Halfway to Heaven atop Spring Mountain

A few blocks off St. Helena’s Main Street, tree-lined Spring Mountain Road begins its 2,000-foot ascent from the Napa Valley floor. Wildflower sprays brighten the two-lane road in spring; fifty shades of green predominate the rest of the year. Just before the Sonoma County line, an elegant hand-crafted wrought-iron gate with gold- leafed spires and grape clusters opens into the gravel driveway of Schweiger Vineyards. Gently arcing rows of terraced grapevines command   immediate    attention,    though on sunny days the eye invariably drifts skyward, north to Mount St. Helena and east to Howell Mountain. Stands of Douglas firs, madrones, live oaks, and a few redwoods obscure the valley floor, reinforcing the sense of a serene, self-contained  universe set apart from Napa’s hoopla.

“‘This is halfway to heaven,’ is a typical remark when guests first arrive” at the 55-acre estate, said cofounder Sally Schweiger recently in the winery’s light-filled tasting room. The vaulted space’s largest window and the    terrace just outside, where tastings also take place, look onto widely spaced rows of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ginny and Nikki, the family’s two retrievers, often dart through the vines at warp speed while raptors glide high overhead. Bluebirds that take up residence in strate- gically placed nest boxes appear like clockwork each vintage to protect the grapes from harmful insects.

The origins of the pastoral tableaux visitors experience today date back more thanSchweiger, then in his late teens, purchased the 8-acre parcel where the Cabernet now grows. The sole access to Fred’s heavily forested land was through a larger adjacent property owned by his parents, Tony and Theresa Schweiger.

“Oh honey,it’ll just be a hobby,” Fred told Sally.

THREE-FIGURE TRANSACTION

In the early 1960s, said Fred, only a few families lived that high up the mountain, and there were no wineries (the entire Napa Valley had about a dozen and a half). “I offered $225, the sellers countered with $275, and over dinner we settled for $250,” recalled Fred  of the matter-of-fact transaction—one that these days would require three more zeros just to initiate negotiations.

Fred and Sally, who met while attending San Francisco’s Lowell High School, married in 1966 and had two children, Andy and Diana. The family lived in Sonoma County, where Fred started a construction company, but spent many weekends up on Spring Mountain. When contracting jobs dried up during the late-1970s economic downturn, Fred sought ways to keep his talented team of carpenters intact, eventually proposing to hire and work with them to clear trees to make way for a vineyard.

First, though, came the matter of con- vincing Sally to sign on to the project. “What are we going to do with a vineyard?” Sally remembered asking Fred. “Oh honey,  it’ll just be a hobby,” he replied. As the years  went by, “Our ‘hobby’ became our lifestyle,” laughed Sally.

FAMILY AFFAIR

From the start, Schweiger Vineyards has been a family affair. It took a year  and  a half to clear 35 acres and plant several vineyard sections, and three more years for the vines to yield viable fruit. Photos on view during present-day winery tours show three generations pitching in: Tony and Theresa Schweiger planting the first vines, Andy  and Diana hard at work pruning, and Fred, Sally, Andy, and Diana posing with the first Chardonnay harvest.

Fred still drives the 1947 Caterpillar D2 tractor used to clear the  land.   “It’s  a  chunk  of iron that won’t stop, as the old-timers say—always there, always your friend,” said Fred, who’s revved up the tractor for every major project since prepping the land for grapes. Many visitors, he added, are surprised to learn that the family built all the property’s structures— barn (1986), house (1992), winery (2000), and tasting room (2011).

When it came time to decide  what  grapes to plant, Herman Hummel, a Spring Mountain neighbor and longtime Napa vintner, advised the family to stick with the “queen” and “king” of grapes—Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. By  1984,  Fred, who took viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and U.C.  Davis  along  the  way, had fruit ready to sell to top-flight op- erations like ZD Wines for the Chardonnay and Newton and Stags’ Leap Winery for the Cabernet. 

After ten years of selling grapes and seeing other wineries produce highly praised wines from them, the Schweigers decided to take  the  next  step and start their own label. By that time, Andy, who had interned at ZD, Joseph Phelps, and Trefethen wineries while earning a degree in winemaking, viticulture, and microbiology at U.C. Davis, was ready to step in as winemaker. For a few years, he kept his day job, first as a lab tech at Chateau St. Jean and later as a production manager at Cain Vineyards.

BROADENING THE PORTFOLIO

The first Schweiger wines were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot a subse- quent addition. After Andy joined the winery full-time in 1999 (Diana came on board in 2001 to handle marketing), he began broadening the portfolio. Among the new bottlings were single-varietal Cabernet Franc and Malbec, blends like Dedication (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,   Cabernet   Franc,  and Malbec), and two port-style dessert wines, Napuro from the Chardonnay and Iteration from the Cabernet Sauvignon. In a few years, after recently planted vines mature, Andy expects to insert  Pinot Noir into the lineup. Unlike many other wineries, Schweiger Vineyards doesn’t produce a Reserve tier of wines, and that’s intentional, said Fred: “Everything we do is our best.”

