Higher Ground
Spring Mountain Vineyard
Napa and Sonoma's mountain vineyards produce Cabernets with desirable intensity

Spring Mountain Vineyard Spring Mountain Vineyard Spring Mountain Vineyard Spring Mountain Vineyard



High above the ritzy bustle of Napa Valley is the domain of the mountain man.

The mountain man is a rather independent sort. Like his brethren on the valley floor, the mountain man makes a great Cabernet, but being shy, or maybe downright unsociable, he may not keep regular tasting room hours. He'll be the first to tell you that his mountain wine is different. It ain't for the faint of heart, but that's what some folks like about it.

"Mountain vineyards are more difficult to farm. It's harder work to establish them, they're lower yield. I think the people who planted the vineyards at elevation are a different type of character maybe," says Philippe Melka, a consulting enologist whose clients include Marston Family Vineyard on Napa's Spring Mountain.

Once the land gently rises for several hundred feet up the base of the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges from the valley floor, the hillsides turn steeper and rockier. These vineyards have rockier soils and better water drainage than those on a valley floor. They tend to produce smaller grapes with relatively less juice and relatively more skin. All of a wine's color, all of its tannin and much of its flavor complexity comes from the skin, so mountain vineyards tend to produce more intense, deeply colored and more structured wines. It's a difference that you'll see not just in California but all over the globe.

And that's only part of what sets these vineyards apart. Hillside vineyards often have more varied soils as well as varying altitudes and orientations toward the sun. At higher altitudes the daytime temperatures are cooler, which changes the ripening pattern.

Napa Valley is a great place to compare mountain wines with valley floor wines because Cabernet Sauvignon is the preeminent grape both on the valley floor and the mountains that rim the valley: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak. Each of the mountains produces a distinct sort of wine, but they share similar qualities when compared with valley floor wines from Rutherford or St. Helena. The gently sloped transition between the valley floor and steeper mountainsides is usually called the "bench." Benchland vineyards, usually only a couple of hundred feet in elevation, offer something of a hybrid of valley and mountainside fruit character.

Mountain Character

Pat Stotesbery of Ladera Vineyards, which controls vineyards on Howell Mountain as well as the steep and elevated Lone Canyon vineyard just outside the Mount Veeder appellation, says mountain vineyards have a different climatic rhythm. Bud break is almost always later, says Stotesbery, "and that can only be because it's cooler." During the rest of the growing season the mountain vines slowly catch up to the valley floor. Though the mountains are cooler during the day, they get more early sun because they are above the fog line. In the afternoon the heat from the valley floor begins to creep up the hillsides. "There's an intense depth to the wines that I taste off the mountains. There's a brightness to the fruit, there's a bit more going on," says Sam Baxter, general manager and winemaker for Terra Valentine on Spring Mountain.

Many Microclimates

Even small hillside vineyards can have a mix of soil types and elevations, microclimates and sun exposures that add varied flavors and textures, and that can result in very complex wines because those various patches must be farmed differently, resulting in quirky, unique wines. "It's more work, but I think what you get from that is the wine ... is going to have its own thumbprint, its own character."

Napa isn't the only California region where high-altitude vineyards produce exceptional wine. Consider Ridge's Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon produced from the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, an area that also produces some mineral-laden Chardonnays. Josh Jensen's long-lived Calera Pinot Noir from Mount Harlan in the California Central Coast is another example. And the high ridges along the Sonoma Coast are gaining a reputation as one of the finest places in the state to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

"It's almost like men versus women," says Michael Honig of Honig Vineyard and Winery in Napa's Rutherford district, which sits on the valley floor and extends up to the benchlands. "Mountain wines are bigger, with more alcohol, more tannin. Valley floor wines are softer and a little rounder, more feminine. The world needs both men and women to continue." Honig says valley floor wines can age too. "The average consumer is not so interested in whether a wine can age for 50 years. We try to make wines that can age 5 or 10 years, but aren't for a 30th anniversary."

Read between the lines and you may find that some wine critics prefer structured mountain wines, while others prefer more plush valley floor wines. In recent San Francisco Chronicle panel tastings several mountain Cabernets earned recommendations, but so have benchland wines like Shafer Hillside Select and valley floor Cabernets like Honig's.

But more than half of Wine & Spirits magazine's top nine American Cabernets last year came from Napa mountain vineyards. When you consider that mountain Cabernets comprise a small minority of Napa's total Cabernet production, those figures are telling.

And mountain-grown wines -- a Von Strasser Cabernet from Napa's Diamond Mountain and a Domaine de la Terre Rouge Syrah from the Sierra Foothills -- have been named Wine of the Year at Connoisseur's Guide to California Wines for two years running.

Charles Olken, the guide's publisher, says his tasting panels are frequently able to identify a mountain wine in blind tastings. "It's less plush. It has tighter structure without being hard, and there is frequently a little kind of dry spice aspect, not like a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, but there's something different in the character," says Olken.

"You're looking for depth, you're looking for balance, you're looking for complexity. You get a lot of those things in mountain vineyards, particularly in the reds, but you can also get wines that have a lot of structure and not much center," says Olken. Because mountain wines are generally more tannic, and sometimes higher in acidity and lower in alcohol, some wine buyers believe that they mature more slowly and age more gracefully than valley floor wines.

Ageworthy Wines

Rhett Gadke, wine director of the Bounty Hunter, a mail-order catalog catering to collectors of high-end California wine, believes that mountain wines take time to become approachable, but are longer lived. "To my mind the common thread that they share is ageability. A lot of stuff you see grown in Rutherford and on the valley floor in Oakville, they're brilliant wines, but if you were to look at them apples-to-apples 15 to 20 years later, my guess is that the mountain stuff would hold up better."

Randy Dunn, who has been making wine on Howell Mountain since 1979, believes that mountain wines age better, but says he intentionally makes his wines with less alcohol and more tannin so that they'll last longer in the cellar. "I started out making the wines the way I did and I'm not about to change just to go along with the crowd. Some people are making wines that are released and you take it home and drink it. Well, there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you want to do, but supposedly, historically, artistically, wines do evolve with age and if they do, they develop into something better than they were when they were bottled," says Dunn.

Large Wineries Take Interest

Small family estates dominate the Napa mountains, but some large companies have also taken an interest in hillside vineyards. Beringer, now part of the beverage giant Foster's Group, has helped family estates develop and plant vineyards on Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain in Napa Valley in exchange for long-term leases that entitle them to a share of the fruit for a number of years.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates has made several long-term investments in mountain vineyards as well. Kendall-Jackson prefers to own its land holdings, and in recent years has invested heavily in mountain vineyards in Sonoma County and Napa Valley, banking on their future value.

The strategy, according to Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson's winemaster and chief operating officer, is to secure and develop the types of vineyards that can produce the sorts of grapes that make great wines.

Ullom says that mountain vineyards' rockier soils produce smaller grapes with comparatively more skin and less juice. "The berry size goes down and the yields go down, but the concentration of the flavors and the quality of the grape and subsequent wine goes up logarithmically," says Ullom. "If you're aspiring for high-end wines, that's the way to do it."

Kendall-Jackson produces its Highland Estates line of small-production wines priced at $50-$60 exclusively from ridge, mountainside, hillside and bench vineyards. In addition to Napa, Ullom sees great potential in the eastern sides of Mount St. Helena in Sonoma's Knights Valley, Alexander Valley mountainsides, Bennett Valley and the red soils on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder.

But does any of this make California's mountain wines superior? The idea that certain vineyard sites might be better for growing great wine isn't exactly new. In France, the most consistently outstanding vineyards have been officially honored with grand cru (great growth) and other rankings. In theory, at least, the top "cru" vineyards are determined by their superior soil, geography and climate rather than by the skill of the people who own it.

It may be worth considering whether certain sorts of California vineyard sites are beginning to outperform others. But even if mountain vineyards make more intense and cellarworthy wines, California doesn't have a cru-style ranking system. And the idea of establishing a class system for vineyards or anything else may be a hard sell in a society that fetishizes class mobility. Even winemakers and critics who prefer mountain vineyards are hesitant to endorse a formal ranking.

"I think it kind of goes against the spirit of viticulture, especially in California," says Terra Valentine's Baxter. "As a winemaker and as a grape grower, you want to always feel that you have the chance to make the next great wine, and I think that doing some sort of classification system is only going to make the cut feel like they don't have to keep working at it and it could lower the striving for quality."

Olken also gives vineyard classifications a 'nay' vote. "I'd rather not have a ranking system. I'd rather put them in a cover and taste them blind and say, 'This is this year's great wine,' rather than be told that Rubicon is a first growth."

For now, mountain wines don't necessarily cost more than wines from valley floor vineyards. Gadke says that a few regions -- Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Spring Mountain -- do have some marketplace cachet, but others like Atlas Peak lag behind in name recognition.

