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02.10.2008

Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa: Current Releases

Friends and acquaintances often ask for recommendations on where to go in Napa, and I always tailor my response to my understanding of how serious they seem about wine. The majority of such petitioners are just looking to have a bit of the "Napa experience" and so I send them to a mix of my favorite wineries on the valley floor that are easy to find, and that produce wines in various styles and price points. For those who are serious about wine, and want to spend the entire day tasting some of the best wine they can, I always send them up Spring Mountain.

Regular readers may recall that on occasion I have actually admitted that Spring Mountain District is my favorite Napa appellation. I try to avoid having favorites, and I try even harder to avoid sharing them publicly, but dammit, it's true. Across all of Napa's AVA's, I believe the producers on Spring Mountain to be making the most consistently excellent wines -- wines with character, bright fruit, and a distinct sense of smv-logo.gifplace -- of any single AVA. Sure there are superstars that I love elsewhere, but in my opinion, the average quality of a Spring Mountain wine is higher than in any other Napa appellation.

It is impossible to discuss Spring Mountain without conjuring up the eponymous winery and estate, which is the largest and arguably the most storied vineyard on the mountain. Spring Mountain Vineyard and its 845 acres of property are descended from and comprised of several separate estates whose histories go back to the very beginnings of winemaking in Napa.

In 1873, a German immigrant named Charles Lemme acquired 285 acres of land on Spring Mountain, 65 of which he planted with grapes in 1874, including the very first Cabernet Sauvignon to be planted in the area. Two years later he built and established the first winery on Spring Mountain, which he named La Perla (the Pearl). This winery would be sold two decades later to the Schilling family who combined it with another vineyard and incorporated the Spring Mountain Vineyard Company in 1903.

Around 1890, an enterprising spirit with the extremely appropriate name of Fortune Chevalier purchased a large plot of land on Spring Mountain and began construction of a winery. Chevalier, who was 76 by then, spent only a few years producing wine before he handed the reigns of the estate over to his son George. Faced with impending prohibition and the devastation of his vineyards by the vineyard pest Phylloxera, George Chevalier sold the winery, which changed hands several more times before falling into relative disuse until the 1970's when it was revitalized under the Chateau Chevalier label.

At the same time Chevalier was constructing his original winery, a man by the name of Tiburcio Parrott, the son of the wealthy U.S. Consul to Mexico, John Parrott, was given a gift of 800 acres of land on the slopes of Spring Mountain by his mother. Settling down in the small town of St. Helena, Parrott soon became friends with the Beringer brothers, Fredrick and Jacob, who he called "Los Hermanos," a name by which the German brothers soon became known throughout town. The Beringers inspired Parrott to build a winery estate, and introduced him to their architect Albert Schroepfer, who built Parrott a massive home that Parrott dubbed "Miravalle" for its view of the valley below. Nearly 100 years later, this Victorian mansion and the working vineyards surrounding it would become the set for the Falcon Crest soap opera.

In 1992, the secretive Swiss banker Jaqui Safra purchased the Miravalle, La Perla, and Chevalier properties, and in the few years that followed, transformed them into a single, stunning estate whose terraced hills are easily some of the most picturesque vineyards in California.

Spring Mountain Vineyard's wines are made by Jac Cole, a U.C. Davis trained winemaker who made wine at Charles Krug, Stags' Leap Winery and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, among others before ending up at Spring Mountain in 2003. Cole, along with longtime friend and vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand meticulously farm the 135 separate vineyard blocks that make up the forested and expansive winery estate. Cole jokes that when he first arrived at the winery, "I needed GPS to find not only the location of each block, but where the heck I was in relation to the winery!"

Each of these blocks, covering a total of about 225 acres, and making up roughly 25% of the vineyard acreage on Spring Mountain, is densely planted with vines trained in the unusual (for Napa Cabernet) head-pruned style known as the Gobelet Method. This method of growing grapes, without the more common trellises that support many separate cordons of grape vines, yields fewer grape clusters and smaller berries, according to Rosenbrand, and softer, more expressive aromas, according to Cole.

Each of the vineyards 135 blocks are harvested separately by hand, double sorted, and 100% destemmed before beginning fermentation, which varies in its use of whole berries depending on the particular tannin profile of the individual block. The red wines are aged in a mix of French oak barrels, with generally about 50% of the barrels being new each year.

Keeping each of the blocks separate until a final, gargantuan blending session, Cole assembles each wine through careful tasting, saving the best blocks for the winery's flagship Bordeaux blend called "Elivette." In addition to this blend, the winery makes a straight Cabernet Sauvignon, a Syrah, a Sauvignon Blanc, and little known to most, a tiny amount of Pinot Noir, a varietal most people would never attempt to grow on Spring Mountain.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

TASTING NOTES:
2003 Spring Mountain Vineyard "Elivette" Bordeaux Blend, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Dark ruby in color, this blend of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc smells of a deep loamy concoction of wet earth and tobacco with high notes of oak. On the palate it is rich and velvety with lush cherry flavors, excellent acid balance and mouth-coating tannins. The finish is long and surprisingly very oak influenced, with vanilla and toasted oak signatures -- surprising because generally only about 50% of the barrels used for this wine are new. Despite tasting a bit too much of sweet wood, there's no denying this is a stunning wine. 1910 cases produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70. Where to buy?

2004 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot has a nose of rich chocolate and cherry cola. In the mouth light dusty tannins surround juicy fruit flavors of cherry and plum, and sweet oak flavors rise to coast through the substantial finish. Also a bit heavy on the wood, but far from a hard wine to drink. 2800 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

2004 Spring Mountain Vineyard Syrah, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of strong white pepper aromas that I hardly needed to put my face in the glass to smell. On the tongue, white pepper is also a prominent flavor, along with black and red cherries and a hint of cassis. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $44. Where to buy?

2003 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells alluringly of pipe tobacco and what I can only describe as redwood bark. In the mouth, sweet tannins shape flavors of chocolate and cherry and grip the mouth lightly as the wine finishes just slightly shorter than it should. The current lack of satisfying finish shouldn't keep anyone away, though, as this is a very nice wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. Where to buy?

2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine has a grassy nose of gooseberry fruit. In the mouth it offers apple and citrus flavors with a nice minerality that is marred by a hint of plastic-like flavor in the finish. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $25. Where to buy?

Comments (2)

Morton Leslie wrote:
02.14.08 at 9:40 AM

The lack of response to your thorough evaluation of this vineyards production is probably a testament to how much this winery has slipped under everyones radar. And I'm glad for it. I'm not sure many appreciate what they are experiencing when they walk the quiet and empty grounds or sit under the chandelier in the dining room of the mansion. Most wine enthusiasts and collectors are after "points." They care little about the early history and the character of the Napa Valley when it was first settled. They care about the "score."

Though sometimes a wine of this hillside vineyard might be a bit intense and pricey for my tastes (and wallet), their wines give me a glimpse of the Napa Valley when everything was horse drawn and blossoming for the first time. Though the viticulture and winemaking today is a bit more sophisticated than in the 19th century, the close spacing and gobelet pruning of this vineyard is as close as one gets to taste what the pioneering founders experienced 120 years ago. While I cannot fault anyone for finding this property interesting, I hope this vineyard remains in the backstream and off the beaten path.

David Vergari wrote:
02.15.08 at 11:12 AM

Full disclosure: I met Jac Cole in the nineties through the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group.

I believe that it will not take very long for the winery to "pop up" on various radar screens. I've tasted some recent offerings and they're first rate. Kudos to Jac and Ron.

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