Friday, January 13, 2023

Wine Dinner Features Spring Mountain Wines

Wine Dinner Features Spring Mountain Wines  

We invited colleague Tom C and wife Lisa for an intimate wine dinner. Tom recently won his Sommelier Certificate, so we were eager to get together and share insights and perspectives over some fine wines. Linda prepared beef tenderloin, whipped potatoes and haricot verts. Prior to dinner we served a selection of artisan cheeses, 14 year aged Cheddar, Stilton Blue, Havarti and a Bellavitano. 

We toured our wine cellar and discussed appropriate wines for the evening and landed on Spring Mountain District Napa Cabernets. Tom and Lisa visited there and stayed at the fabulous Spring Mountain Winery Chateau, site of the former Falconcrest TV Series, so the area had special memorable significance for them. 

Of course we love Spring Mountain District wines, and have enjoyed visiting and touring there on many of our Napa Wine Experiences over the years visiting Pride, Fantesca, Keenan and others. We have a respectable collection from which to choose. Indeed, this follows on a Keenan Winery Napa Valley Spring Mountain Cabernet that we enjoyed just the other evening, featured in my most recent blogpost in these pages

After some deliberation we pulled from the cellar for tonight's dinner three selections: Paloma Merlot 2003, Robert Craig Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, and a Fantesca La Petite Soeur Red Bordeaux Blend 2007, which also provided a mini-horizontal comparison tasting of that vintage.

Tom and Lisa brought dessert and a Chateau Rieussec Sauterne. We also opened a Kracher TBA - Trockenberrenauslese for a comparison tasting.

I paired the Paloma Merlot with Fantesca Cabernet back in an earlier Spring Mountain tasting in 2013 which I posted in these pages. 

Paloma Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Merlot 2003

We started with this special 2003 release Paloma Merlot that followed the 2001 release that gained notoriety when the 2001 Paloma Merlot was awarded 95 points and named Wine Spectator's #1 “Wine of the Year” in 2003, out of over 15,000 wines evaluated. 

I reiterate my post about Paloma from last year here.

Paloma is Spanish for “dove”, the estate sits on a steep, tree-lined ridge at the very top of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountain range that forms the west wall of Napa Valley, sitting between Bald Mountain to the south and Diamond Mountain to the north.

Founded by Barbara and Jim Richards in 1983, seeking a vineyard to highlight the grapes and terroir of their favorite region, they were turned on to the property by winemaker producer friend Dan Duckhorn. Over the next 25 years, Jim and Barbara worked to clear, plant, and cultivate 7,500 Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. 

The Richardses were transplants from Midland, Texas, where Jim worked as a petroleum geologist -- got the wine bug in the 1980s. He bought the property at the top of Spring Mountain Road in 1983. They planted it in 1985, choosing Merlot because they had tried Dan Duckhorn's Merlot and found it to their liking. Duckhorn, a Napa Valley Merlot pioneer, encouraged them to plant, and even bought their grapes in those early years. 

Spring Mountain is a cool spot and its grapes are often harvested late in the season. It's typically cooler in the day and warmer at night there than on the valley floor, and those factors come into play in the even-ripening that Paloma's grapes enjoy. Yet after the first few crops, which produced precious little fruit, the Richardses were concerned that they may have made the wrong decision. "I figured maybe Merlot won't do well at this elevation," recalls Jim, now 72, who speaks with a soft, west Texas accent.

But then, as the vines matured and Barbara cruised through the 15-acre vineyard on her ATV, quality picked up. The wine has earned outstanding marks in five vintages, and the debut 1994 is still awesome, says Foley. By 2000, the Richardses were ready to fly solo. Foley had helped them design a small winery and, Jim says, "I still ask everyone as many questions as I can" to find out how to improve on grape growing and winemaking techniques. The Richardses' son, Sheldon, joined the winery during this time and began learning the ropes.

Paloma was a vineyard back in the last half of the 19th century but was returned to forest around the turn of the century. There still remain old redwood grape stakes and a few old zinfandel vines that survive under amongst the large Douglas fir trees that surround the estate home. One historic vine near the house produces one or two clusters of grapes a year that are put into our Merlot blend for good luck.

In 1991, some of the grapes were sold to Pride to be blended into their Cabernet Sauvignon. Jim worked and learned enology alongside legendary winemaker, Pride’s very own, Bob Foley. In 1996, Paloma released their first-ever vintage, the 1994 Merlot  - 575 cases total. Paloma’s first commercial Syrah was released in 1998.

Paloma built the estate winery in 2000 where they crushed their own fruit that year for the very first time.

Their son, Sheldon, joined the business in August of 2003, just in time for harvest and for the release of the award-winning 2001 Paloma Merlot. The follow-on 2002 and 2006 vintages were also recognized as  the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 at 54 and 65, respectively.

