Mountain Climbing
Spring Mountain Vineyard

I recently spent a week visiting nearly every winery on Spring Mountain.  I believe you can make a casenot air-tight, mind you, but a pretty good onethat Spring Mountain District is the most unrecognized source of great wine in Napa Valley today.

How could such a thing happen?  Isnt Napa Valley combed over like the vainest bald man?

It is indeed.  But Spring Mountain is a special case.  Wineries flourished there in the late 19th century, before Prohibition snuffed them out.  There was a flare of interest in the 1970s, but not until the 1990s, when new wineries arrived and existing wineries and vineyards were reenergized by new owners, did Spring Mountain truly revive.

There’s a distinction to the wines from this small zone.  They have that smack of Californian earth that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about.  Every red variety conveys intense licorice, earthy and spice scents.

One standout is Spring Mountain Vineyard, the entrance to which is near the base of the mountain.  During the past decade, ultrasecretive Swiss banker Jaqui Safra has cobbled together four different properties on Spring Mountain to create one contiguous estate with vineyards, most of which are densely spaced, as high as 2,000 feet.  It is one of Californias grandest wine estates.  (Get the superb Sauvignon Blanc and the Cabernet-based Spring Mountain Reserve.)

Nearby is York Creek Vineyards, another large property, with 125 acres of vines.  Only in the late 90s did owner Fritz Maytag decide to start his own winery, keeping less than one-fifth of the grapes from his famous vineyard.  (Seek out the Cabernet Franc and lovely Port-style wine, made from Portuguese varieties.)

Farther along Spring Mountain Road from York Creek Vine-yards is Cain Vineyard and Winery with 84 vineyard acres.  It is a stunning site.  After considerable replanting, Cain is slowly reemerging as a voice of Spring Mountain.

Still farther along is Philip Togni Vineyard, whose Cabernets are among the most acclaimed wines in Napa Valley.  If Spring Mountain has a grand old man, its 76-year-old Togni.

Next door is Robert Keenan Winery.  Started in 1977 by its namesake, Keenan made an early reputation for itself and then slid into the humdrum.  Bit in the late 90s, under Roberts son Michael Keenan, it emerged as a real contender.  Merlot is the winner here, one of the best Ive tasted.

High on Spring Mountain is tiny Barnett Vineyards, with just 14 acres of vines.  Spring Mountain reds can be massive bruisers.  At Barnett, this is kept in check with a Pinot noir-like delicacy, like watching a ballerina beat a brawny fellow at arm wrestling. 

Barnett makes two Cabernets:  One is composed half from Barnetts own vines and half from fruit purchased from York Creek Vineyards, while the other, much smaller, bottling comes from a rocky 2.5-acre outcropping called Rattlesnake Hill.  The later is an exceptional wine and Barnett knows it; he asks $100 a bottle compared with $60 for the Spring Mountain District bottling. 

Yet when I spoke to owner Hal Barnett, he casually mentioned that he declassified his Rattlesnake Hill bottling in 1992 and 97.  You didnt issue Rattlesnake Hill in  1997? I echoed. Why not?  It was a great vintage.

It was for us too, replied Barnett.  But when we compared our Rattle-snake Hill 97 to our Spring Mountain District 97, we couldnt tell the difference.  Im damned if Im going to ask people to pay a premium for Rattlesnake Hill if I cant tell the difference between it and our lower-priced wine.

Near the top, at Smith-Madrone Vineyards, brothers Stu and Charles Smith have been at it since 1971.  Their 1999 Cabernet is a stunner, perhaps their most refined yet.

But Smith-Madrones best-kept secret is its dry Riesling, which is densely concentrated and, like all great Rieslings, very long-lived.  A tasting of 17 vintages, going all the way back to 1977, of the estate-grown Riesling reveals a freshness, a purity of flavor and a savor of site that even Alsatians and Germans would envy.

On Spring Mountains peak is Pride Mountain Vineyards.  Originally planted in 1869, the vineyards didnt reach their potential until Jim Pride bought them in 1990. Prides massive, supple reds are eye-opening, even soul-stirring. 

So next time you go to Napa Valley, my advice it to look up--and then head up.

-Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.