By definition, we suppose, a valley must be surrounded on at least two sides by mountains, and so it is with the Napa Valley, which lies between the Mayacamus and the Vaca ranges. There may be many who think of the wines from Napa Valley as solely the result of valley floor fruit. Well, though some incredible wines do come from the flatlands, so do some fabulous oft awarded bottles from the many mountain appellations scattered throughout the hills and, believe it or not, sub valleys in those hills.
In fact, there are no less than five separate mountain appellations in Napa, and each produce quality wines. As for which is the best, well, that is what allows literally hundreds of wineries in the region to thrive and profit – it’s simply a matter of choice.
Because of the consistent climate in the Valley and its environs, wines from each of the mountain appellations might have similar characteristics each year, allowing many devotees to confidently swear by one mountain or the other. But in reality, the mesoclimates and microclimates not only vary from vintage to vintage, but one area might be the undisputed best one year, and worst the next. Microclimates are just that unpredictable. And when one throws in the varying techniques of winemakers (who move from winery to winery quite like major league baseball managers), you are as likely to prefer the wines from a winery on Spring Mountain in one year, while gravitating toward Atlas Peak the next. There are innumerable wines from which to choose.
Today we feature wineries on two mountains which impart vastly different characteristics to the fruit harvested thereon. These distinctions are greatly the result of many natural factors (as opposed to human intervention) – the type of soil, the length and angle of sunlight, the effects of fog, and the temperature, to name a few. So let us visit two aptly named wineries -- Spring Mountain Vineyard on Spring Mountain on the eastern slope of the Mayacamus, and Atlas Peak at the foot of Atlas Peak in the Vaca range. Both are producing wines we truly enjoyed, and are engaged in long term planning that, it seems to us, bodes well for these wineries.
We begin by heading up the winding and ever-narrowing road that begins in downtown Saint Helena, and will, if followed to its end, crest at the top of the mountain where the mighty Pride Mountain Cellars sits almost as a guardian to what lies on the downside – the Sonoma Valley. If one chooses to go that far, s/he will pass some “pretty fair country wineries” that exhibit why Napa has become a world class wine producing region. Witness the quality of Guilliams, Barnett, Sherwin, Fisher, Keenan, Cain, and Philip Togni, to name a few.
Spring Mountain’s entrance is only about one mile up. It would be impossible to visit this stunning piece of property and not immediately be enthralled by the beauty of the rolling slopes within the hills, the majestic vineyards, and the sparkling of the ever shining summer sun. We experienced added wonder made possible by staff member Leah McEachern and vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand as they drove us throughout the grounds. Can you visit? Absolutely. For the first time in many years, Spring Mountain has been opened to the public, and it is something to see.
We were fortunate to not only spend quality time with the staff, but to be able to taste the wonderful 2001 reds. This vintage allowed for long and steady maturation, which embodied the grapes with great flavor, color, and concentration. The Spring Mountain estate is now 850 acres on the eastern slope of the mountain, and is comprised of four individual historic Napa Valley properties – Miravalle, La Perla, Alba, and Chevalier. Over 225 acres are planted to vine, creating 110 separate hillside blocks with their own unique soils and climates. The wines we sampled both in bottle and barrel were quite excellent.
Moving through the barrel room with winemaker Jac Cole was an experience in and of itself. Usually those who escort writers and tasters on these excursions feel compelled to praise literally everything that is sampled. On this afternoon, while what we tasted in barrels was in fact praiseworthy, we appreciated the more candid analysis offered by Jac. This block, he might opine, had too much fruit, or another might be a candidate for a stand alone, yet not enough was produced. We vividly recall savoring the deeply concentrated and luscious Petite Verdot, which, according to Jac, was “almost too vibrant,” and would need judicious blending. There was little to say about the outstanding 2003 Pinot Noir, however, except that if you like nuances of smoke and bacon, this will be your wine.
In the bottle, we started with the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc ($28), a 100% stand alone from the La Perla and Miravalle blocks. One block provides flinty and mineral characteristics, and the other lends melon and citrus. The integration of flavors with a creamy texture makes for a classic Sauvignon Blanc, and at a fair price.