If mountain wineries really want to distinguish their product, they'll have to sell the concept to consumers, Gadke adds. "I don't think they have adequately defined even amongst themselves just what makes their regions special. If the mountain districts ever do command a premium it will be because there was a sense of recognition of quality. If you ask a Mount Veeder vintner what makes Mount Veeder special and he can't answer in 30 words or less, then it doesn't matter in the marketplace."

A Taste of Mountain-Grown Cabernet Sauvignon

Mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon is notorious for taking a little more time to open up, but it's often well worth the wait. Vines planted in thin, high-elevation soils produce smaller grapes with more skin and less juice than grapes grown on the valley floor. The result is concentrated with deeper color and more tannin than grapes grown at lower elevations.

The mountains ringing Napa Valley are known for producing some of California's best and longest-lived wines, but great Cabernet is also grown on the other side of the Mayacamas range in Sonoma County. I tasted 21 mountain-grown wines from Napa and Sonoma counties and these were my favorites.

2003 Atlas Peak Atlas Peak Claret ($86) Impeccably balanced and elegant with a lovely nose of blueberry, cassis, sour cherry, olive, anise, cinnamon, toast, concentrated black cherry and currant, gravel dust and olive flavors that aren't at all heavy and finish with just the right amount of zesty acid and tannin.

2003 Atlas Peak Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($86) Lots of toasty new oak in the nose, plus cedar, black cherry, toast and red currant flavors. Concentrated, supple and rich, finishing with fine, well-proportioned mountain tannins.

2003 Fantesca Estate & Winery Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) A bit on the simple side for a wine in this price range, but a good wine from a young estate closer to the base of Spring Mountain. Ample black cherry, cola, blackberry, dried herb aromas and cherry licorice, vanilla and thyme flavors finishing with mild tannins.

2004 Frias Family Vineyard Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) Opulent and fruit-driven with cassis, black cherry, chocolate and licorice and dried herb aromas and intense, almost sweet black-fruit flavors balanced by fine, grainy tannins and great natural acidity.

2002 Guilliams Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) A lovely Bordeaux-like Bordeaux blend from John and Shawn Guilliams' estate near the top of Spring Mountain. Very nicely balanced with black cherry, black currant, subtle mint, cola and vanilla notes; an agile wine with great acidity and proportionate tannin.

2004 Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Napa Mountain Estate Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) Dynamic and layered with rich blackberry compote, pound cake, cinnamon, cassis and coriander aromas. Loaded with ripe fruit but focused thanks to plenty of acidity and lots of mountain tannin. Best in a few more years.

2004 Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Trace Ridge Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) Intensely colored and shy at first, then opening up to show tightly wound blackberry, cassis, gravel dust, coffee aromas, nice red currant and raspberry flavors, a bit of cola and licorice and lots of rocky minerality and stiff muscular structure.

2003 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($68) Intense, concentrated and very ripe with dense blackberry, boysenberry and vanilla aromas plus a penetrating cherry note and subtle dried herb and spice flavors. Sweet and ripe, but stays balanced with minerally flavors and stiff tannins that will take a few years to mellow.

2002 Marston Family Vineyard Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($90) Close to perfection. Packed with tremendously expressive cassis, boysenberry, dried herb, graphite, cedar, chocolate flavors, loam, ultra-ripe black cherry flavors and plenty of highly polished tannin. Just beginning to blossom, it should age beautifully.

2004 Pride Mountain Vineyards Napa/Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($66) This wine from vineyards at the top of Spring Mountain straddling the county line is always a hot commodity with intense black cherry, graphite, black currant, dried herb, coffee, olive and toast flavors and at this young stage, lots of heavy-duty tannin.

2002 Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette Reserve Spring Mountain District Estate Red Wine ($90) A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc with classic Cabernet Sauvignon aromas of toast, cassis, black cherry, olive and hints of cedar, concentrated black cherry, cassis and dried flower and herb flavors bolstered by very fine, sturdy tannins. A gorgeous, exceptionally complex Napa Cabernet that will reward patience.

2002 Spring Mountain Vineyard Spring Mountain District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) A little tightly wound with intense, focused cherry, cassis, toast, cedar, graphite, black pepper aromas, concentrated and intensely flavored but not heavy. Brightened by racy acidity and ample alcohol on the finish.

2003 Terra Valentine Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) A mouth-filling Cabernet with tons of class in the compact black cherry and cassis fruit, aromatic red pepper, root beer, toast, mineral and dried herb flavors with polished tannins. Built to last, and a very serious wine for the price.

-- Tim Teichgraeber

Tim Teichgraeber is a San Francisco writer. E-mail him at wine@sfchronicle.com.