As mountains go, Spring Mountain is not up there with the Alps. But at Spring Mountain Vineyard, winemaker Jac Cole and vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand have come mighty close to the peak of perfection for wine production.
Achieving that success has been a lot like rappelling up Mount Everest for the two men — who have known each other for 12 years, and worked together at Spring Mountain Vineyard since 2003. First of all, because, to grow grapes and produce high-quality wine on slopes ranging from 400 to 1,600 feet, you can pretty much toss out the book on how it’s done on the flatlands.
“It’s a learning process,” Cole acknowledged. “The first thing we have to learn is patience, because things happen more slowly on a mountain ... the thinness of the soils, the lack of fertility, how grapes change over time in vineyards. As they mature, they may have some real weight to them that they don’t have as younger grapes.”
The next thing you have to learn at Spring Mountain Vineyard… is, umm, well, where do we start?
For one thing, vineyard doesn’t seem like a word that should be applied singularly to Spring Mountain. There are 135 vineyard blocks contained in the 225 acres committed to grapes on the 845-acre Spring Mountain property. No two blocks are the same.
“They have different exposures, different slopes, different soil types, different elevations and a lot different flavor characteristics than our rivals,” Rosenbrand said. “There is a lot of variance and a lot of exposure differences up here. We have north-, south-, east-, and west-facing slopes, which affect flavors as well.”
The range of variances is evidenced by the 2,200 separate barrels in Spring Mountain’s storage cave.
“Our winemaker has a lot to work with,” Rosenbrand understated.
Work, too, is a misnomer when applied to Cole, who is happily and wholeheartedly engrossed in blending wines from as many as two dozen lots in a trial-and-error commitment to develop the next Spring Mountain success.
“He’s like a kid in a candy store… a great winemaker,” said Valli Ferrell, Spring Mountain public relations director.
“It can get pretty complex,” Cole says of his constant mixing and matching. “The first thing we do is get a triage of the wines and put them into a category. Is it an elegant type of wine, or a more easy cabernet? If it does not have the quality we’re looking for, we take it out of the mix entirely. Once we’ve established where it should go, we’ll sit down with oftentimes a dozen or two dozen lots that would fit into that category and start building a cabernet-first blend.”
Rosenbrand is highly involved in the process, said Cole, “because of what he can do in the future by changing the parameters in the vineyards — increase buds, change timing for pruning, watering schedules, that sort of thing.”
Growing grapes on a mountain confronts Rosenbrand with the problems of erosion. Jute netting and the root systems of cover crops planted in the fall are used to keep soil in place. Water bars and ditches critical to the orderly drainage of storm water are kept scrupulously unclogged.
Eli and Evette
Spring Mountain’s signature wine is Elivette, a cabernet-based blend with traces of petit verdot (9 percent), merlot (7 percent) and cabernet franc (4 percent) structured in the style of a classic Bordeaux. The name was given to the wine in 2000 as a derivation of Eli and Evette, which are the first names of Spring Mountain owner Jacob E. Safra’s parents. Last summer, 3,400 cases from the 2004 vintage of Elivette were released. It has a $100 bottle price.
About 8,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon are produced annually at SMV, along with 1,100 cases of sauvignon blanc and 300 or 400 cases of syrah.
Some 40 to 50 cabs are grown on the property, along with blocks of merlot, malbec, syrah and a small amount of pinot noir.
In terms of history, Spring Mountain Vineyard takes a back seat to no one. Wine has been produced at this locale for more than 130 years. As a residual of the many decades of growing, Cole says SMV’s grapes have acquired a “sensitive quality.”
Spring Mountain’s 225 acres comprise 25 percent of all the vineyards in the Spring Mountain appellation. Its expanse resulted from the fusing of four contiguous vineyards with classic heritage a dozen years ago by Safra. At the highest elevation is La Perla Winery, where German-born Charles Lemme planted the first cabernet vines on the mountain in the 1870s. Just below at 1,200 feet is the Beringer brothers’ original vineyard, planted in 1882. At 1,000 feet is a vineyard planted by Chateau Chevalier in 1891. The lowest in elevation at 400 feet is Miravalle, which in 1885 was the estate of Tiburcio Parrott, who came from Mexico.
Still standing sturdily on the property are the residence of the Beringer brothers, which closely resembles their Rhine House in St. Helena and was designed by the same architect, Albert Schropfer; the towering stone chateau of French-born Fortune Chevalier; and Parrott’s Victorian home, barn and original wine cave.
The structures add to Spring Mountain’s picturesque environment. It is a place of undulating slopes, olive and citrus trees from another generation, vines trellised in an ancient Roman style, and incomparable panoramic views of vineyards and woodlands.
It has some subtle growing advantages over its low-land rivals as well. For one, longevity of the grapes in any given year resulting from vines being exposed to the cooler side of the Valley. “There is a nice balance between the canapé and the fruit,” said Rosenbrand.
Another advantage, there are no frost problems because at night the warmth from the day gets pushed up the mountain side.
“That’s why we have avocado trees growing at 1,200 feet,” said Rosenbrand.
Rosenbrand expounded upon how the limited production of grapes from vines planted in shallow soil makes flavors of Spring Mountain wines more intense. He stopped short of claiming it makes them better than Valley wines.
“There are a lot of great grapes and wine produced on the Valley floor,” he said. “We are partial to what we grow here. We think it’s beautiful wine and we think mountain fruit is very different and has unique characteristics.”