The Rebirth of Spring Mountain
Perhaps no property in Napa Valley has generated more interest than Spring Mountain Vineyard, the setting for the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest in the 80s. Yet the vineyard and winery almost disappeared from public view shortly after Swiss financier Jacob Safra acquired the historical estate in 1991.
Thats about to change as the winery, near St. Helena, opens to public tours once again.
The famous TV program is really just a footnote to the propertys long history. Todays 850-acre Spring Mountain Vineyard includes four historic properties, two prominent in Napas wine heritage La Perla Vineyards and Winery (later called Draper Vineyards) and Chateau Chevalier. Also included in todays Spring Mountain property are Streblow Vineyards and Spring Mountain itself, which began life as Miravalle.
In the last decade, the property has been transformed into a showpiece of modern viticulture and environmental sensitivity. Most of 225 acres of vineyards have been, or will be, replanted.
A rich history
In October 1992, under management of Tom Ferrell, Safra bought the remnants of the old Miravalle/Spring Mountain property at a bank foreclosure. It had last been owned by Mike Robbins, who bought the property in the mid 1970s. The property once contained 800 acres planted primarily in olive groves in the 1880s by San Francisco businessman Tiburcio Parrott.
His old stone Victorian, Villa Madrona, some uninspiring white wine inventory and 25 acres of vines remained on the property when Safra bought it. It also contained a long-abandoned 90-ft. cave behind the ruins of the old 4000-case winery, which has since been rebuilt.
In 1993, Safra expanded his holdings, buying contiguous Streblow Vineyard, a 30-acre property with a small modern winery.
That year, he also bought Chateau Chevalier, a historic 120-acre property owned by the late Gil Nickel of Far Niente fame. It had been terraced in 1985 and planted on AXR-1, a grapevine rootstock beloved by phylloxera lice. It, like the rest of the vineyards, had to be replanted, a huge expense on the steep slopes, one reason Safra was able to acquire the land reasonably.
Chateau Chevalier itself is a magnificent twin-turreted stone winery built in 1891 by Fortune Chevalier. A mansion nearby burned and is now a ruin, but the property was turned into a home by other owners in 1971.
The winery building has been since restored to its earlier configuration and the residence removed, but Chateau Chevalier is virtually inaccessible on marginal roads so it is used for wine storage.
The pearl of the acquired property, however, is Draper Vineyard, which Safra acquired in 1996. This 435-acre site includes some of the most diverse land on Spring Mountain, an eastern outcropping of the vast Mayacamas that separate Napa and Sonoma valleys.
On the Draper property is the old stone La Perla cellar built in the 1870s by Charles Lemme from Germany. He bought 70 acres next to Jacob Schrams land and planted Cabernet in 1873. The land was later owned by Claus Schilling of the San Francisco spice family and bought in the mid 1940s by Joseph Draper.
Part of the Draper property had once been owned by the Beringer brothers; it was their first vineyard other than 20 acres of Mission grapes around the winery. In 1885, they planted 60 acres of vines in the rugged hills, though later sold it because it was too expensive to farm. The property is now called Beringer Flats in tribute to them.
A fantastic collection of vineyards
Todays Spring Mountain Vineyard encompasses 135 different vineyard blocks in 225 acres exhibiting diverse soils, slopes, exposures and microclimates. Theres a 700-degree-day difference in conditions between the warmest and coolest blocks, for example.
Each block makes a different wine, claims Ferrell, who returned to the property this year after a short hiatus. The vines represent a hodgepodge of grapes, but are being replanted to focus on the Bordeaux varietals that excel on Spring Mountain. Ferrell has also planted some Rhne vines.
Ferrell is now blending wines in the Bordeaux tradition of combining blocks to complement their characteristics, but he doesnt preclude the Burgundy practice of selling wines from specific slopes.
Among the variants on the property are the soils. Those in the Spring Mountain area are a unique combination of volcanic and sedimentary soils. We have very rocky, broken-up Franciscan soils, Ferrell says.
