch small wineries have settled in and are now making first-class wines from their estates. The early settlers, Stony Hill Cain, Keenan, Newton, Smith-Madrone and Togni, have been joined by Barnett, Pride Mountain, Paloma and Schweiger Vineyards.

    Ranging in size from small to tiny, most Spring Mountain wineries are product driven, not market driven. The market watchers around the world turn out user-friendly, generic wines or make so-called super-premium wines that are overblown in style and way overpriced. Now that it has a few prominent wineries, Spring Mountain, which is capable of producing tremendously distinctive wines, is beginning to gain national recognition, despite efforts to maintain a low profile.

    Located on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, Spring Mountain begins west of St-Helena around the 130m elevation and extends north and northwest to just over 700m, where at the top of the range it ends at the Napa/Sonoma boundary. Most of the vineyards are either steep enough to require terracing or are contoured. Many of them are not only among the most attractive in all of California but also provide some stunning vistas, overlooking Napa Valley and the eastern hills.

    Bringing many combinations of elevation, exposure and soil to the party, the district has always intrigued growers with its tremendous diversity of sites. Most of the long-established vineyards favour east or northern exposures. North-facing slopes are usually home to varieties that cannot stand much heat, like Merlot and Chardonnay. Along many south- or southeast-facing slopes one finds late-ripening, heat-loving grapes such as Cabernet and Zinfandel; a few trials are underway with Viognier and Syrah. Indeed, with more than the usual number of undulating hillsides, the region has sites facing all points of the compass.

    The biggest vineyard owner, Spring Mountain Vineyard, has vines planted on 114 sites. Pride Mountain Vineyards straddles the summit and its 20 hectares (ha) are divided between 18 different sites. Similar to Mount Veeder and other high elevation locations, Spring Mountain has a much cooler climate when compared to that of St-Helena and vineyards situated along the mid-valley floor. Budbreak is two to three weeks later than it is in the valley because the winters are colder on the mountain.

    During the summer, elevations above the fog line enjoy a few additional sunlight hours per day, but because the cooling ocean breezes arrive earlier the heat level is said to be on average 10?F lower than in St-Helena. All of this adds up to a late harvest that often stretches into late October. At the higher elevations, the soils are volcanic, and as the elevations diminish the percentage of clay-loam and clay increases.

    Throughout the 1990s Spring Mountain has witnessed considerable replanting because some vineyards were hit by phylloxera and a few others were simply past their prime. The entire sub-appellation now covers about 400ha, with 80% planted to red varieties. The majority of red grapes are the Bordeaux cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The white wine acreage is led by Chardonnay, followed by Riesling, which although made only by a few wineries has been exceptional. Interest in both Syrah and Viognier in Spring Mountain is at about the same level as in other California regions.

    One of the finest independent vineyards is the 50ha York Creek Vineyards, owned by the Fritz Maytag family. For close to three decades, Ridge has produced Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet and occasionally a Merlot from York Creek grapes. In the 1970s York Creek Petite Sirahs made by both Ridge and Freemark Abbey along with Ridge’s Zinfandel from this vineyard put Spring Moutain on the map. For many wine lovers, these were the finest early examples of what mountainside vineyards were all about. The 54ha Draper Vineyard, now part of Spring Mountain Vineyard, was also highly regarded for Cabernet Sauvignon that for years went to Beaulieu Vineyard. Another beautiful vineyard is the 14ha Marston Vineyard, now planted to Cabernet, Merlot and a touch of Syrah.

    As for the wines today, Spring Mountain District is definitely evolving into magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon country. There will always be exceptions like Stony Hill’s Chardonnay, Ridge’s York Creek Zinfandel, Smith-Madrone’s Riesling and a Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend from the new Spring Mountain Vineyard, while in vintages like 1994 and 1995, Merlot has come on strong.

    But what presently gives cohesion to the district and what makes it of interest to wine lovers is Cabernet Sauvignon. Early next year, Beringer Vineyards will show its first Spring Mountain District Cabernet: a 1994 from the Marston Vineyards, purchased several years ago. At roughly around the same time, York Creek Vineyards will release its long-awaited first wine, a 1994 Red Meritage made by well-known winemaker, Cathy Corison.

    Spring Mountain Cabernets and Cabernet-Merlot blends are anything but typical. Bob Foley, Pride Mountain’s winemaker, raves about their ‘phenomenal aromatics and extract that make them big mountain wines that finish soft and supple and can age forever’. Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards sees a spicy, peppery character as the unifying regional theme of Spring Mountain District reds. A study in structure with tannins that are present but not overbearing, the Cabernets usually avoid the jammy spectrum to offer aromas and flavours of spiced plums, violets and cassis.

    WINE PRODUCERS

    Spring Mountain Vineyard was acquired in 1992 by financier Jacob Safra and vet-eran winemaker Tom Ferrell. They have replanted the historic Miravalle Vineyard with Cabernet and Merlot, and picked up additional estates including two former winery properties, Chevalier and Streblow (renamed Alba Vineyard and replanted to Merlot), and one of Napa Valley’s most-prized single vineyards, the Draper Ranch. Densely planted, the new vineyards contain Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a smattering of blending varieties. The cooler sites support Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Ferrell likes what he has seen so far from Syrah and Viognier on warm sites with rocky soils. Focusing on a Bordeaux style red and white from the estate, Spring Mountain Vineyard’s first vintage was 1993. Long-term growth projects a total annual production of 35,000–40,000 cases.

