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Spring Mountain
A New Wine Region Rises High Above the Napa Valley

by Amy Wolf
Sunset Magazine September 2005

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.”

Paloma’s Barbara and Jim Richards.
photo credit: Martin Sundberg

Off the map—and off the charts
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."

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.”

Published: September 2005

Paloma Vineyard invites you to join us at:

The Family Winemakers of California 2005 Tasting

Fort Mason, San Francisco
Sunday, August 21, 12:00, Consumer & Trade Welcome
Monday, August 22, 12:00, Trade Only

Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine

March 2005, Merlot pg. 81
PALOMA 2002 Merlot-Spring Mountain District Napa Valley
Score: 93,
Two Puffs
Here is a tight but delicious Merlot whose mountain-side grapes have contributed a level of sinew not often seen in the variety. Its aromas start off with expected notes of ripe red cherries before picking up more concentrated suggestions of currants and black cherries. In the mouth, it currently shows less of Merlot's early juiciness and, instead, relies on the depth of its still nascent fruit as the convincing offset to its blanket of youthful tannins. This one will reward cellaring.

Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s
February 28, 2005
Issue 157
PALOMA 2002 MERLOT NAPA ($50.00)
Score: 90
PALOMA 2002 SYRAH NAPA ($45.00)
Score: 90

Paloma's 2002 Merlot is a worthy successor to their brilliant 2001, but it is not as rich, complex, or deep as the latter vintage. The dense ruby/purple-tinged 2002 possesses lovely aromas of chocolate-infused coffee intermixed with berry and currant fruit. This lush, medium to full-bodied Merlot is ideal for drinking now and over the next 7-8 years.

Even better is the 2002 Syrah (which I believe will be the final vintage of this cuvee). It boasts an inky/purple color in addition to a big, sweet nose of blackberries, licorice, currants, and smoke. Opulently-textured, ripe, and hedonistic, this is a Syrah to enjoy over the next 5-7 years.

Knocked Sideways
Merlot is suddenly uncool -- but the great ones still shine
San Francisco Chronicle, W. Blake Gray, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wine is more than a part of dinner -- for many people, it's a fashion statement. And no varietal is more vulnerable to the vagaries of coolness than Merlot.

In less than 15 years, Merlot blossomed from a subservient blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon to its current status as America's most popular red wine. Many oenophiles have turned up their noses since the mid-1990s, when "a glass of Merlot" became synonymous, for casual drinkers, with a glass of red wine. But sales never stopped rising, and Merlot passed Cabernet as America's best-selling red wine in 2000, according to the Wine Institute.

Now everything has changed, thanks to just two lines in the movie "Sideways." In a much-quoted scene, the wine snob character Miles tells his easygoing friend Jack before a double-date dinner: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f -- Merlot."

Suddenly, America's favorite red wine is also its most uncool.

Merlot sales are still rising overall, but AC Nielsen reported some early warning signs of a possible reversal Monday: the percentage of households buying it is down 2 percent compared to a similar 12-week period a year ago; repeat purchases of Merlot are down 3 percent.

I admit, part of me cheers this development. There are a lot of lousy Merlots made in California, and in researching this story, I tasted dozens of bland, vegetal, over-oaked and overpriced wines. If a falling market pressures many farmers to replant with varietals more suited to their terroir, I'm in favor of it.

But when Merlot is good, it's wonderful in a way no other varietal can achieve. A great Merlot is gentle, yet fruity; easy to drink, yet elegant and interesting. It can be as generic as supermarket jug wine -- in fact, the so- called international style of red wines is based largely on the taste of Merlot. But a great Merlot can also be as complex as the finest Cabernet, without the formidable tannins or the necessity of bottle aging for decades.

"It's Cabernet without the punishment," says Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery winemaker Mark Lyon, who makes what I think is the best Merlot in current release in California.

Beginner-friendly wine

Merlot achieved rapid prominence because at its best, it's the easiest fine wine for novices to appreciate. It's ironic that these are now the very consumers who won't let friends overhear them ordering it.