The 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sheldon’s first solo vintage as winemaker), received high praise from James Laube of Wine Spectator in two separate articles written in 2007 and 2009.

Jim and Barbara passed on in 2009 and 2016, but their legacy lives on under the stewardship of son Sheldon as owner and winemaker. 

Paloma reflects the terroir and specific micro-climates of the area and the high altitude Spring Mountain property. The topography of the area has its own weather patterns being among the the coolest, wettest place in the Napa Valley.  High above the Napa Valley and the morning fog, Paloma Vineyard is generally 15 to 20-degrees cooler on hot summer days than the valley floor vineyards. The more moderate temperatures and the volcanic soils are what make Paloma wines so special, adding layers of complexity to the mid-palate and long finishes.

Springs appear throughout the area after a good rain, hence the area’s name. The combination of the summer heat and low pressure from the cool coastal air that approaches the summit from the west lengthens the growing season into late fall. The prolonged hang time – several weeks longer than warmer Napa Valley floor – add resonance and concentration to the resulting small clusters.

The vines are planted on mostly steep, east-facing hillsides. The Sonoma volcanics and Franciscan sandstone soils stress the grapes, forcing them to stay small, with a higher skin-to-grape ratio. The resulting mountain wines tend to be more concentrated and intense, softened by the gradual temperature fluctuations. The wines from the site are bright and bold but with a surprising softness and elegance.

Paloma Napa Valley Spring Mountain Merlot 2003

We love Napa Valley mountain fruit wines with their richness, focus and concentration, and Spring Mountain wines are amongst our favorites. We're long time fans and collectors of Pride Mountain, Fantesca and Robert Craig Spring Mountain Cabernets. 

We still hold several vintages of this label dating back to 1999 and our patience is rewarded tonight enjoying this aged nineteen year old.

Paloma Merlot is a blend of estate grown Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Sauvignon ranges from 14 to 16 percent depending on the vintage. 

Winemaker notes: The wine is a big, world-class red capable of improving with bottle aging for at least 20 years in most vintages. Although the characteristics of the wine vary with each vintage, they have a consistent thread of complex aromas of blackberry fruits, black stone fruits, chocolate, tobacco, spice, and floral notes with a mineral overtone. On the palate, the wine has a silky mouthfeel, is well balanced with flavors of berries, fruit, cocoa, cassis, and spice, and enjoys a long spicy finish. The addition of the Cabernet Sauvignon adds structure, rich fruit, and a subtle increase in tannins." 

This release was awarded 90 points by Wine Spectator and 89 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. 

I first wrote about this wine in September 2013 when I gave this 93 points and wrote that I like this wine: "At ten years old this may be at or approaching its apex as it is drinking better than any of the previous half dozen bottles we've tasted from our case. I was worried at first when decanted as the color seem a bit dark with a slight brown hue but the aromas were pure berry. Medium bodied, silky smooth, elegant and polished with complex layers of raspberry, sweet current, blue and black berry highlights. This tasting was consistent with my last posted tasting notes from a year ago this week (September 2012) when I wrote, "Medium full bodied, smooth polished, complex harmonious symphony of finely integrated aromas and flavors - predominant sweet black currant, red raspberry, milk chocolate, a hint of ripe plum, sweet oak and a bit of burnt sugar caramel on the long smooth polished finish." Based on this tasting, I extended my drinking window in Cellartracker which was listed as drink by 2011 to 2016.

At nineteen years, the fill level was perfect, as was, importantly, the cork, reflecting the ideal conditions of our cellar for long term aging. Of course, as show, Paloma bottles are painted rather than having glued paper labels. Like I did back in 2013, tonight I once again extended the drinking window for this wine, to 2022, as it is still showing well, holding its own, likely at the peak of its drinking window, perhaps nearing the end such that it might now start to diminish from further again.

This was dark inky purple garnet colored, medium-full bodied, with intense firm concentrated structured rich black currant and blackberry fruits with notes of cedar and nutmeg, black tea, dark mocha and cigar box with firm focused tannins on the gritty lingering finish.

RM 92 points.

We tasted this label on posted tasting notes in Cellartracker back in 2012 and 2013.

Robert Craig Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

This Robert Craig Spring Mountain label was first released in 2005. It was sourced from the picturesque Joan Crowley vineyard perched at 2000 foot elevation along the summit of Spring Mountain, high above the town of St Helena in the Mayacamas Range that forms the western slope of Napa Valley. The site is primarily dry-farmed, reducing vigor and crop yield resulting in small, flavor-packed berries. 

