Mastering Napa’s Mountain Appellations
Early in the history of the Napa Valley, before the absurdity of Prohibition, grape growers raised their sights. With many hailing from Europe, they understood how wine grapes love to dig deep into hillsides and mountains.
Those pioneers—Jacob Schram, the Beringers, Charles Lemme and the Christian Brothers—gave way by the 1950s to a new generation. Such innovators as the McCreas, Al and Boots Brounstein, Dr. Jan Krupp, Piero Antinori, the Smith brothers, Bob Travers, Sir Peter Newton and others believed there should be distinct appellations for five of the Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.
After decades—sometimes centuries—of toil, the Cabernets from these hard-to-work vineyards are now reaching their peak potential.
What links the Cabernet Sauvignons from these mountains are their intensity and structure. Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with powerful tannins that take time to unravel. There’s also a distinct spectrum of earthiness in these wines, a product of their wilderness of forest and rock.
Mountain harvests tend to happen later, which allows winemakers to pick for flavor and at maturities that are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s how these mountain appellations within the Napa Valley differ, and how they don’t.
Located in the eastern hills above the city of Napa, Atlas Peak is among the coolest of Napa Valley’s mountain appellations. It’s well insulated from the heat of the valley floor or regions north, as it faces mostly southwest, and thus gets just enough direct sunlight in the afternoon.
Heat spikes are uncommon, which reduces the chance of sunburn, dehydration or sugar accumulation in the grapes before maturity. Temperatures drop at night, which helps the grapes maintain acidity.
Atlas Peak is composed of 11,400 acres that rise from 760 to 2,663 feet above sea level, and its peak makes the appellation the highest in the Napa Valley. Its two winding roads, Soda Canyon Road and Atlas Peak Road, don’t even meet. Each simply comes to a dead end at the top.
The soils are ancient and volcanic, brick red and rich in iron. They tend to be fairly shallow and easily drained. Vine growth is limited, and they yield small berries with thick skins. Structure, stony minerality and complexity are the result.
William Hill started to plant commercially here in the 1980s, followed soon by Marchese Piero Antinori of the Tuscan wine dynasty, who co-founded Atlas Peak Vineyards on 1,200 acres after he bought Hill’s property. Inspired by his native Chianti Classico, Antinori first planted 120 acres of Sangiovese, which he believed to be a good bet for the appellation. But the Italian variety wasn’t the right call, and, in time, Cabernet Sauvignon took root.
Dr. Jan Krupp began planting in the early 1990s near Antinori’s property (now called Antica). He established the Stagecoach Vineyard in 1995, which spans 600 acres of planted vines all the way to Pritchard Hill. The property, some 1,300 acres in all, was sold to E&J Gallo in March. It currently provides grapes to 90 wineries, including Gallo’s Louis Martini and Orin Swift brands.
“Gracious minerality and earthiness are descriptors we use often for the wines from this area.”
Michael Mondavi would be next to bet on Atlas Peak. He bought the Animo Vineyard in 1999, a key piece in the establishment of Michael Mondavi Family Estate and the backbone of one of its marquee wines, made now by Mondavi’s son, Rob.
“Atlas Peak continues to yield remarkable wines, marching alongside Napa’s most sought-after hillside AVAs [American Viticultural Areas],” says Rob Mondavi.
“The red earth and igneous rock with infrequent ribbons of light ash provide irrefutable evidence of volcanic activity, resulting in a low-pH soil providing a balance between fruit, minerality, tannin and earthy profiles,” he says. “Most indicative of the area is the ample bench land and breezes that take the edge off heat spikes and frost that other AVAs experience.”
As with any mountain-grown fruit, Mondavi says that tending to the vines is a laborious process.
“For those who cherish the depth and quality of hillside fruit, the effort is rewarded,” he says. “Blue-skinned fruit with black-skinned berry notes, gracious minerality and earthiness are descriptors we use often for the wines from this area.”