As for the tasting room, which Sally oversees, doing the best means taking the time to get to know guests and honoring the fact that many of them have chosen   to spend part of their vacations visiting the estate. “Sally has the personality to make anyone feel at home,” said Fred. In keeping with the family’s aim-to-please style, the wines poured at tastings, always by appointment, can vary de- pending on guests’ preferences. Five current wines, typically two whites and three reds, are the focus of the Estate Tasting Experience. The Library Tasting, which features older vintages, provides the opportunity to see how well these collector-worthy wines age.

ALL-TERRAIN EXPERIENCE

Guests see plenty of vines from the tasting room and terrace, but those wanting to investigate the estate close-up can book the All-Terrain Vineyard Experience. Conducted  by either Fred or Andy from May to early September, it’s a breathtaking way to get a feel for just how steep this mountain property is. Another treat is being able to sip wines right where their grapes are grown. Not to mention bask in those fantastic views.

On the All-Terrain tours, Fred is apt to describe the care he took to construct and grade the terraces to prevent erosion, and Andy might discuss how great winemaking always starts in the vineyard. Many eco-friendly practices were put into place long before “sustainability” was a buzzword, said Fred—“It’s just good farming.” In recent years, the Schweigers have achieved Napa Green certification for both the vineyards and the winery, along with separate recognition from the Fish Friendly Farming organization.

WEALTH OF TANNINS

“Because of the way our land formed—two tectonic plates pushing together to form the Mayacamas range and Spring Mountain— we have five different soil styles, one of them volcanic ash,” said Fred. These varying soils influence wines’  flavors  as do the high elevation and temperatures that tend to be cooler than the valley floor during the day but oddly warmer, especial- ly in the late evening, because Schweiger Vineyards lies well above the fog line.

Andy cites the volcanic soil and the top-of-mountain microclimate as key reasons the Schweiger red wines possess a wealth of tannins. He tempers them using several cellar techniques, most notably aging the wines up to three years in French oak barrels and two more in the bottle, longer on both counts than most wineries. “Although they age well, our wines are truly ready to drink upon release,” said Andy.

Soil and climate are two principal elements of “terroir,” the French term that in its narrowest interpretation describes the factors that give a particular region or vineyard a unique “sense of place.” More broadly, terroir also encom- passes the human dimension. With the Schweigers, this includes not only the familiarity with their vineyards’ nuances that comes with four decades of farming but also the continuity of having the same winemaker since the winery’s inception.

WORKING TOGETHER

“It’s about father and son working closely together,” said Sally. “They work so well as a team. Andy can say to Fred, ‘let’s do this in the vineyard,’ and they can work   it through. Also, having our own vineyard workers and not having to rely on a vineyard management  company,   then we have better control of what goes on in the vineyard, giving us consistent grape quality year to year.”

As a family, the Schweigers pride them- selves on hard work and meticulous farming by multiple generations, all traits they share with their full-time vineyard crew. Samuel Montañez, who retired recently to his native Michoacán, Mexico, started in 1981, the same year as  his younger brother Juan, who’s still on staff. Working alongside Juan these days as he has for nearly two decades is his brother-in- law Arturo Garcia.

“Our ‘hobby’ became our lifestyle.”

Asked what he admires most about Montañez and Garcia and the relatives that assist them at harvest and other times of the year, Fred instantly replied, “Their work ethic, honesty,  and  true love and respect  for  each  other  and us.” The bond between the Schweigers and their crew solidified  during  a  trip  to Michoacán that resulted in Fred, im- promptu, spearheading the installation  of the first septic system in Samuel’s village. “Now almost every house has indoor plumbing,” said Fred, who felt “privileged” to contribute.

EXTENDED FAMILY

Though less dramatic than Fred’s not-so- random act of kindness in Mexico, the genuine interest the Schweigers and their small staff take in the lives of tasting room visitors is the reason so many return. “During a  tasting  our  guests  often  ask  if they can be part of our family,” said Sally. “That’s why we call our wine club Extended Family. If they join while they’re here, we hug them and say welcome to the family, and we mean it.”

Among the family-style events held each year on the estate, the most popular by far is the late-summer Grape Stomp. Participants begin by heading into the vineyard to pick grape samples, after which Fred teaches them how to use a refractometer to determine the sugar levels, or Brix. The goal is to pick grapes at similar Brix levels and then go to town stomping, with prizes awarded to the attendee who comes closest to matching the Brix—and the one who misses the mark by the most.

Fred enjoys the Grape Stomp, which is open to the public as well as club members, because it’s equal parts entertaining and educational,  offering  guests  a window into what it really takes to  grow grapes and make wine. “You get up here on the mountain, and you  get  to see people actually working to make a living at farming,” concluded Fred. “Most people appreciate that, and we’re happy to oblige.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

707-963-4882 

www.schweigervineyards.com

Article By: Daniel Mangin // Photos By: Bob McClenahan