A new wine region rises high above the Napa Valley

You might imagine that Steve Russon, a Napa Valley tour guide and self-professed wine geek, would get tired of taking groups around to wineries. And you would be right, at least when it comes to “the usual suspects, the no-brainers,” as he calls some of the larger wineries along State 29. But there’s one appellation that continues to fascinate him no matter how many times he goes. “I like to bring people up to Spring Mountain because it takes a little more effort, a little more study and knowledge,” Russon says.

Effort, because all the wineries here require appointments for tasting. Knowledge, because all are hidden among the trees along a rugged, winding road so steep it can make your ears pop. So why bother? As Russon puts it, “Spring Mountain is undeniably, incomparably beautiful; the wines have beautiful intensity; and you get to talk to people who are involved in what they’re doing, have a stake in what they’re doing, and are actually doing it themselves.”

One of the Napa Valley’s smallest appellations, with fewer than 20 wineries and 25 vineyards, Spring Mountain is in many respects the anti-Napa. Until just last year, when a Spring Mountain District Association finally formed, wineries here operated as lone rangers, with minimal signage and directions almost laughable in their folksiness: “Where the road turns to dirt, look for the cluster of mailboxes, turn right, and 500 yards down you’ll see a gate with no sign. If you can’t find it, try calling the winery. If you get lost, call us, though your cell phone might not work out here.” 

Off the map―and off the charts

But wine lovers know that Spring Mountain’s remoteness, besides making it so refreshingly untrafficked, is a big part of what makes the wines so good. Tom Ferrell, general manager and former winemaker at Spring Mountain Vineyard, explains that because Spring Mountain is not in fact a mountain but rather a ridge between two mountains, the area has its own weather patterns. It’s the coolest, wettest place in the Napa Valley, with an average rainfall of 37 inches a year. Springs appear everywhere after a good rain, hence the area’s name. And with all the trees, it feels more like the coast than like farmland. “We’re about as far east as you’ll find redwood trees,” Ferrell says. 

Moisture and mountains don’t always add up to great wine. Weak soils, which are the norm at these elevations, stress the grapes, forcing them to stay small, with a higher skin-to-grape ratio. As a result, mountain wines tend to be more concentrated and intense―sometimes too much so.

But on Spring Mountain, this effect is softened by the more gradual temperature fluctuations that the surrounding, taller mountains provide. “As a result, our wines have the bright color and intensity that mountain wines are often known for, but also a softness and elegance that surprises wine critics,” Ferrell explains.

Surprising indeed. In 2003 Wine Spectator’s prestigious Wine of the Year award went to a Merlot―in itself a surprise. And this particular Merlot was from Paloma Vineyard, possibly the most down-home winery in the entire Napa Valley.

“A mountain vineyard is totally different than a valley vineyard,” says Paloma co-owner Barbara Richards, who, at 70-plus years old, carries a shovel to combat rattlesnakes when she drives her ATV. “Down there they can pick a 15-acre vineyard in one day because it all ripens evenly,” she says. “Here we pick by taste. We did 13 picks last year; it took a month. That makes a much more complex wine.” 

Barbara and her husband, Jim, moved here from Texas to retire in the 1980s and have been tending their 15-acre vineyard ever since. They work seven days a week, nine hours a day. Net outcome: 2,500 cases of wine, predominantly Merlot, every year―and a not-so-relaxing retirement.

“When you get us all together in the same room, we’re really an odd group,” Tom Ferrell says of the motley cast of characters you’ll meet up here. “You’ve got one person in designer jeans and someone else just off a tractor in boots.”

The scenery is just as varied as the personalities. In the span of only a few miles, you go from asphalt to dirt, from Scottish castle to chicken coop, from vineyards to redwood trees, from one county to another.

“The whole area is full of surprises like that,” Steve Russon says. “As adults, we don’t get enough surprises. That’s why I love it here.”

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