Searching for a Great White
Spring Mountain Vineyard

The most difficult of all wines to recommend is - this will surprise you - white wine. What's so tough about white wine? From a drinker's perspective, it's not at all hard to swallow. But from a critic's vantage, finding worthy white wines is surpassingly hard.

The problem is that most white wine grapes have little intrinsic flavor or character. Red grapes, like good houseguests, take care of themselves. They have a lot to offer. This is why, for example, cabernet sauvignon does so well in so many places around the world. The grape brims with flavor. So even if the site is second-rate, you still get a tasty wine, if not necessarily an especially profound one.

White wine grapes have none of this. Many tasters are shocked when they try an unoaked chardonnay. It's quite neutral-tasting. Ditto for chenin blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc, arneis, aligote, semillon, trebbiano, garganega, and macabeo, among many others.

Oh, there are a few white grapes, such as gewurztraminer and muscat, that pack their own bags, as it were. Gewurztraminer is famously spicy. And muscat is renowned for its intense, ripe summer fruits perfume. Riesling and sauvignon blanc are more intrinsically flavorful as well.

White grapes are finicky about site. For a white wine to really stand out - to be something more than a banal "I'll have a glass of white wine" sipper - takes a slot machine-like alignment of luck in lining up grape, soil, and climate. When all three align, you've got a winner.



It seems odd that one of Napa Valley's most significant estates - indeed one of California's grandest properties - is still so little known. Yet Spring Mountain Vineyard languishes in semi-obscurity. The reason is very likely that its notoriously secretive owner, Swiss banker Jacqui Safra - of the billionaire Safra family - likes it that way.

Mr. Safra cobbled together four separate but contiguous properties to create an 850-acre hillside property with 230 acres of vines, most of which are newly planted, often with expensive close spacing of the vines to increase density.(This is thought to improve quality, but the jury is still out.)

Spring Mountain Vineyard first came to fame in the now-legendary 1976 Paris tasting when California chardonnays and cabernets triumphed over their French counterparts. A tasting panel composed exclusively of renowned French tasters, doubtless sure that they could distinguish great white Burgundies and red Bordeaux from upstart California chards and cabs, discovered otherwise.

The Californians trounced the French, to their anguished dismay. (What is the French word for "aghast"?). Spring Mountain Vineyard, for its part, saw its 1973 chardonnay come in fourth, beating such famed white Burgundies as Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches, Ramonet Batard-Montrachet, and a Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet.

Since then, it was downhill for Spring Mountain Vineyard. The wines went from strength to weakness. Founding owner Mike Robbins went bankrupt. Finally, Mr. Safra bought the property in 1992, restored its landmark Victorian mansion and badly tended vineyard, installed a new winery, and built caves for aging. He then purchased three additional contiguous properties, transforming the original Spring Mountain Vineyard into a much larger estate.

Only now are these improvements, especially in the vineyard, literally coming to fruition. Partly it's management - Mr. Safra didn't even want people in the wine trade visiting, never mind the public. Also, the wines in the late 1990s were works in progress, with burly reds that were a touch too tannic.

Now, however, things are changing. Spring Mountain Vineyard is now open to the public (you pay a $25 fee, but it's applied to anything you buy). The new vines are bearing. And winemaker Tom Ferrell - Mr. Safra's original winemaker, who left and has since been rehired - is reshaping the wines with an eye to greater finesse and subtlety.

The wine you should seek out first is Spring Mountain Vineyard's extraordinary 2002 sauvignon blanc. Made 100% from sauvignon blanc, it sees only 15% new French oak. So what you're getting is exceptionally pure fruit flavor.

What emerges is compelling: a rich, dense, mouth-coating wine with refreshing acidity that conveys classic sauvignon blanc flavors of fig, melons, and citrus. These meld into something unusually cohesive. The style is Bordeaux-like, but few white Bordeaux deliver these kinds of goods. Simply put, it's one of California's finest sauvignon blancs.

Not much is made, just 700 cases total. But with a bit of looking you can find it. Serve this blind to your favorite Bordeaux snob and you'll get the same smug pleasure the rest of us got back in 1976. $32. Look for a street price as low as $28.