Like the soils, climatic conditions are quite unusual in the vineyards. The Mayacamas overall are high and block much of the cool air from the Pacific, but theres a gap above the property near Cain Vineyards. This cool channel from the coast has a big influence on our weather, he says.
Much of Spring Mountain is pretty cool, Ferrell says, and wines from near the top of the property can be herbaceous with strong bell pepper flavors. They also can ripen late.
The original Spring Mountain property was planted in 1980 on 11- by 8-ft. spacing, allowing only 500 vines per acre, but it was replanted one meter by one meter with 4000 vines to the acre.
Though the property was dry farmed for a hundred years, Ferrell says that modern rootstocks are too weak for that, so drip irrigation has been installed for all new plantings. He thinks about 25 percent of the mature vines wont need water because for their locations, however. Water comes from four wells on the property. The vineyards previously drew water solely from York Creek, but it goes dry in dry years.
A supporter of the environment
Ferrell has planted his vineyards with careful attention to the environment. Like many growers, hes an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable practices, but unlike most, he is also a firm supporter of Napa countrys tough hillside ordinance. The Hillside Ordinance is great. I cant find any fault with it, he exclaims. It costs more now, but it makes complete sense long term.The location is a poster site for hillside planting, with a minimum slope of nine degrees except in a few flat spots, and some exceedingly steep plantings. Previously, the vineyards hadnt used cover crops, and the erosion was horrible. Now, many steps help prevent erosion with its loss of valuable and scarce soil. The day after escrow closed on the Draper property, for example, it was seeded with rye and clover from a helicopter.
To use the cover crops, however, he needed drip irrigation or the cover would compete too much for precious water.
Ferrell worked closely with the county and its Resource Conservation District in replanting. In addition, an engineer from the Federal Natural Resource Conservation Service helped design the anti-erosion measures, including the extensive drainage systems. The excess water is channeled to York Creek through drains and gullies protected by stone. You can already see a difference in York Creek. Its much clearer than before, he notes.
While supporting environmental practices and anti-erosion measures, however, Ferrell has a difficult time understanding the Sierra Club and its attacks on responsible growing. Theyve decided that scrub bushes with poison oak is more beautiful than vines. I think the mixture of the vines with standing redwood trees and other native woods is great. The Drapers, for example, had kept trees on the property, some in inconvenient places.
He notes that a vineyard produces more oxygen than a scrub forest, and with the cover crops, theres no erosion except on the roads. Hes taking care of that with tailings from his extensive cave project and points out that deer trails cause erosion, too.
One of the biggest projects in resurrecting the winery has been building an extensive system of caves for aging the wine and even case goods. Most caves in Napa Valley are dug in inviting volcanic tufa or stable if solid stone. Not Spring Mountains. It was dug in treacherous soils that required extensive reinforcing, as demonstrated dramatically when it suffered a partial collapse during construction.
Two parallel tunnels are dug 150-ft. long into the mountain behind the winery with a total of 1000 linear feet including the cross tunnels and entrance and emergency exit. Theyre 13-ft. high with almost square walls rather than the more common rounded configuration.
After earlier exploration by a local contractor, Ferrell contracted Harrison Western Company of Colorado to build the structure because the loose serpentine soil required techniques like those for highway and rail tunnels, gold mines and NORADs Cheyenne Mountain complex resistant from nuclear attack.
One mystery was solved in building the cave, however. Tunneling in from the back, workers found no walled-up secret cave containing old wine or skeletons behind the existing tunnel.
Today, the winery conducts two public tours for two to ten people daily. The tour includes a tasting of four Spring Mountain wines in the large Victorian home. They include a hillside Sauvignon Blanc, the estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a reserve Bordeaux blend called Elivette and Syrah.
The tour does not include the Draper property which contained the old La Perla Winery, the Chateau Chevalier estate and the Streblow Winery property.
To schedule a tour, call Valli Ferrell at (707)967-4188 or log onto www.springmountainvineyard.com.
The tour and tasting costs $25 per person, but the cost is applied to wine purchases.