Another high-profile project is Acumen Wines, founded in 2012 by Eric Yuan. Formerly part of Krupp Family Vineyard, it’s a high-elevation, rocky site six miles off the Silverado Trail and above the fog line. It’s subject to the cooling influences of San Pablo Bay to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
The Tempranillo and Malbec originally planted there has been changed over to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and its 32 acres, now known as Attelas, are certified organic. Half a mile farther up the road, Acumen also owns the Edcora Vineyard, which rises to 1,600 feet above sea level.
Denis Malbec was the original winemaker, with Steve Matthiasson and Garrett Buckland hired to oversee the vineyards. When Malbec was killed in a car accident in 2015, Matthiasson took on cellar duties as well. His first vintage in that role was 2016.
In 2014, Guarachi Family Wines bought Meadowrock, a 60-acre site near Antinori’s Antica, which extends from 1,400 to 1,760 feet above sea level. Thirty acres of it are planted to a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in soils derived from volcanic rhyolite and andesite.
Hall 2012 Rainin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain District) $325, 95 points. This blockbuster, powerhouse wine evolves in the glass to suggest blueberry pie and chocolate, so smooth and seductively silky it becomes on the palate. Amidst the density and richness it offers complex seasonings of cedar, peppercorn and peppery oak, finishing with as much spice as finesse.
J. Davies 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain District) $100, 92 points. Gentle tannins and a streak of black pepper stand out in this well-crafted, powerful wine. It offers pillowy texture and just enough grip to remain seamless and compelling on the palate. Moderate acidity adds structure and brightness to the concentrated black fruit.
Von Strasser 2013 Reserve Red (Diamond Mountain District) $135, 92 points. This big, bold blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Petit Verdot and smaller amounts of Malbec and Merlot is powerfully built, with firm, integrated tannins that feel chalky and dusty. Black currant and cherry flavors dominate, with waves of tobacco and dark chocolate that lead to a soft, lingering finish. This will cellar well, to be enjoyed from 2023–2028. Cellar Selection.
On the northeastern side of the Vaca Mountains, Howell Mountain became an appellation in 1983. It includes vineyard sites from 1,400 to 2,500 feet above sea level, surrounded by pine forest.
Among the first appellations to be formed following Napa Valley itself, Howell Mountain’s prime growing land benefits from a microclimate featuring warm mornings and cool evenings. That temperature swing tends to extend the grapes’ hang time, which allows Cabernet to ripen slowly and develop deeper flavors.
Intense sunlight hits a mix of white volcanic ash and red clay soils that are lean and possess good drainage. Howell Mountain’s rockiness distinguishes it from hillside vineyards across the valley in the Mayacamas Mountains.
That rockiness often means there’s little water-holding capacity in the soils. The resulting wines are known to be deeply intense and rugged, with a great concentration of black fruit, dark color and hints of menthol and mocha.
The tannins typical of Cabernet Sauvignon and the thicker skins produced on a mountain like this are often softened by the addition of Cabernet Franc, Merlot or both.
The Lamborns, of Lamborn Family Vineyards, were involved in the appellation’s creation and first bought land there in 1969. They chose to start at 1,400 feet, as that’s the elevation of the typical fog inversion layer.
“I tell people that Napa Valley during the growing season is fogged in on average three days a week until around 9:30 am,” Mike Lamborn says. “At 2,200 feet, we receive the early rays of sunshine, so that works out to be two-and-a-half more hours of sun for every foggy day in the valley, and at three days a week, we almost get a month’s more sunshine during the season than does the valley floor. This has a major influence on fruit development.”
Bud break occurs later here than it does in the valley because it’s cooler on the mountain in the spring. However, they often pass the valley mid-season and at harvest, which occurs at Lamborn’s vineyard an average of two weeks ahead.
“Our growing season daytime temperatures average 10 degrees cooler than the valley, but our overnight temperatures average 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the valley,” he says. “We receive daily afternoon winds, which dry the vines more than does the sun, so irrigation, both timing and quantity, are crucial. We are challenged by very high-acid soils, so soil management is key. All these small influences create the Howell Mountain character.”