As I have written often in these pages, Robert Craig focused on and specialized in hillside and mountain fruit from leading producing regions of Napa including Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. Add Mt George and Atlas Peak above the town of Napa and you have the four corners of the Napa Valley. He often referred to it as 'four mountains and a valley' in describing his portfolio of Cabernets. 

We hold a vertical collection of Robert Craig Cabernets going all the way back to their inaugural vintage release in 1993. It is one of the largest producer collections in our cellar across seven different labels and three decades of vintages.

While Robert Craig Winery owned many of their vineyard sources, they bought fruit from select vineyards on the various mountains. They worked with Napa Valley based hillside vineyards generally at altitudes of 1,600 feet or higher. 

Robert started his career up on Mt Veeder, initially developing the William Hill vineyard, and then later, at The Hess Collection as their General Manager. In addition, he helped develop 300 vineyard acres on Mt. Veeder for the movie star comedian Robin Williams estate. Robert Craig sourced Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from there for over two decades for the Mt Veeder designated Cabernet label until Robin's passing and the recent sale of the estate and the Pym Rae vineyard to the French Tesseron wine empire Family. Their recent first release label from that property was priced at $350. Robert often said that Mt Veeder was his favorite of his Cabernets. He was instrumental in forming sub appellations for both Mt. Veeder area and Spring Mountain.

We memorialize Robert who passed away a year ago in September 2019 from complications from Parkinson’s disease in this blogpost - Robert Craig Tribute.

The Robert Craig Winery is perched at an elevation of almost 2300 feet high up on Howell Mountain on the north east side of Napa Valley. It is among some of Napa’s highest vineyards. At this elevation they actually see some snow in the winter at times. The location sits above the town of Angwin and their permit at the actual winery limits them to an extremely small number of visitors, as well as only several events per year at the actual winery, hence, they maintain a tasting room in the city of Napa. 

We attended a several tastings and dinners over the years with Robert and Lynn Craig and sometimes staff when various events. 

Some of the highlight over the years were a private dinner with Robert and Lynn at the CIA back in 1988, another was a private tasting there at the Robert Craig Howell Mountain Estate in 2008, where we also attended the Harvest Party at the estate in 2009.

My recollection is that I first tasted this Spring Mountain label upon its release during that visit in 2008. It was a comparison tasting against the Mt Veeder and Howell Mountain labels, the Spring Mountain was served from the barrel, and it was my standout favorite, being slightly sweeter than the other two. I remember the allocation for Club members was limited to three bottles. I negotiated a mixed case purchase of twelve bottles of the 05, 06 and 07 vintages, the remains of which we're enjoying tonight.  

Robert Craig writes of this label; "The Crowley vineyard is a close fit for our mountain Cabernet portfolio from the highest elevations of Napa Valley. Overlooking St. Helena from its perch at 2,000 feet, this vineyard’s rocky volcanic soil, varied hillside exposures, and moderate climate produce densely concentrated winegrapes. Joan Crowley’s low-yield, biodynamically farmed vineyard has provided us with deep, aromatic and structured wines since our first vintage with it in 2005. The mountain is cooled by afternoon breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean, creating moderate daytime temperatures and cooler nights that allow grapes to ripen slowly without pushing high alcohol and sugars. The heady, deep perfume that is a Spring Mountain District signature is always present in this cabernet that is hard to come by." 

In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon varietal grapes, Robert Craig also sourced from the Crowley vineyard Bordeaux varietal Petite Verdot.

Robert Craig Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Crowley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

This release was awarded 94 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, 92 points by Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator, and 17.5/20 by Jancis Robinson.

Parker wrote, "This is a very exciting wine that should drink well for 20-25 years." (RP) 94+  (12/2009)

Production of the 2007 release was a mere 640 cases.

Winemaker notes on Spring Mountain and the Crowley vineyard.
The Crowley vineyard is a close fit for our mountain Cabernet portfolio from the highest elevations of Napa Valley. Overlooking St. Helena from its perch at 2,000 feet, this vineyard’s rocky volcanic soil, varied hillside exposures, and moderate climate produce densely concentrated wine grapes. The mountain is cooled by afternoon breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean, creating moderate daytime temperatures and cooler nights that allow grapes to ripen slowly without pushing high alcohol and sugars. for a sense of place that establishes a wine’s unique identity, is the perfect concept to describe the qualities of Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignons.  

Dark garnet purple colored, full-bodied, complex, dense concentrated full and round blackberry, wild berry and plum fruits with notes of spice, smoked meat and cassis with a lingering smooth polished finish.

RM 93 points. 

In 2009 Robert Parker wrote that this is a very exciting wine that should drink well for 20-25 years. Wine Enthusiast said this this is a good wine to seek out for the cellar. The producer comments on the 2019 vintage release of this label - "That is to say, it is one of the highest quality red wines to be produced anywhere in the Napa Valley at any price."