    Best wine: 1995 Estate Red

    Robert Keenan Winery began in 1977, and enjoyed great success with early vintages of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Located at an elevation of 560m, the 19ha vineyard has been redeveloped in recent years and now contains only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Chardonnay from non-estate grapes remains on the roster. A reliable winery, Keenan produces 10,000 cases in total.

    Best wine: 1994 Merlot

    Smith-Madrone, owned by brothers Stu and Charlie Smith, began in 1971. With vineyards due west of Stony Hill, Smith-Madrone covers red, rocky, sloping terrain ranging above 530m in elevation. Planted block by block with varieties located by specific exposure, the vineyard is non-irrigated and planted with Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling. Total production is 5,000 cases. The Riesling has always been exceptional and ages extremely well; the Cabernets are keepers.

    Best wines: 1996 Riesling, 1994 Cabernet

    Schweiger Vineyards didn’t start making wine until 1994 even though it had 13ha planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot as early as 1981. Still selling 50% of its grapes to other producers, Schweiger is emphasising Estate Cabernet in its present output of 2,000 cases.

    Barnett Vineyards is making some of the finest Cabernets coming out of California. It has 5.6ha of steeply terraced vineyards planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Established in 1984, the vineyard has since been redesigned with just two rows of vines per terrace. Barnett’s Cabernets are classic mountain wines, compact and rich, with layers and layers of flavours. A rich Merlot is also produced. Pinot Noir from Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands and Chardonnay from Napa Valley are also part of the winery’s 3,000 case annual output.

    Cain Vineyard maintains a beautiful terraced 34ha vineyard planted with the five red Bordeaux varieties. The first estate red from 1985 was a great debut, but the winery didn’t reach full stride until 1990. Since then it has settled on making the long-lived Meritage estate, Cain Five, and a softer, early-released counterpart, Cain Cuvée. Over the last several years Cain’s search for a white wine led to a fine patch of Sauvignon Blanc in Monterey resulting in a crisp, beautifully rendered wine that has been labelled Sauvignon Musque.

    Best wines: 1993 Cain Five, 1996 Sauvignon Musque

    Pride Mountain Vineyards literally straddles the summit at the northern top of the sub-appellation. Actually the boundary separating Napa from Sonoma runs through the winery’s vineyard. The emphasis is on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but Pride also offers Viognier, Chardonnay and Reserve reds. Matching variety to exposure and soils, Pride has quickly emerged as a genuine superstar for its reds. The only problem is deciding between its Cabernet and Merlot.

    Best Wines: 1994 Cabernet, 1995 Merlot

    Stony Hill Vineyards was founded in 1952 and was the best name in California Chardonnay from the 1950s into the early 1980s when the competition stiffened. Its 10ha vineyard along a north-facing slope was originally planted with small-berried clones. Replanted in the early 1990s, the vineyard has been expanded to 16ha, 12 of which are Chardonnay. From nearly three hectares of Riesling, Stony Hill makes a delicate vibrant varietal, while it’s Chardonnay offers more honeyed, mineral notes and ages slowly and better than most coming from California.

    Best wines: 1993 Chardonnay, 1995 White Riesling

    Paloma Wines is the newest winery in

    the district, though its six hectare vineyard was planted in 1984. The owners, Jim and Barbara Richards, focus on Merlot blended with a dash of Cabernet, and in 1996 they expanded their roster to include an estate-grown Syrah.

    Best wine: 1994 Merlot

    Ritchie Creek Vineyard has been making Cabernet Sauvignon since 1974. One of California’s first producers of Viognier, the owner, Peter Minor, has now removed all but a few rows because they failed to consistently ripen in his relatively cool mountain site. He now produces equal amounts of Cabernet and Chardonnay.

    Best wine: 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon

    Domaine Charbay is a curious place making an unusual line of brandy, ‘grappa’, marc liqueur and wine but it seems at home on Spring Mountain. At any one time the roster might include Williams Pear Brandy, Distillers ‘Port’, Black Walnut Liqueur and Pachanga, distilled from sunflower roots. Since 1994, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the primary wine.

    Best wine: 1994 Cabernet Franc

    Philip Togni Vineyard began in 1983 with a string of heavy-handed, tannic Cabernets but in the 1990s the vintages have been much better balanced, though still in need of cellaring. Philip Togni, a highly regarded winemaker whose career in California included stints at Mayacamas Vineyards, Chappellet and Cuvaison, now produces about 1,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. Togni developed four hectares near his Spring Mountain residence in the early 1980s. A couple of hectares of Sauvignon Blanc have been replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

    Best wine: 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon

    York Creek Vineyard enters the arena with its first estate wine, a 1994 Meritage. It seems highly appropriate that one of the oldest and best known vineyards has joined the elite list of estate wineries of the Spring Mountain District. Also, look out for Ridge Vineyards’ York Creek Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

    Written by NORM ROBY