For many wine enthusiasts, bigness in red wine is always a virtue – especially those opaque, jammy, blockbuster cabernets with plenty of tannins. It’s a style that’s dominated the story of Napa Valley reds for years. But an alternative Napa Valley style has also earned accolades over the years, the balanced, more complex wines made from the grapes grown in the volcanic soil on the steep slopes that rise from the Valley floor separating the Napa Valley and Sonoma County to the west.
The Spring Mountain AVA (American Viticulture Area), with its diverse topography, volcanic soils, and high elevations exceeding 2500 feet, has produced award-winning reds with intense fruit and elegance and balanced tannins for decades. It’s a location that encompasses about 8,600 acres above St. Helena on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. With approximately 1,000 acres dedicated to grapes, the area contains a patchwork of steeply-terraced vineyards sometimes hidden in the rolling, deeply-wooded terrain.
“It’s a time of renewal, and we’re hugely positive and committed to revitalizing the hillside vineyards and wineries. There’s a lot of strength on the Mountain.”
–Elizabeth Marston, Marston Family Vineyards
Spring Mountain has a long growing season, with more moderate temperatures than the Valley floor and most vineyards sitting above the fog line. The climate and terroir result in rich, supple wines with characteristic elegance and good acidity complementing ripe, black fruit flavors. “We have a mineral-rich environment on the mountain, with twenty-four different soil types that produce complex, well-structured wines,” explained Sheldon Richards of Paloma Vineyard. Michael Keenan, Director of Keenan Winery, a multigenerational family-owned estate operation on the Mountain, said they are attempting to produce wines that reflect the soil and the area they were grown in, not the craft of the winemaker. “We’re looking for a balance between the New World sweetness and sunshine and the savoriness and complexity of the subdominant flavors that exist in all of our varietals, especially our cabs and merlot. That gets lost if they ripen too long.”
The modern history of the AVA starts with Fred McCrea and his wife Eleanor, who, in 1943, discovered a 168-acre plot of land hidden away on the slopes of Spring Mountain while camping. They purchased the property and named it Stony Hill Vineyard. The McCreas loved French white wines, and Stony Hill had the ideal growing conditions for that style. The McCreas built the first post- Prohibition winery in the Napa Valley in this spot in 1951 and released their inaugural vintage the following year.
Other winemakers became attracted to the area in the late sixties and seventies. They founded a number of wineries, including Ritchie Creek, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Smith-Madrone, Keenan, Newton, Cain, Barnett, Terra Valentine, and York Creek Vineyards, among the producers located in the AVA.
The majority of the area’s wineries are small, family-owned operations, with some producing as little as 1,500 cases each year, most from fruit grown exclusively on the Mountain. These wineries are primarily vertically integrated, with resident families taking care of everything from tractor work to international trade shows. In the Spring Mountain AVA, winemakers like to think of themselves as mountain men and women producing mountain wines. “You can’t make great wine from anything other than great grapes, and we get better grapes in the mountains because they have to struggle, and that creates character, and the juice-to-skin ratio of smaller berries creates intensity,” said Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards.
Now home to some thirty brands, the Spring Mountain AVA was among the first regions in the Napa Valley to receive recognition as a unique growing area, and thanks to the efforts of Fritz Maytag and Michael Marston, becoming established as an official American Viticulture Area in 1993.
Over decades of winemaking, the Spring Mountain AVA has established a solid reputation for producing fruit-forward, complex “mountain” wines in various styles through its family-run operations. But in late September of 2020, the Glass Fire put the region, like a lot of areas around St. Helena, back on its heels. In that fire, entire vintages were lost. Many homes and structures were burned to the ground, including significant losses at Cain, Marston Family Vineyard, Newton Vineyard, Paloma Vineyard, Behrens Family Vineyard, Ritchie Creek and Sherwin Family Vineyard. Despite the devastating destruction in the area, the Spring Mountain AVA is now bouncing back, with recovery and rebuilding well underway.
“The fire took our 2019 and 2020 vintages, and we lost our winery with its artwork and memorabilia, but my father, coming from a construction background, said our goal is to be the first winery to rebuild,” said Matt Sherwin of Sherwin Family Vineyard. “We could be back in business and operational in three months with the right support. We’re hoping to be able to host small groups of visitors on-site for tastings at my folks’ house nearby or at some local restaurants.”
“If there’s a positive that’s come out of the fire, it’s that the community really came together to support each other,” explained Elizabeth Marston of Marston Family Vineyard. Marston and her father, Michael, along with Fritz Maytag of York Creek Vineyards, helped create the Spring Mountain AVA back in the 1980s. “It’s a time of renewal, and we’re hugely positive and committed to revitalizing the hillside vineyards and wineries. There’s a lot of strength on the Mountain.”
Despite the environmental challenges, with its resilience and ability to recover, the Spring Mountain AVA will continue to produce widely admired vintages and continually rank among the best in the world. As Stuart Smith put it, “producing wine up here is difficult work. We’re a hardy, independent bunch, and you have to be dedicated to survive. And that’s what we intend to do.”
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Article By: Michael Koehn // Photo By: Eric Martin