Winemaker Heidi Barrett, who crafts the Lamborn Family wines, uses the appellation’s feral quality to her advantage.
“Howell Mountain always has a certain wildness about it, so the wines are a bit brambly in wild blackberries, intense and delicious,” she says. “It gets great ripeness, yet cool nights at that elevation [contribute to] good acidity and balance.”
Another fan of the appellation is Stags Leap District-based Pine Ridge Vineyards, which makes several Cabernets from across the Napa Valley.
“Gustavo Avina, my vineyard manager extraordinaire, thinks that Howell Mountain is our best vineyard,” says Michael Beaulac, Pine Ridge’s general manager/winemaker.
“The 1,900-foot elevation means that we will have a late-spring bud break, but being above the fog line during the summer, the vineyard almost catches up with the valley floor, though it’s always our last vineyard to harvest each vintage.”
Beaulac says that the Cabernet tends to have a sweet pea aroma. It’s very dark in color, with dark fruit flavors and strong, refined tannins. While it shows best around seven years, it’s ageworthy for another 20-plus years.
La Jota has two vineyards on the mountain, the La Jota Estate, and one mile down, W.S. Keyes Vineyard, once the Liparita Vineyard. At 1,825 feet in elevation and planted in 1986, Keyes is the sole source of grapes for sister brand Lokoya Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The Bay drags moisture over the AVA,” says Chris Carpenter, a winemaker for Jackson Family Wines, who makes La Jota and also Cardinale from this site. “It’s wetter and cooler and takes longer for the grapes to ripen. There’s a gravelly minerality, a lot of iron, clay and volcanic content in the soils.”
La Jota Vineyard 2013 Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain) $85, 95 points. This full-bodied, concentrated wine shows plenty of power, as it brings the variety together with smaller percentages of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. With a huge presence on the palate that lingers and stays in one’s brain, it shows toasted oak along with black pepper, bark and leather saddle. It’s a wine to enjoy from a giant leather chaise, if possible. Cellar until 2023. Cellar Selection.
Pine Ridge 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain) $125, 93 points. This is a juicy, complete and full-bodied showcase for the variety from this mountainous appellation, known for its ability to impart sizable structure and concentration. It delivers that here, integrating firm tannins into a complex, lengthy portrait of ripe, brambly blackberry, black currant and a powerful dose of cigar box.
Lamborn Family Vineyards 2013 Vintage XI Proprietor Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain) $100, 92 points. Heidi Barrett is the winemaker for this 100% varietal wine, which exudes lovely, fully ripe notions of cherry and cassis from the highly perfumed glass. Sizable tannin structure girds the fruit with additional components of graphite and tar, and it finishes in a field of dried herb.
There’s a changing of the guard afoot in this appellation. In 2013, Robert Travers sold Mayacamas Vineyards to partners Charles Banks, founder of Terroir Selections, and Jay Schottenstein, chairman of American Eagle outfitters and DSW. More recently, the Villa Sorriso wine estate—a 640-acre property owned by the late comedian Robin Williams, which features an 18 acre vineyard—was purchased by Alfred & Melanie Tesseron of Pontet Canet in Pauillac, Bordeaux.
The Mount Veeder AVA was formalized in 1993 in the southern reaches of the Mayacamas Mountains, west of the towns of Napa, Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford. It sits between 500 and 2,600 feet above sea level and encompasses 25 square miles, which makes it one of the largest AVAs in the Napa Valley.
Yet, you’d hardly know it had grapes if you drive along its winding roads. Very little of the land is commercially planted amid pine, oak and fir forests and ferns. Small vineyard properties include Lagier-Meredith, Pott Wines, Pulido-Walker and Mithra.
On the top of the mountain, the soil is rocky, with boulders the size of small cars. Drainage is a challenge, thanks to underground springs and rain runoff, which makes rootstock selection key. Lower down, it’s more of a clay loam soil, so the roots of the vines make it down with greater ease.
“The AVA is all about structure and tannins, which form a great synergy with Cabernet.”
