Spring Mountain District: Exploring a Less Traveled AVA

While not nearly as distinguishable (um, regulated) as French or Italian wine-growing regions, many AVAs in California have an unique taste and history. The hubby and I decide to venture into Spring Mountain AVA, known for Cabernets that are intense in fruit flavor balanced by structured tannins.  Two minutes away from the crowds of downtown St. Helena, we are driving on Spring Mountain Road, awed by the vegetation and views, while simultaneously afraid of driving off a steep side cliff. We are eerily alone. Tastings in Spring Mountain AVA are regulated as appointment only. A visit to Spring Mountain AVA is an exceptional and exclusive way to experience Napa wine.

Pride Vineyard Cave, Barrel Tasting
Pride Vineyard Cave, Barrel Tasting

First stop: PRIDE. Pride Mountain vineyards has the distinction of being the only winery in both Sonoma and Napa counties, located at the very top of Spring Mountain, where the summit meets the sky. Only minutes after 10:00 am, we taste the 2013 Syrah, followed by a barrel tasting of Cabernet, aged only a few months (BTW, I want that barrel tap).

The sleeper hit was the 2013 Merlot. Ever since Paul Giamatti exclaimed “I’m not drinking any f***ing Merlot” poor Merlot sales have dropped in favor of the chicer Pinot Noir, technically called the “Sideways Effect.” The three string 2013 Merlot (with 8% Cabernet) knocked us off our feet with well-balanced notes of strawberry, plum, spice, dark chocolate. It will age beautifully (hence the third string!). And hey Paul Stanley, lead guitarist of KISS, had a case shipped to every city on his most recent U.S. tour. Quite a badass Merlot.

Robert Keenan Vineyard. Solar Power panels line the horizon
Robert Keenan Vineyard, where solar power panels line the horizon.

Second stop: ROBERT KEENAN. Sustainably farmed, the winery’s solar panels proudly dot the vineyard next to the tasting cottage. Hidden in the woods, we have the entire tasting room and the hour long experience to ourselves. A wine geek’s dream! The stand outs of the tasting include the Cabernet, the Cab Franc, and the three strings Robert Keenan Mernet. 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet (get it?), from coveted Cab clone 337 and clone 7. Complex, rich layers of black fruit, licorice and wet leaves flavor. Approachable and conversational, our host did not hesitate to give us a few extra pours.

third stop: STONY HILL. Stony Hill Vineyards is my new crush. The second oldest family run winery in Napa (after the Mondavi Family), Stony Hill specializes in old-world style premium Chardonnays, white Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Semillion de Soleil. Getting out of our rental at the tiny four car driveway, we are greeted by Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of the winery founders. The house’s modest exterior and casual interior evoke the feeling of visiting a family friend.

Original casks, still used today at Stony Hill

An hour and half flew by during our private tasting with Alex McCrea. Alex would definitely be on my let’s-hang-out-when-I-move-to-Napa list (that is happening one day, right hubby?).  He walked us through the dry-farmed vines (read = no irrigation) to taste the perfectly ripe Chardonnay grapes, just two days away from harvest. Touring the original 1943 cellar, I was astonished to learn that Stony Hill uses a variety of very old barrels (around 30 years old), including these original vintage vessels.

We took home several wines, including the three strings 2013 Stony Hill Chardonnay with restrained notes of citrus and pear balanced with acidity and mountain minerality.  We immediately drank a bottle of the summer release of the 2014 Rosenda da la Sombra Rosé (made from Cabernet). The refreshing strawberry and peace notes were the perfect beverage for a late afternoon dip in the pool.

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