Katie Couric said on NBC's "Today Show" that she's heard she's not supposed to drink Merlot. A New York City waiter posted an entry on the blog waiterrant.blogspot.com in which multiple patrons chastised him ("Haven't you seen 'Sideways'?") when he told them the by-the-glass special was Merlot.

Here's my favorite evidence of Merlot's fall from grace. An interview with "Sideways" actress Virginia Madsen by writer Strawberry Saroyan in the Jan. 16 edition of the New York Times includes the following passage:

"They brought out this wine and we were like, this is really good, thinking it was the pinot as usual." It turned out to be a Merlot: horrors. "If you saw it on a menu, you'd throw it across a room. It was a Merlot from Malibu." Only connoisseurs could have such conviction.

Actresses can be forgiven for shallowness, but note the position of the quotes: when the New York Times calls someone who would throw a good-tasting wine across the room just because it's Merlot a "connoisseur," the grape has an image problem.

Long a star in France

Though Cabernet Sauvignon is the star of France's Bordeaux region, Merlot is actually the most-planted grape there, according to Bordeaux.com, the official site of Bordeaux wines. Merlot ripens earlier, a welcome hedge for wineries against autumn rains. In the bottle, its gentle qualities have long been prized in top estates' blends to help tame Cabernet's tannins.

This is true all over the world -- most of the time, wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon also contain some Merlot, and vice versa. They go together like Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Cab) and Maria Shriver (without whom he'd be unpalatably harsh).

The wines of St.-Emilion and Pomerol, on Bordeaux's right bank, are based largely on Merlot, but consumers are mostly unaware of this because Bordeaux wineries don't usually list varietals on the label.

In fact, the wine that Miles most treasured in "Sideways," Chateau Cheval Blanc, is a blend of Merlot and another varietal he slams, Cabernet Franc. The filmmakers originally wanted Miles' fetish wine to be Chateau Petrus Pomerol, the world's most sought-after (and most expensive) Merlot.

"Quite a few film scripts cross my desk and I vaguely recall 'Sideways' asking for permission to use Petrus," Christian Moueix, who runs Chateau Petrus, said by fax. "I am afraid that at that time, I found the script unexciting and declined."

Oops. Petrus doesn't need the extra publicity, but Merlot could have used the ironic balance.

Merlot was practically unknown to Americans until the 1970s. Louis M. Martini winery released California's first post-Prohibition bottle labeled Merlot, a proletarian non-vintage, in 1972. In 1982, fewer than 2,500 acres of Merlot were planted statewide, less than now-obscure Rubired and about 1/25th of the acreage of then-leader French Colombard, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

Dan Duckhorn, whose Duckhorn Wine Co. is one of California's best sources of fine Merlots year after year, says when he released his first vintage in 1980, the lack of competition made it easy to market.

"When you walked into a store with it, they wanted it because there wasn't much Merlot available," says Duckhorn, 66.

A raft of stories with headlines like "Merlot: A New California Phenomena" (May 6, 1987, The Chronicle) made it trendy. Wine lovers clamored to try it; growers rushed to plant it.

That's where the problem started -- a problem Pinot Noir will surely face in a few short years.

"When Merlot became popular, they grew it everywhere," says Pride Mountain Vineyards winemaker Bob Foley. "There's an ocean of Merlot out there, and a lot of it is not very good."

California was not alone in rushing to satisfy Americans' thirst for "a glass of Merlot." It is also widely planted in Washington and New York states, not to mention Italy, Chile and Australia. I recently clicked on "Merlot" at bevmo.com, the online sales branch of Beverages & More, and was offered a choice of 230. A similar click on "Pinot Noir" came up with only 90. This year.

"Merlot has been dropping in sales," says Wilfred Wong, e-commerce cellarmaster for Beverages & More. "The trend has already been set. Syrah has really been gaining and so has Pinot Noir. As the movie ("Sideways") comes out in DVD, it will continue."

By-the-glass sales strong

However, a random survey of Bay Area sommeliers turned up a surprising shared conclusion: Every one said that while Pinot Noir sales are rising, Merlot sales by the glass aren't falling sharply yet. Cabernet Sauvignon is taking more of a hit here, not a bad thing as Cabernet doesn't match food as well as light-bodied Pinot or gentle Merlot. The rest of the country is different.