On the southern edge of the mountain range, Mount Veeder gets a maritime influence off the San Pablo Bay. It stays cooler than the northern side of the appellation, which gets more valley warmth.
“Mount Veeder offers a variety of microclimates because of our proximity to the bay,” says Dave Guffy, winemaker for the Hess Collection. “Vineyards that get a peek of the ocean have longer hang time, while others … create flavors of ripe mountain blackberry and a more full-bodied expression. The result is a layered Cabernet that has elegance and great cellar potential.”
An old volcano, Mount Veeder is full of tufa, a white ash deposited in a lot of areas that can be devigorating. The resulting grapes are intensely concentrated, the fruit blue and pretty, with powerful tannins that tend to gracefully age.
“Geographically, it is the most southwest part of Napa, so closer to the Bay, but on a mountain,” says winemaker Jean Hoefliger of Alpha Omega, which owns the Godspeed Vineyard on Mount Veeder. “So you get the balance and elegance of a colder climate with the depth of mountain fruit.”
Mt. Brave Wines was established after Jackson Family Wine Estates bought the former Chateau Potelle vineyard in 2007. Soils are sparse, and nutrients and minerals hard to come by, so the berries are tiny and concentrated in flavor. Blue and black fruit is accented in floral aromatics and earthy minerality. The producer knew the mountain well, as its Lokoya Mount Veeder
Cabernet Sauvignon has been made from here since 1995.
The second highest mountain in the valley, Mount Veeder is also a popular source of mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for blending. It’s transformed into Napa Valley Cabernet, plumped up by valley floor fruit.
The mountain is warmer in winter than the valley floor, and it doesn’t tend to get frost. Harvest time can be two to three weeks later than on the valley floor, which means a long growing season. Overall, its seasonal heat summation is slightly lower than those of the other mountains.
Rob Mann, estate director of Newton Vineyard, sources Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder while he also maintains another estate vineyard and the Newton winery on Spring Mountain.
“The AVA is all about structure and tannins, which form a great synergy with Cabernet,” he says. “In simple terms, our Mount Veeder vineyard has the longest growing season of all the Napa appellations we source fruit from, being the first to break bud and the last to harvest, which is critical for developing and ripening tannins.”
The area has among the highest rainfall numbers every year, offset by free-draining soils of sedimentary origin.
“The wines are typically deeply colored, have a classical, graphite-like structure that forms a distinct spine about which the vibrant cassis fruit is allowed to express itself,” Mann says.
Mithra 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a beautifully crafted wine from this mysterious appellation, steeped in burly, succulent black cherry and licorice. Soft, firm tannins wrap around a full-bodied lushness of undeniable structure accented in stony gravel and sanguine undercurrents.
Mithra 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder)$190, 95 points.This is a beautifully crafted wine from this mysterious appellation, steeped in burly, succulent black cherry and licorice. Soft, firm tannins wrap around a full-bodied lushness of undeniable structure accented in stony gravel and sanguine undercurrents.
Mt. Brave 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder) $75, 95 points. The mountain appellation speaks loudly in this wine, which contributes juicy blackberry, tar and leather, all within a forested context of wild truffle and crunchy leaves. Concentrated and robust in body and ripeness, it unwinds slowly in the glass, imparting jolts of black pepper as it goes.
Hess Collection 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder) $65, 92 points. A hearty 18% Malbec is part of this wine from the producer’s appellation estate. Clove, cedar and graphite kick things off on the nose, before youthful tannins give breadth and depth to the ripe blackberry, cherry and blueberry. The wine is soft and seductive on the finish.
Spring Mountain District
Hidden in plain sight above the town of St. Helena on the eastern side of the Mayacamas, the Spring Mountain District became an official appellation in 1993. The thick presence of forest and the springs throughout the mountain give the area its name and personality, a world away from the valley below.
The appellation lies mostly along the winding Spring Mountain Road, definitely off the beaten track. At its top, it connects with the border of Sonoma County, near the home of Pride Vineyards, which straddles both Napa and Sonoma.
