Saturday, September 25, 2010

A view from the Mountain

I'm taking a break from my normal style of blog lyrics or movie quotes, no photos, no silly jokes. In fact, most of this post will have not been written by me (blogging made easy!). A few weeks back I participated in the authoring of a press release from the Spring Mountain District Association. Much of it was relevant to the Napa Valley Vintners blog, so, I present to you, with no further ado...

ST. HELENA, Calif.-- Despite concerns expressed by others in the wine industry, high above the fog line on the sunny slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain range, Spring Mountain winegrowers are excited about the prospects for the 2010 vintage. In late, cool growing seasons like this one, many growers fear under ripe grapes which offer green flavors or rain damage. But on the slopes of Spring Mountain on the northwestern border of the Napa Valley, winemakers welcome and celebrate the differences between vintages.

Winemaker Andy Schweiger of Schweiger Vineyards pointed out several reasons for this:
“Mountain grapes have more color and character, with less tendency toward green
characters in all types of growing conditions. Even in a cool late year, we
expect dark color and bright berry aromas in our wines. Mountain grapes have
smaller berries with tougher skins that stand up better to rain. Water drainage
and air circulation is different on the hillsides, and with sunny mornings,
mountain vineyards dry out quickly from a harvest storm. In the mountains,
problems caused by rain are extremely rare.”

Spring Mountain wines are not the only ones that might prosper in a cool year. There are growing regions in California that are often a bit warm for the grape variety that grows there. Warm years are not always their best years. But in unusually cool years, wine quality moves inland away from the fog or rises above it.

Viticulturist Ron Rosenbrand of Spring Mountain Vineyard explained the role altitude plays in his mountain vineyards:
“Whether it is foggy or clear at night, inversion conditions make the mountains
significantly warmer allowing mountain vines to continue to “work” at night. In
the morning, mountain vineyards above the fog line wake up to early sunshine and
continue the work of photosynthesis. Combine that with our warm, shallow soils
and eastern exposure; a cool and late season can work in our favor.”

Beyond obvious weather conditions, a vintage in California is often categorized by the performance of one grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. This ignores that California has diverse plantings. Beyond weather and different growing conditions, a vintage is not about a single varietal. Because of its complex terrain, soils, and microclimates, a number of grape varieties excel in the Spring Mountain District.

“We grow Merlot which ripens earlier than Cabernet,” points out Sheldon Richards of Paloma Vineyard. “On the steep slopes and in the stressful soils of Spring Mountain, Merlot welcomes a year that is a bit cooler and wetter. If we get a storm, the strong breezes we get afterwards on the mountain dry things out quickly.”

Steve Pride of Pride Mountain Vineyards echoed the sentiments of many Spring Mountain winegrowers:

“Although the year got off to a late start, up here at 2100’ we have been
enjoying nearly ideal growing and ripening conditions all summer. We managed to
get the shoot growth stopped weeks before veraison and the balance between fruit
and canopy has never looked better. Although the late spring start means our
harvest will be late, we have extremely high hopes of 2010 being an outstanding

Talking with the winemakers on Spring Mountain, it’s hard not to sense their excitement and enthusiasm for the approaching harvest. They know that no matter what Mother Nature brings during the next two months, it will be recorded and savored in their wines. And judging from the past, they expect this year to deliver well-balanced, age-worthy wines.

Spring Mountain, officially established as an American Viticulture Area in 1993, was described 25 years ago by a prominent wine writer as “probably more responsible than any other Napa hillside for creating the mystique of mountain grapes.” The appellation lies above the town of St. Helena on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley. Encompassed within its bounds are about 8,600 acres, of which only 1,000 are planted to vineyards. Currently the region has just over 30 vineyard / wineries.

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