Spring Mountain and its elegant, woodsy cabernets

Of the “mountain” AVAs in the Napa Valley, probably my favorite is the Spring Mountain District, on the western edge of the valley. Conditions here in most years yield red wines, notably cabernet sauvignons, that are fully ripe without being overripe, accented by a savory, woodsy note.

There is no actual Spring Mountain – it’s more of a saddle between Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain. The AVA, which sits above the town of St. Helena, takes its name from the area’s numerous natural springs. The terrain is steep in some places, rolling in others, with a variety of exposures, although most vineyards are basically east-facing and thus protected from the intense summer afternoon sun. But vineyards, which range from 400 to 2,100 feet in elevation, generally stay above the cooling fog.

A vineyard in the Spring Mountain AVA, on the western edge of Napa Valley. (Photo courtesy of Spring Mountain District)

There have been grapes grown in the area since the 1870s, but the appellation’s modern era began with Stony Hill, established in the late 1940s, and accelerated in the 1970s, with the founding of wineries such as Spring Mountain, Smith-Madrone and Keenan Winery. It was recognized as an American Viticultural Area is 1993. Most of the district’s production is red, particularly cabernet sauvignon, although the venerable Stony Hill is best known for chardonnay.

Nearly a dozen wineries – just a small slice of the appellation, really — participated in a trade tasting a few months ago. Here are some of the highlights.

Keenan Winery is one of Spring Mountain’s oldest. Robert Keenan in 1974 purchased 180 acres that included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, which had been abandoned during Prohibition. Keenan planted the property to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay and built a new winery using the old stone walls of the Conradi winery. The first vintage was 1977.

Keenan’s estate wines now include chardonnay, cabernet franc, reserve cab and reserve merlot; there are also Napa Valley appellation wines. The Spring Mountain wines have always been big and structured, and that was on display at the tasting, especially with the 2014 Keenan Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($104), which is very concentrated, tight and tannic, with ample black fruit and a graphite note. It needs some time to show its potential.

Spring Mountain Vineyard is another historic property in the appellation. Viewers of 1980s television will recognize the beautiful Victorian mansion on the property as the setting for “Falcon Crest.” That estate, known as Miravalle, was founded in the late 1800s and became Spring Mountain in 1974. The current Spring Mountain Vineyard estate combines Miravalle with several other properties.

The 2015 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) is fresh and well-balanced, with black cherry, cassis and fine tannins. The winery also poured an older vintage of cab, 2004, that was impressive, with black fruit, a note of tobacco leaf and firm tannins.

Barnett Vineyards is a little newer to the scene. Hal and Fiona Barnett bought their property at the top of Spring Mountain Road in 1983. I’ve always liked the elegance of the Barnett wines, and their current offerings are good examples of that. The 2016 Barnett Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($80) is bright and savory, with dark fruit, notes of anise and olive, and firm but approachable tannins. The 2016 Barnett Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($190) offers more concentration and bigger tannins.

After the tasting, I pulled the 2005 Barnett Cabernet Sauvignon from my cellar. It was plump and still quite youthful, with lively black fruit, a hint of anise and resolved tannins.

From Terra Valentine, there was the 2015 Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), which comprises grapes from two estate vineyards. The wine is big and structured, with black currant, nice tension and some savory notes. The winery also poured its more limited 2015 Foretell Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), which offers even more concentration, some spicy notes, good freshness and a very long finish.

And finally, there’s the historic Stony Hill Vineyard, founded by the late Fred and Eleanor McCrea. The McCreas planted chardonnay, which wasn’t common in California in the ‘40s, because they loved the white wines of Burgundy. They went on to plant riesling, gewürztraminer and a little semillon, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Stony Hill planted cabernet sauvignon. The Stony Hill cab shows the same elegance and finesse that the chardonnays have always been known for.

Although the 2015 is now available, at the tasting the winery showed the 2013 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($76 and still available). The wine is nicely balanced, with lively black cherry fruit, some anise notes and a long, drying finish. The chardonnay from the same vintage is still very fresh and grapefruity, while the 2017 White Riesling ($39) offers racy lime flavors and just a tinge of sweetness. (Smith-Madrone, by the way, is another winery that makes an estimable Spring Mountain riesling.)

The McCrea family sold Stony Hill almost a year ago to the family that owns Long Meadow Ranch, so it remains to be seen how the wines might change.  The 2018 vintage was the last one made by longtime winemaker Mike Chelini.


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