"Where we're really seeing it is in our restaurant in New York, Per Se," says Paul Roberts, wine director for the Thomas Keller restaurant group that includes the French Laundry in Yountville. "I always thought for a long time, with Merlot and Chardonnay, people didn't know what they were ordering. They were ordering a beverage. Now they're ordering Pinot Noir that way. In New York, in what you'd call B-level restaurants, you used to need Merlot by the glass. Now you need Pinot Noir."

Full confession time -- if I could only drink one varietal the rest of my life, it would be Pinot Noir, not Merlot. With Merlot, there is arguably an Apollonian ideal flavor -- soft, juicy cherry and blueberry fruit with hints of chocolate, leather and some tobacco on the finish. Pinots, on the other hand, can taste strongly of anything from wild strawberries to horse sweat, and still be fascinating.

However, because of small yields and the grape's negative reaction to high-volume winemaking techniques, not many Pinot Noirs under $20 are good, as Americans will soon discover. In contrast, three of the best 10 Merlots from California that I tasted cost $20 or less.

Merlot has other advantages. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are prized by collectors because they're thought-provoking wines, but there's always some nervousness over exactly when to open them. Has your trophy Cab peaked at 10 years, or should you wait another decade?

In contrast, most Merlots are ready to drink upon release. If you age them at all, five to seven years is usually enough.

"One of the great things about a great bottle of Merlot is you don't ever feel like you're robbing the cradle," says Scott Tracy, sommelier at La Toque restaurant in Rutherford. "You're not punished for waiting five years, and you're not punished for drinking it now."

Many oenophiles used to claim Merlot didn't have the high-end potential of Cabernet or Pinot. Wine Spectator magazine changed that impression in 2003 when it named the 2001 Paloma Spring Mountain District Merlot its Wine of the Year -- the first Merlot to receive the influential magazine's highest stamp of approval.

"Everybody agreed that the Paloma was such a phenomenal wine," says Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube. "It was an opportunity to show what could be done with Merlot in California. It was unusual, but that was all the more reason to single it out."

While Merlot can be profound, that's not its everyday appeal. Lyon says Merlot is his mother's favorite wine. "How many people's mothers like Merlot?" Lyon asks, laughing. "Some people's palates don't like the taste of Cabernet. Merlot gives them satisfaction."

Most cliches started as truths. "A glass of Merlot" became a substitute for "a glass of red wine" for a very good reason -- few red wines are better by themselves before a meal, or just as a cocktail. Starting at the bar with a glass of a heavier wine, like Cabernet or Zinfandel, requires subsequent wines to also be big and bold, or they will be overshadowed. However, gigantic wines overpower most foods, so you're trapped.

Merlot's gentle nature makes it acceptable with a wide range of foods -- not as wide as Pinot Noir, the default red-wine choice for difficult pairings, but still good with anything from meatless fare ("It has a tobacco quality that comes out nicely with vegetarian dishes," says Roberts) through chicken to wild game. Many winemakers I spoke with like Merlot best with lamb. Tracy said he often serves Merlot at La Toque with fish in red wine sauces.

Foley, Pride Mountain Vineyards' sole winemaker since its founding in 1992, says Merlot's steep rise in popularity and sudden fall from grace is an American phenomenon.

"The U.S. is kind of new to wine," says Foley, an East Bay native. "There's a tendency to discover something and then overdo it. It happened with white Zinfandel, it happened with Chardonnay."

Now, it's happening with Pinot Noir. Foley, who has been making Merlot since his parents planted a family vineyard in Alamo in 1964, says he hasn't seen "Sideways" and will brook no sweeping statements against Miles' least- favorite grape.

"Anybody who doesn't like Merlot, try mine," says Foley. "If you still don't like Merlot, that's fine."
More for the rest of us.


Hailing a Cab
By Michael Franz, Washington Post
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page F05

Few big questions about wine permit a straightforward answer, but here's one for you: What is the best wine made in the United States? To my mind and to my taste, the clear answer is Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Sure, one could make a case for other wines such as Pinot Noir from Oregon or Merlot from Washington state. But if we lined up all the candidates in a massive tasting, I could show you a hundred different Cabs from Napa that would reduce all other contenders to mere pretenders. You'd leave that tasting with no doubt of the supremacy of Napa Cabernet.