We liked the three reds we tasted, too, and felt the 2001 Syrah ($50) and 2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) warranted the suggested retail. The former, again a 100% varietal, showed flowers and bright cherries, along with smoke and oak nuances. The latter is nicely layered and shows off some Merlot (15%) and Petite Verdot (5%). As you might guess, the wine has structure, vibrancy, and smooth tannins. The final red of the day was the winery’s reserve wine, the 2001 Elivette ($90). Again boasting some Merlot (8%) and Petite Verdot (3%), this big red is easily drinkable while maintaining its backbone. However, with due respect to the winery, we thought it a bit overpriced.
We aren’t the only ones who appreciate the newly designed and revamped Spring Mountain Vineyard. In November of 2005, the Global Network of Great Wine Capitals awarded the winery its Best of Napa Valley Tourism Award.
On the other side of the Valley, sitting not only at the foot of the mountain that rises above the estate, but also overlooking an other-worldly up lifted valley, is Atlas Peak, a venerable winery now rejuvenated under the winemaking leadership of Darren Procsal, and vineyard management under the watchful eye of chief viticulturalist Tony Fernandez. Wine historians know that Atlas Peak was established as one of the early California Sangiovese producers, and while the winery still grows this Tuscan varietal, Procsal and Fernandez are confidently branching out. Joining the winery in 2002, this dynamic duo is already producing some quality wine, with the best unquestionably to come.
The vineyards at Atlas Peak are planted between 1450 and 1850 feet in elevation. At this height, cool springs inhibit bud break until later than on the valley floor, and the vines grow slower during the summer due to an overall cooler climate. In autumn, Atlas Peak is above the fog line, and so the grapes bask in sunlight from its rise to its fall. This means fewer and less intense temperature swings. While it is cooler on the mountain than on the floor during the day, it is slightly warmer at night. The confluence of these conditions allow for excellent ripening and concentration, without the usual concern about excessive alcohol.
Though we have not said it, you have probably surmised that one of the new projects at Atlas Peak surrounds the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, as far as we know the idea here is novel. Not only will the winery produce a wine from its estate on Atlas Peak, it has embarked on an endeavor to bottle a separate wine from four of the premier mountain appellations in the Napa Valley. Obtaining fruit from Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Howell Mountain, Procsal’s winemaking techniques will be modified appropriately to capture the distinct flavors derived from the respective mountain appellations in which the grapes are grown. Each has its individual soils, climates, elevations, and wind directions. We like the idea of “Four Mountains, One Maker.”
For this year, however, all that was ready for us to taste in bottle was the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38), which proved to be a good representative of the power of the vintage. With significant overtones of blueberry, firm tannins, and an undertone of vanilla and tea, we could picture this wine accompanying a well marbled piece of beef for the next 3 or 4 years. We are also looking forward to tasting next year’s vintage, really the first to be totally under the control of Procsal and Fernandez.
A treat was sampling the yet to be released 2003 Mt. Veeder Cab. Delicious is the only way to describe this wine, as it well represented the balance for which Mt. Veeder is known, as well as the light elegance. Who could dislike a wine with discernable levels of pepper, herbs, spice, and berries (we disagreed as to whether they were blue or black)?
When discussing Atlas Peak, one cannot leave without covering the latest in its Sangiovese saga. As alluded to above, Atlas Peak was first established to lead the state in the Cal-Ital movement, and show what California could do in that regard. Truth be told, and regardless of ads you may have read, but for a very few wineries California has really not shown much. This reality has not escaped the frank and no-nonsense Procsal, who matter-of-factly said to us, “Throw away what you know about Sangiovese. If one treats it with the same respect given Cab and Merlot, and shows some patience, Sangio will evolve into a fine and mature varietal.”
The 2003 Sangiovese exhibited a velvet texture which gave body to dark cherry flavors. As Darren had hoped, this wine did not have a light, almost too acidic finish. It was richly structured and, as the team desired, mature. We know there is some excellent Sangiovese in California, so quality can be achieved. We bet Atlas Peak will do it.