Spring Mountain District, California, USA

Widely considered the birthplace of true mountain Napa Valley farming, the Spring Mountain District is located on the rugged Mayacamas Range west of St. Helena. Like a patchwork quilt, the vineyards are spread across steep slopes and rugged terraces at elevations of 400 to 2,600 feet. Most of the sites are surrounded by dense forest, featuring a natural mixture of pines, conifers, oak, and Redwood trees. Wildlife includes deer, wild turkeys, rattlesnakes, boar, and an occasional mountain lion. In short, it’s wild mountain land at its finest.

As a general rule, the higher you go in altitude, the rockier the soils. In the vineyards, extreme farming practices are used to deal with infertile soils, scarcity of water, and the fact that the region is typically ten degrees cooler than the valley floor during harvest. Together, these factors limit the vigor of the vines. Consequently, the smaller yields help produce intensive wines with concentrated flavors and balanced ripeness.

In 1874, the first documented vines were planted at the La Perla Vineyard owned by Charles Lemme. Over the next decade, Fortune Chevalier planted an additional 25-acre parcel on an adjacent property and Jacob and Frederick Beringer began developing another new vineyard down the road. Starting in the 1880s, some of the early wines were made near the peak of the mountain at the original Spring Mountain Co-op, the ruins of which are now part of the property owned by Pride Mountain Winery.

In 1885, wealthy San Francisco financier Tiburico Parrott planted vines, and developed his winery and caves below the La Perla and Chevalier vineyards. Parrott would later go on to win prestigious wine awards at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair, and the World’s Fair. Nearly a century later, these three vineyards were combined to become part of the Spring Mountain Vineyard, a spectacular estate property and the setting for the popular television show “Falcon Crest” in the 1980s.

Another historic winery is Stony Hill. Located north of Mill Creek. Fred and Eleanor McCrea planted the first new vineyard after Prohibition in 1946. This tiny resurgence eventually led to the establishment of more new wineries that included Ritchie Creek, Smith-Madrone, Robert Keenan, and Newton Vineyards.

In 1993, the Spring Mountain District became an official AVA (American Viticultural Area). Through the years, the unique mountain conditions has attracted numerous superstar winemakers to the region, including Chris Howell, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Phillipe Melka, and the father-son team of Nils and Kurt Venge. The end result is the production of complex wines that woo consumers on a yearly basis; community involvement by local vintners and growers; and global outreach programs, including “Touch the Terroir” boot camp for sommeliers, developed by the Spring Mountain District Association. www.springmountaindistrict.org.

Grape Expectations

Whites: Small blocks of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two most dominant grapes on the mountain. Smaller plantings include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah.

Taste Sensations

White Wines: In general, the Sauvignon Blanc from the district is bright, distinctive and lively, with aromas of honeysuckle and citrus; ripe fruit flavors of melon, peach and tropical fruits; graceful texture; and racy acidity on the finish. For Chardonnay, think ripe fruit, green apple, citrus and mineral. Rieslings tend to be more aromatic with notes of fresh flowers, citrus, apple and ripe stone fruits. Gewurztraminers are often more tangy and spicy, and typically have notes of citrus blossoms, exotic fruits, grapefruit, ginger, and white pepper.

Red Wines: The intensity of the mountain fruit grown in the region helps create polished red wines with deep flavors, natural verve, and bold personalities. Because of the long ripening process, wines can easily adapt to more time maturing in oak barrels. Thus the finished products are frequently highlighted by a combination of power, finesse, and elegance.

The Merlots typically have deep aromas of red fruit, earth, smoke, and layers of spice. The flavors are rich and dense with notes of raspberry, plum, cherry, red currents, cinnamon, milk chocolate, and a smooth, velvety finish. There are also some admirable versions of cellar-worthy Reserve Merlots with dense notes of black fruit, forest floor, caramel, allspice, smooth texture, and chewy tannins.

Aromas of ripe black fruits, licorice, mountain herbs, incense, and forest floor highlight many of the Cabernet Sauvignons. On the palate, wines are deep and intense with flavors of briary blackberry, dark cherry, ripe plum, cassis, wild sage, bittersweet chocolate, baking spices, firm tannins, and integrated oak. The Bordeaux style blends are opulent, elegant, and refined. Many have aromas of ripe berries and fresh cedar, deep flavors of ripe red fruit, black cherry, dark chocolate, earth tones, and chewy tannins.

Food Pairings

With the more acid-driven white wines, think fresh fruit, acid, mineral, and spice. Great pairing examples include goat cheese, fresh salads, fresh oysters, Vegetable Samosas with Cilantro Lime Sauce and Spicy Ginger Chicken Skewers. For the richer styles of Chardonnay, try appetizers like Oysters Rockefeller, Potato Latkes with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche; starting dishes like complex soups and pasta with creamy white sauce; and main entrees like Grilled Chicken, Baked Honey Ham, and Eggplant Parmesan.

Deep Merlot calls for complex dishes: Black Sesame Ahi Poke and Wasabi Cream Risotto with Wild Mushrooms, Grilled Pork Chops, Skirt Steak, and earthy cheeses. For the bigger Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, match power with power. Tasty examples include: Grilled Salmon, Gorgonzola Raviolis, Grilled Steak with Chimichuri Sauce, Roasted Leg of Lamb, and Wild Boar Stew.