The region’s Cabernet Sauvignon roots run deep. It’s said that La Perla Vineyard was the first planted here, by Charles Lemme in 1874. The land has been continuously farmed, and even withstood Prohibition because it was hidden so far up in the woods. It’s now part of Spring Mountain Vineyard, and the original stone La Perla Winery still stands.
The Beringer brothers planted nearby in the 1880s. But phylloxera and Prohibition put a stop to Spring Mountain’s rise until the 1940s and ’50s, when the McCrea family founded Stony Hill Winery. They planted on steep hillside vineyards terraced between thickets of trees, a common theme.
Spanning 500 to 2,600 feet in elevation, the appellation is 5,000 acres. Less than 10 percent of that acreage is planted to grapevines; most is steep and forested. Sedimentary and volcanic loam soils are the norm, typified by high drainage and low fertility.
Newton, Cain, Keenan, Barnett, Smith-Madrone, Terra Valentine, Spring Mountain Vineyard and York Creek Cellars are among the longstanding adventurers here. Lokoya now bases itself here in a grand tasting estate that surrounds its Yverdon Vineyard at 2,100 feet above sea level.
Newton Vineyard is accessible from a different road behind St. Helena. It has a square mile of hillside property that dates back to 1977 and is focused on Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Complex and textural would be my summary,” says Newton Vineyards’ Mann of the Cabernet here. “Spring Mountain has an incredibly diverse combination of soil types, aspect, slope, altitude, varietal mix, planting density and vine age. Within one vineyard, depending on the site, you may have four weeks difference in ripening from one plot to the next, planted to the same variety.”
West-facing slopes can be barren and dry, supporting low scrub and live oak, and winemakers must be careful not to let fruit cook in these areas. An adjacent east-facing slope 100 feet away can be cooler and more humid, supporting oak and redwood trees. Slopes are often too steep and cool to ripen red grape varieties.
“The wines are rather intellectual and red-fruit based, with an alluring textural and savory structure, and can be incredibly complex,” Mann says.
In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux reds, the land is planted to such varieties as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sémillon, Petite Sirah and even traditional Port grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz.
Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith and his brother, Charlie, settled on Spring Mountain in 1970, intrigued by mountain grapes. They were preceded by Stony Hill, which set up shop in 1943 off Highway 29. Around 1952, it added a commercial winery to the property, planting Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon, varieties the family still tends.
Fritz Maytag, of the appliance and blue cheese family, resuscitated Anchor Steam Brewing in San Francisco before he bought 320 acres on Spring Mountain in 1968. On the site, he created York Creek Vineyards, the winery with the Port varieties, blending them with Petite Sirah and Zinfandel and bottling them in fortified form. The winery’s labels feature the 24 native trees on the property, from madrone to buckeye.
Cain Vineyard & Winery is nearby, where longtime winemaker Christopher Howell makes Cain Five, Cain Concept and Cain Cuvée, all Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends. Terraces face north, south, east and west, with a focus on the five classic red Bordeaux varieties.
Spring Mountain Vineyard 2012 Elivette Red (Napa Valley)$150, 94 points.Beginning with a velvety texture and inviting bouquet of strawberry and rose, this classic blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot is grown on the winery’s 845-acre estate. Kirsch, black pepper and chocolate combine atop a smooth, integrated palate that’s elegant from start to finish, the oak tempered to good effect. Drink now through 2027. Cellar Selection.
Smith-Madrone 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, $50, 93 points. From dry-farmed estate vines, this savory, classically styled red is dusty in cedar, dried herb and peppercorn, incredibly inviting and nuanced. It speaks quietly of the forest which surrounds its estate, a complex, balanced landscape of subtle, elegant flavor and intriguing length. Editors’ Choice.
Terra Valentine 2013 Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; $80, 91 points. A 100% varietal wine, this is a tense study in black cherry, blueberry and dry chalky tannins, which need further time to resolve. Still puckering on the finish, it offers streaks of cedar, pencil lead and coconut that are still integrating. Drink now through 2023. Cellar Selection.