Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wine Tasting Adventures on Spring Mountain – Robert Keenan Winery and Spring Mountain Vineyard

On my second trip to the Napa Valley during the 2010 Mustard Season, after snapping a few shots around Grgich Hills Estate, I decided head a little further up north to St. Helena and then venture off the beaten path to do some wine tasting on Spring Mountain. The region has a very interesting history and the unique topography, soil composition and climate give their wines the distinct “mountain wine” character.

Spring Mountain was officially established as an AVA (American Viticulture Area) in 1993. Although grapes may have been planted in the area as early as during the Civil War, the first documented planting was done by Charles Lemme who cultivated the 25-acre La Perla Vineyard just south of York Creek in 1874. In the 1880s, after opening their historic winery near St. Helena Jacob and Frederick Beringer planted a vineyard on Spring Mountain. However, due to the infestation of phylloxera and later the rise of Prohibition, grape growing and wine making declined in Spring Mountain from 1910 to 1940.

Then in 1946 the region began to be revived, when Fred and Eleanor McCrea planted a small vineyard north of Mill Creek, and then they founded Stony Hill winery in 1953. Then in the 1960 to 1970s several other wineries followed including Yverdon, Spring Mountain Winery, Smith-Madrone, Robert Keenan and Ritchie Creek who was first to use the name “Spring Mountain” as an origin on their cabernet sauvignon.

Perched above the town of St. Helena, Spring Mountain is on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, at elevations ranging from 400 to approximately 2,100 feet, that separate Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.

The parent materials for the soils of the Spring Mountain Appellation were derived primarily from weathered volcanic materials and sedimentary rock in the upper northern half and the lower elevations found in the southern half were formed from sandstone and shale parent materials.

The climate on Spring Mountain is characterized by high winter rainfall (25 to 95 inches) and low summer rainfall (< 1.0 inch). Springtime temperatures are generally cooler at the higher elevations and warmer at the lower elevations. Mid-summer and early autumn temperatures are dramatically affected by the marine layers from San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Coast. The combination of cool days and warm nights is the opposite of the normal warm to hot days and cool nights found in the nearby valley floor down below.

There is a lot of variety in the vineyards both in the soils and styles of trellis systems. The weathered volcanic and sedimentary soils are usually planted with vines on drought resistant root stocks and trained to bilateral cordons with a vertical shoot positioned trellis.

But, there is no one training and trellis system as there are both old, head-trained vineyards (such as Cabernet Sauvignon at Spring Mountain Winery) and vineyards on AXR rootstock with a California sprawl T-trellis.

There are also newer vineyards on a quadrilateral divided trellis and on closely spaced vertical shoot positioned systems.

The terroir of Spring Mountain is truly unique with a combination of low vigor potential soils, high winter rainfalls, cool springtime temperatures, and warm nighttime harvest temperatures that produces some of the leading premium wine grapes within the Napa Valley AVA. Spring Mountain also produces a wide range red and white wine grape varietals, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Verdot and Malbec.

There are about 8,600 acres in the Spring Mountain AVA, of which about 1,000 are under vine. Currently there are 23 wineries in Spring Mountain (AVA), 16 of which have tasting rooms that are open to the public, two have tours and almost all of them require an appointment. So, be sure to call or e-mail the wineries a few days before planning your trip up there. To learn more about this unique wine region, check out their website:

Robert Keenan Winery

My first stop on Spring Mountain was at Robert Keenan Winery and vineyards. I had tasted one of their wines in one of my classes at Las Positas College and so I was curious to try some of there other wines and visit the winery.

Robert Keenan Winery is in the Mayacamas Range, at an elevation of 1,700 feet above the Napa Valley floor, and it has a spectacular view of the vineyards below and the mountains across the valley.

This area was first identified as prime vineyard land by Peter Conradi who created Conradi Winery in the late 19th century when he planted 100 acres of terraced vineyard in Zinfandel and Syrah grapes.

Like many other wineries, The Conradi Winery continued to operate until it fell under non-use during the Prohibition (1920-1933), during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally as mandated in the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In 1974, Robert Keenan purchased 180 acres of forest on the relic remains of the Conradi Winery but there were no vines on the land. Robert then resurrected the vineyards and the winery which became operational just in time for the harvest of 1977. Robert Keenan Winery focuses on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot and produces nearly 14,000 cases per year. 