Fantesca La Petite Soeur Red Bordeaux Blend 2007

Fantesca Estate and Winery is one of our favorite Napa Valley producers. We hold a vertical collection of more than a dozen and half vintages of their estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Fantesca was conceived and founded by Duane and Susan Hoff, who moved on from their careers as executives at Best Buy Corporation to Napa Valley winery and vineyard proprietors when they acquired this historic Spring Mountain District estate. The vineyards, winery and home sit above St Helena on the lower reaches of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Range between Mt Veeder and Diamond Mountain. 

We visited their spectacular mountainside estate during our Napa Wine Experiences in 2007 and in 2009.

We hosted Duane here at our home during his initial release promotional tour visit to Chicago back in 2004. 

Duane Hoff pouring 2002 vintage while visiting Rick & Linda
in Chicago during 2004 vintage release marketing outreach.

Their's is a story book tale that started when Minneapolis natives, Susan and Duane Hoff were college sweethearts and entrepreneurs at heart, who both had meteoric careers at Best Buy Corporation, from the earliest startup days to corporate leadership roles. They left Best Buy and moved their family to Napa Valley in 2004 upon acquiring and founding Fantesca Estate and Winery. Today, Susan and Duane enjoy growing a business with their adult children – one of whom is an aspiring winemaker, and the other, a budding biotech entrepreneur.

Fantesca Spring Mountain District

Initial the early year 2002-2007 vintages from the estate were managed by winemakers Nils and Kirk Venge; then in 2008 they teamed up with legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett. The celebrated winemaker has been referred to as “The Wine Diva of Napa” and as “The First Lady of Wine.” She gained fame and recognition producing exceptional high quality wines that she produced for famous labels.

In addition to Fantesca, her current portfolio includes Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu and her own labels, La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett. She has worked previously with Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Jones Family, Grace Family, Vineyard 29, David Arthur, Barbour Vineyards and Showket.

Heidi grew up in a winemaking family in the Napa Valley and attended UC Davis, where she received a B.S. in fermentation science. After several harvests in Napa Valley and abroad, Heidi became the winemaker at Buehler Vineyards at age 25. It was at Buehler that she began attracting recognition by greatly improving the wines. After five years with Buehler, she moved on as an independent winemaker — and was quickly hired by Gustav Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards.

Heidi made her mark at Dalla Valle creating powerful yet elegant Cabernets, including the cult wine “Maya,” a Cabernet blend awarded 100 points by Robert Parker for the 1992 and 1993 vintages.

In 1992 Heidi began crafting wine for Screaming Eagle and again received two perfect 100-point scores, for the 1992 and 1997 vintages. At the Napa Valley Wine Auction of 2000, a 6-liter bottle of Heidi’s 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet set a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine at $500,000. The following year, a vertical offering of this cult wine went for $650,000.

From their initial ten acre vineyard, they produced ultra-premium 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and there is an acre planted in Petit Verdot. They also sourced grapes from the Sonoma County Russian River Valley to produce a bright crisp full flavored Burgundian Chardonnay, the first ever by Heidi Barrett.

Recently, Fantesca have brought on Master Sommelier DLynn Proctor as wine ambassador and evangelist. I met DLynn when he hosted a Penfolds Tasting that featured Legendary Grange at our local Binny's back in 2014, when he was Penfold's Ambassador and Education Director for that icnonic Australian producer. 

What fun to meet DLynn in person (right) having enjoyed watching his pursuit of his Master Sommelier Certification in the entertaining documentary movie SOMM which is a feature on Netflix. We saw DLynn on the Amazon Prime Somm III documentary the other night prominantly wearing this Fantesca jacket.

Fantesca products make for festive serving features or as elegant gifts as are lavishly packaged in stylish heavy etched glass bottles with painted 'labels', or in original wood cases.

In 2007 Fantesca released Le Petit Soeur, so named as Fantesca's 'little sister'. This Bordeaux Blend label is the unique small limited production blend that Heidi crafted for Fantesca initially to incorporate their their Cabernet and Petit Verdot for Fantesca family and friends. This 2007 release is a classic Bordeaux Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Petit Syrah of which 194 cases were produced. We acquired this label as part of our wine club allocation back in those early years.

I posted a tasting note of this label to Cellartracker back in 2010. At that time I gave it 91 points. 

At fifteen years of age this has integrated nicely and evolved into an interesting sophisticated blend, probably at the apex or peak of its drinking profile and window, and not likely to improve any further with more aging, but likely to age gracefully for several more years.

Dark garnet and purple colored, medium to full bodied, nicely balanced blackberry and dark cherry fruits with notes of tobacco, black tea, spice, hint of clove and cedar with moderate smooth tannins on a tangy finish.

RM 91 points.