However, I bet you would also leave with some questions, because you would have found not only general greatness in those hundred Cabs, but also a marvelous array of distinctively different characters. Why do the wines taste so different from one another? Why are they so disparate in structure and texture?

On deeper examination, you would find many partial answers to these questions, but one of the most important would be this : The Napa Valley isn't just a valley, but also the surrounding mountains. And the widely differing contours, soils and microclimates of Napa's mountains make for many unique -- and uniquely delicious -- wines.

Napa's Spring Mountain District offers a perfect starting point for exploring the Valley's mountain subregions, which I plan to do on occasion in future columns. It is a legally established American Viticulture Area (AVA) with more than 30 wineries, and the wines provide an illuminating introduction to the intricacies of mountain viticulture. The Spring Mountain viticulture area rises from an elevation of 400 feet above the town of St. Helena to a height of more than 2,100 feet near the Sonoma County line to the west. Spring Mountain is part of the Mayacamas range, and the general slope of the appellation slides from west to east. However, the AVA also includes exposures (or "aspects") to the north, south and west as a result of erosion incisions carved by York Creek as well as Sulphur and Ritchie creeks (which form the appellation's southern and northern boundaries, respectively).

Topographical factors cause particular vineyards within the Spring Mountain District to differ in terms of altitude, slope steepness and aspect. Soils are also varied, running as deep as 40 inches above bedrock at some point but as shallow as six inches at others. Basic materials are predominantly volcanic or sedimentary. These soils tend to be poorer in nutrients and quicker to drain than those found on the valley floor, resulting in modest grape yields of about 2.3 tons per acre.

Temperatures within the appellation vary according to altitude, but the viticulture area as a whole has a significantly different climate than the valley floor, with cooler days and warmer nights. This difference results from a temperature inversion, which involves warm air from lower elevations rising in the afternoons and evenings and being replaced by cooler air that rolls down from the mountains (as well as fogs that are pulled in from the San Pablo Bay). The peak daytime temperature up on Spring Mountain is often 10 to 15 degrees lower than on the valley floor, yet ripening is aided by additional hours of sunshine, as mountain vineyards are usually above the fogs that often shroud low-lying sites.

Spring Mountain is home to slightly more than 1,000 acres of vines, with 90 percent devoted to red grapes. Bordeaux varieties predominate, as Cabernet Sauvignon comprises 56 percent of planted acreage, and Merlot another 18 percent. Dribs and drabs of other varieties make up the balance, with only Chardonnay reaching the level of 5 percent. As a result, most of what you'll find on store shelves from Spring Mountain will be either Cabernet, Merlot or a Cabernet-based, Bordeaux-style blend. What you'll find in the bottle will be variable, of course, due to differences in growing conditions and stylistic preferences from producer to producer. However, my tasting experience suggests that Spring Mountain reds really do cluster around an identifiable profile. On one hand, they tend to be more densely concentrated and intensely flavored than wines from the flats or lower slopes of Napa Valley. Yet they are notably softer in texture, lower in acidity and easier to appreciate when young than the reds of Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder or Diamond Mountain.

Top reds don't come cheap from any of Napa's districts, and Spring Mountain is certainly no exception, because yields are low and vineyard work is tough on high-altitude slopes. However, the best Spring Mountain reds are stunningly delicious, and any largess you may retain from holiday gifts would be well invested in one of the following beauties.

Recommended wines are listed in order of preference, with approximate prices:

Spring Mountain Vineyard "Elivette" 2001 ($90): A marvel of complexity and integration, this features gorgeous, ripe berry fruit accented with notes of wood smoke and vanilla. Packed with flavor, but soft and smooth in texture.

Cain Vineyard "Cain Five" 2001 ($90): Meaty and robust, this is a dense wine with intense flavors that will gain softness and complexity over the course of the next decade.

Paloma Merlot 2002 ($51): Think Merlot can't rival King Cab? Think again after a sip of this baby, which combines dark color and serious concentration with soft, succulent black plum fruit.

Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($62): Expressive aromas and intense blackberry flavors lead the way here, with subtle background notes of vanilla and spicy oak.

Juslyn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($85): Soft and impressively complex, this features notes of plums, dark berries, mocha and tobacco leaf.

Marston Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($65): This is a whopper at 15.4 percent alcohol, yet it isn't remotely hot. The proportions are just right, with lots of fine-grained tannins lending definition to the deeply ripe blackberry fruit.

Robert Keenan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2001 ($79): With fine balance between deeply flavorful fruit, ripe tannins, and smoky oak, this is enjoyable now but likely to become even better with another two years of aging.

Terra Valentine Wurtele Vineyard 2001 ($50): A classic Napa Cab with strong fruit recalling blackberries and black cherries, this also shows a distinctive Spring Mountain streak in the form of soft tannins and relatively low acidity.

Frias Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65): This is slow to unwind but marvelous after a couple of hours, with deep, sweet fruit flavors and just a little oak in the background.

Schweiger Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon "Dedication" 2000 ($85): Dark and concentrated, with deep, intense flavors.

Lynch Vineyards Syrah 2002 ($65): Impressively powerful but lacking complexity when first opened, this was actually better on its second night, with tar and tobacco notes accenting ripe, dark berry fruit.

Barnett Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($60): A pretty big wine at 14.2 percent alcohol, yet surprisingly delicate in flavor and approachably soft in texture, even at this young age.




Wine: 2002 Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District
December 31, 2004
Rating: 93
Price: $51

Jim and Barbara Richards follow their stunning 2001 (Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2003) with this complex, elegant 2002 from their 15-acre vineyard on a steep ridge on Spring Mountain in western Napa Valley. It includes 17 percent of estate cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is aged in a combination of new and used French oak barrels for 19 months before release. 1,650 cases made. —James Suckling.


Wine: 2002 Paloma Syrah Spring Mountain District
November 30, 2004
Rating: 93
Price: $42

This wine quickly accelerates, with smooth, rich wild berry, sage, mocha, espresso bean and mineral flavors that are dense and concentrated, showing but a glimpse of what lies ahead, as it sails on, relying on its fruit character to carry a long, rich finish. Best from 2006 through 2012. 100 cases made.—J.L.




James Laube, Wine Spectator, Nov. 15, 2004
2001 yields some exceptional wines, along with some that are less than inspiring.
(Click here to read article)


Cabernet Surprises in 2001
Letter from the editors, Wine Spectator, Nov. 15, 2004
Marvin R. Shanken & Thomas Matthews
California Cabernet enjoys another outstanding vintage in 2001. Senior editor James Laube, who has been covering California wines for more than 20 years, reports that’01 rivals the best vintages of the past decade for America’s favorite red.
After tasting nearly 500 California Cabernets from 2001, Laube rates the vintage 93 points for Napa (better than 2000) and 87 points for Sonoma (the best since 1999). But there are some surprises from the vintage; some of the established stars stumbled, and there are a few new names at the top of the quality mountain.
When was the last time you drank a Cabernet made by Paloma? Or a Schrader, or D.R. Stephens? In 2001, these producers released wines that rated 95 points or more. They are among the new stars of California Cabernet. And the best news is that compared with many of the established names, they are reasonably priced. Each of the aforementioned wines sells for less than $100.




Wine:2002 Paloma Syrah Spring Mountain District
Closing date: September 23, 2004
Rating: 93
Price: $42

This wine quickly accelerates, with smooth, rich wild berry, sage, mocha, espresso bean and minerally flavors that are dense and concentrated, showing but a glimpse of what lies ahead as it sails on, relying on its fruit character to carry the long, rich finish. Best from 2005 through 2012.
From California.— J.L.


Wine:2002 Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District
Closing date: September 2004
Rating: 93
Price: $51

A delicious Merlot that's a worthy successor to the stellar '01. Ripe, rich, juicy and polished, with layers of currant, black cherry and plum that are deeply concentrated, elegant and lively. A light overlay of toasty, mocha-scented oak adds another flavor dimension, and the flavors linger on a long, zesty aftertaste. Drink now through 2009. 1,650 cases made. From California.—J.L