For only $10 I sampled a very impressive line up of wines all of which were outstanding. The first was the 2006 Keenan Chardonnay Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District which is an extremely well balanced wine and a phenomenal nose ($29).

Although it was sunny outside the tasting room was a little chilly so all the red wines seemed to be a little on the cold side and consequently they were a bit closed. However, after warming each sample in the glass with my hands they all opened fairly well but undoubtedly they could have benefited from more aeration. 

My first red was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District This wine 100% is Cabernet Sauvignon and displays the distinctive character of Mountain fruit. In fact, 86% of this wine is from the mountain and 14% is from the Pope Valley. On the nose I pick up very dense and concentrated Bing cherries, a strong element of anise, cinnamon and tobacco. On the palate it has layers of black cassis with mild notes of mint and vanilla on the back end, with supple tannins and a full mouth feel. The wine is listed at $45 but you can pick it up for $29 at K&L Wines. I picked up two bottles, one for a friend and the other for my own library.

My second red was the 2006 Keenan Zinfandel Napa Valley. It has great balance of black cherry and raspberry with notes of black pepper and vanilla on the back end. But, this is not your big overbearing in-your-face zin like those from the central valley. At an alcohol level of 14.3% it is far below the common 16-18% levels of zinfandels from hotter regions. But at $34 a bottle it is a little steep.

My third red wine sample was the 2007 Keenan Syrah Napa Valley. Fresh and clean with Blackberry, black cheery and a hint of lavender on the nose. Nice but not quite worth $38 bottle.

The fourth red wine was the 2006 Keenan Mernet, Reserve, Spring Mountain District. This wine is Bordeaux style blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a very powerful nose with layers of mint, dried herbs, cassis, dark cherries, and anise with a light floral nose. A beautiful wine but a major hit in the bank account at $94 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2006 Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District. This wine was much like the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley in its fruit profile with the addition of blackberry and cigar box but without the distinct anise character on the nose. At $96 a bottle this is a really fine wine and will offer a lot of competition at the $100 range of wines.

Spring Mountain Vineyards

After eating a picnic lunch, my second stop on Spring Mountain was at Spring Mountain Vineyards, which is a little further down the hill from Robert Keenan Winery.

The upper most property on the estate, La Perla, was founded in 1873 by Charles Lemme and expanded by the Schilling Spice family. Originally 285 acres it had the first Cabernet Sauvignon planted on Spring Mountain. The old winery remains today along with much of its original equipment, a barn and a corral for the visiting sheep that were feeding on the grass between the dormant vines. Immediately below La Perla, and eventually added to it was the first vineyard planted by Fredrick and Jacob Beringer in 1882.

My first taste which I sipped while doing a tour of the grounds was the 2007 Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is a pale green-gold in the glass, has a  a grassy-herbal nose of gooseberry fruit, tropical and lemon lime flavors with a nice apple crisp acidity and some minerality to boot. But at $35 a bottle I think I can find similar wines for a lot less money.

My first red was the 2007 Spring Mountain Vineyard Syrah. This is textbook Syrah and was my favorite in the line-up. Medium to dark garnet in color. It has nice smoke, jammy black fruit, very aromatic spice, white pepper, black and red cherries and a hint of cassis good texture and weight and is well balanced. If you are burnt out on of overbearing in-your-face Syrah and Shiraz on the market from down under, you’ll appreciate this one as I did and take a bottle home for $55.

My third red wine was the 2006 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6%, Petit Verdot and 4% Cabernet Franc. It is deep garnet in color, on the nose I picked up dark chocolate and Dr. Pepper. On the palate it has a full rounded mouth feel of cherry, plum, and black currant. Perhaps just a little too oaky for my taste but at $55 a bottle it will give a lot of $75 - $100 Cabs a run for the money.

My fourth red was from the library, a 2001 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was exceptionally youthful in its appearance and its fruit character felt extremely plush and velvety demonstrating that Spring Mountain Vineyard wines age very gracefully. A great wine at $75 a bottle.

My final wine of the day was the 2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette. This wine is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot, and 5%, Merlot. On the nose and palate I picked up cherry, damp forest floor, tobacco, sweet oak with a nice balance acidity and tannins. It has an exceptionally long finish with slight vanilla and toasted oak notes on the return. A fabulous wine for $100 a bottle.

To learn more about their wines visit Spring Mountain Vineyard located at 2805 Spring Mountain Road St. Helena, California 94574-1775. You can call them for reservations at at (877) 769-4637 or (707) 967-4188 or check out their web site at: