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:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wine Tasting at the Historic Grgich Hills Estate – Rutherford, Napa Valley

Last Saturday was an absolute gorgeous day, not a cloud above and the sky was crystal clear blue. THIS is the kind of weather is a wine country photographer prays for!

So, on my second trip during the 2010 Mustard Season I decided to head up to Rutherford in Napa Valley to snap some shots around the historic Grgich Hills Estate and then do some tasting in this historic winery.

I first visited this winery about five years ago when I was still relatively new to learning about the history, climate and wines of the Napa Valley. I remembering at the time thinking to myself that the winery facility was unimpressive and the wine maker I met in the somewhat worn tasting room was a funny old man wearing a beret. Little did I know that this kind soft spoken gentleman was one of the giants in the hall of fame of Napa Valley Wine Making who held put the French wine snobs in the famous Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976. 

If you want to learn more about this Jedi-Master of wine making I highly recommend reading George Tabor’s book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine in which your discover the real story and find all the details that were left out of the largely fictional movie “Bottle Shock.”

One of the unique qualities of Grgich Hills Estate is that it is one of the few historic wineries in the valley that is still family owned and operated and it has maintained its historic charm in its simplicity. Yet it is also innovative in its farming and wine making techniques in that it practices sustainable, environmentally friendly methods of growing grapes as the vineyards are certified organic certified Biodynamic®. 

The result of maintaining both tradition and earth-friendly wine making is that they produce superb quality wines. After roaming around the vineyards with my camera I stepped into the tasting room. 

My first was the 2008 Napa Valley Fume Blanc. This is bright straw golden-yellow with beautiful floral and fresh tropical notes of pineapple, white grapefruit peach, grapefruit, and golden delicious apple. It has fresh acidity, fine minerality, slightly dry and yet it is also rich and full-flavored with a lingering clean finishes. It would probably be more appreciated on a hot summer day as I found it to be a little steep at $30. 

While I found all of the wines to be exceptional, I particularly liked my second wine which was the 2005 Napa Valley Merlot. It is deep purple in color with ruby highlights near the rim. On the nose it has plenty of black cherry, plum and wild blackberry followed by anise, dried herbs, with a hint of oak and cigar box. A full-bodied wine, on the palate it is has supple ripe tannins with balanced acidity, medium weight and is well structured. On the initial impact there is plenty of ripe red cherry, plum, and blackberry, damp earthy notes, followed by hints of dark chocolate and toasted oak. It has a prolonged silky finish with fresh plums, dark cherry a slight earthy quality followed by spice and cocoa notes. A great example of a Napa Merlot for $42 so I brought a bottle home.

My third wine was the 2006 Napa Valley Zinfandel. It is deep garnet to burgundy in color and on the nose it displays refreshing layers of raspberry, strawberry, blackberry jam, and ripe plums with undertones of earth, cocoa powder, and black pepper. On the palate is medium bodied with tight tannins that grip your mouth. Yet this is not your typical bombastic over-the-top and in-your-face California Zinfandel. It is complex and and well balanced as this wine displays layers of dark berry jam, raspberry, strawberry, plenty of spice, and a hint of beef jerky with a medium length finish. A fine wine for $35 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2005 Miljenko’s Vineyard Petite Sirah (a blend of 79% Petite Sirah and 21% zinfandel) This wine is inky garnet color, on the nose it has concentrated blackberries, fresh ground coffee with a slight earthy quality to it. On the palate there are layers of blueberry and dark chocolate with chewy-gritty tannins. The finish is prolonged with mocha and black cherry pie. This was a club-member wine and for some stupid reason I forgot to write down the price.

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit Grgich Hills Estate you’ll find them on the highway 29 at 1829 Saint Helena Highway Rutherford, CA 94573. For more information call (707) 963-2784 or check out their web site:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2010 Mustard Season at Laird Family Estate, Silver Oak Cellars and Trefethen Family Vineyards

I hadn’t been out tasting and doing photography in the wine country since October ’09 and I felt long overdue so I decided to head out this past weekend despite the weather. This time of year can be one of the most challenging and yet also the most rewarding.

The months of February and March (January 30th – March 27th) are the Mustard Season in the Napa Valley and other wine countries in California.

It is also the rainy season.

So while the blooming wild flowers are spectacular, trying to find a free day from work in which there is enough sunshine to take pictures can is a challenge. It has been raining almost every day the past couple months and the few sunny days were spent at work.

Knowing the Mustard Season was half way over, after checking the weather forecast which predicted “showers in the morning, partly cloudy in the afternoon” I decided to head out with camera in hand.

A couple years ago I made a video of “Napa Valley Vineyards in Mustard Season” in which I covered a number of vineyards throughout the valley:


So, this time I just wanted to focus on one area and I decided on the Yountville / Oak Knoll district which are on the southern end of the valley, just north of Los Carneros.

Trefethen Family Vineyards


After snapping a few shots here and there my first stop was at Trefethen Family Vineyards. I had been to this winery before and had purchased previous vintages of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and I have been a big fan of their very affordable Bordeaux style blend called “Double T Red Wine.”

Trefethen has two line ups for tasting, the “Estate Tasting” which offers four tastes from a lineup of 8 from the menu ($10) and the “Winemaker’s Reserve Tasting” menu which consists of five wines ($20). I did the “Winemaker’s Reserve Tasting” and the host was kind enough to try a three from the “Estate Tasting” as well.

From the “Estate Tasting” I tried the 2008 Viognier ($30), the 2008 Quandary 80% Chardonnay 10% Viognier 10% Riesling ($25) and the 2007 Double T Red Wine ($25) a Bordeaux Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The Viognier had a nice floral nose but otherwise seemed rather weak. The Quandary was light and refreshing but I think it would be more appreciated during the summer than on a rainy winter day. The Double T Red Wine has a medium body, firm tannins, plenty of plums, blackberry, a little fresh cracked pepper, black currant and cocoa on the nose and palate. This is a great wine for the price ($25), so I bought half a case.

From the “Winemaker’s Reserve Tasting” I first tried the 2008 Pinot Noir which comes from their Main Ranch Vineyard. This is a typical California styled Pinot with light cherry, a little cedar, root beer and just a touch of pepper. It was “okay” but for $48 I know I can find plenty better Pinots for a lot less money.

My second Reserve wine was the 2006 F·H·B Merlot which is made up of 95% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot. If you are a Merlot lover this wine is right up your alley. The wine has ripe plums, sweet cherry tomato, dark cherry, and subtle notes of anise with just a hint of smokiness. It has a fantastic nose with a prolonged finish on the palate. This was my second favorite in the lineup but it is a bit steep at $75 a bottle.

My final three wines were all Cabernet Sauvignon each of which was absolutely remarkable. There is no doubt that Bordeaux varietals are Trefethen’s strength as these were all top notch!

The first was the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon which is made up of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 3% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. This wine is deep burgundy in color, on the nose there are layers of plum, blackberry and black cherry, cola, black olive and pepper followed by secondary notes of mushroom, forest floor and a little oak on the back end. It has a rounded mouth feel on the front, velvety on the mid-palate, and followed by a sensation of soft but firm tannins. This wine has plenty of fresh raspberry, cocoa, blackberry and currant up front followed by plum, black cherry, cola and blackberry pie on the mid palate followed by a lingering smoky finish. A great wine but a bit steep at $100.

The second was the 2002 Library Cabernet Sauvignon which is made up of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon 12% Merlot, 1% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot. This wine is deep purple and inky at the base. On the nose it has a moderate intensity with layers of cherry, raspberry, a slight floral rose, dried herbs, green pepper and anise with just a hint of tobacco leaf. This wine could probably use some decanting before serving in order to really get it to open up. It is full-bodied, dry, yet fruity with a very plush feel on the mid palate followed by supple tannins and well balanced acidity. Layers of black cherry, cassis, dried herbs and just a touch of minerality with a prolonged clean finish. The wine is ready to drink NOW at $80 a bottle.

Finally I tasted the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which is made up of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot. Their Hillspring vineyards provides 82% of the grapes and the remaining 18% comes from the Main Ranch. This wine is a mouth full red-cherry, subtle notes of black olive and spice in the nose, with a little tannin bite on the back end and on the wine’s finish. This wine will greatly improve in the next 5 years. A fabulous example of a Napa Valley Cab but a bit pricy at $100 a bottle. 

You can find Trefethen Family Vineyards at 1160 Oak Knoll Ave. Napa, CA 94558. They are open daily from 10:00 am – 4:30 pm. You can call them at: 1-866-895-7696 at check out their web site at:

Laird Family Estate Winery

Just across the highway from Trefethen Family Vineyards you will find the Laird Family Estate Winery. This was my first time to visit and taste at this winery and while I though all of their wines were generally fine I was particularly impressed by their syrahs, especially the 2007 Suscol Ranch Syrah.

My first taste was the 2008 Napa Valley Pinot Grigio. On the nose this wine has ripe pear and apple and with fresh, lively acidity on the palate. I probably would have appreciated this wine more if it was a hot summer day, but for $18 I thought it was a descent wine.


My second wine was a red, the 2007 Jillian’s Blend which consists of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Syrah. It is garnet color with aromas of tobacco, blackberry, plum and black cherry with hint of black pepper and cocoa. It is medium bodied with a nice balance of oak and black berry fruit with chewy tannins on the back end. It is a nice wine a bit steep at $38 a bottle.

My third tasting was the 2004 Dyer Ranch Syrah. This wine is dark and tar-like in color; spicy nose of dark dried fruits and smoke followed by luscious boysenberry and maple on the palate.

My fourth wine was the 2007 Suscol Ranch Syrah. The color is deep inky purple with a fantastic nose of intense cranberries, pomegranate, cocoa and what reminded me of IHOP’s boysenberry syrup and Boo-Berry Cereal. On the palate, the concentrated red fruit lingers with a hint of bay leaf and clove on the backend and a prolonged finish. I loved this wine so I brought bottle home for $42.

My fifth and final red wine was the 2006 Mast Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. A great wine that definitely benefits from being decanted. At first the server poured me a sample from the bottle and when I suggested that it be decanted he poured it into a decanter there was a remarkable difference. This full bodied wine has upfront aromas of black currant, dark plum, dark chocolate and tobacco with additional cherries on the palate with pronounced tannins on the finish. A truly remarkable wine at $65 a bottle.

The tasting room and winery of Laird Family Estate can be found at 5055 Solano Avenue Napa, CA 94558. Check out their web site at:

Silver Oak Cellars

After eating lunch I headed north to Oakville. I have been to Silver Oak Cellars several times before, the first time back in 2000 and three years ago I opened a bottle of the 1997 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for my 40th birthday. A couple years ago they rebuilt the winery after a fire caused by hot coals from the fireplace being put in the dumpster had destroyed much of the winery. I hadn’t been back to see the new winery so I thought I’d venture a little further north into Oakville, take some pics and taste their latest releases.

The first wine was the 2005 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which is 100% Cabernet. This wine is deep ruby in color with light dill, oregano, black cherry and anise on the nose, with mild hints of currant, plum, tobacco leaf and slightly charred Marshmallow with a touch of vanilla oak. A little bite of tannin on the finish but not overwhelming. I enjoyed the wine but I know of many better for far less than $70.

My second taste was the 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot. Like the Alexander, it has is ruby red in color. However, this wine is tight and could have benefited from a decanter rather than being poured from a freshly opened bottle. But after swirling it for some time in the glass I picked up, followed by mushroomy aromas of cassis, anise, wild game, tobacco leaf and with a little spice. On the palate, the wine has a velvety mouthfeel and an elegant, long finish with a slight tannic grip. But, for a lot less than $100 I know of some finer wines.

The tasting room and winery of Silver Oak Cellars is at 915 Oakville Crossroad Oakville, CA 94562. You can call them at (707) 942-7022 or check out their web site at: