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RC: (con'd) Now, when we were thinking about doing a Cabernet from Spring Mountain, I was really concerned because our entire wine program is based on what's different about where the grapes come from. I initially thought that Spring Mountain, [also] being on the Mayacamas, would be too much like Mount Veeder. But when we finally made the wine, we discovered that it actually had a totally different personality! What we realized is that Spring Mountain has the climate of Mount Veeder but has the soil of Howell Mountain. And it ends up making for such a unique flavor profile.
ST: I worked with Howell Mountain fruit also when I was at Artesa. The way I think of it, specifically in the context of the Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder fruit, doing verticals and lots of tastings, is that the Howell Mountain wines have a really high-toned characteristic with a savory quality. There's certainly also a sense of place — you can spot it in a blind lineup almost every time! It's very rocky, volcanic soil, so the vines really do struggle. The tannins are definitely an issue here, but in keeping consistent with the house style, we worked to round out those tannins and make them more integrated and approachable. Nonetheless, they're still there, they're evident. But to compare it to the others, I think of it as being a high note, one that's more highly strung, whereas the Mount Veeder wine is more of a bass note.
The Tailoring of Techniques
NM: Speaking of which, even though you're making wines from three distinct Napa mountain appellations now, Bob, you mentioned you have a soft spot for Mount Veeder. Tell me about that.
RC: When I was considering what to do in the wine business, I'd been doing a lot of tasting at the Vintner's Club in San Francisco, which is a really fabulous organization that has some great tasting events. What I discovered there was that the more I tasted mountain wines, the more I liked them. But I especially loved the Mount Veeder wines. At that time, Mount Veeder Vineyards was making a steller wine — one of the most gorgeous wines I've ever tasted — and it inspired me to want to grow grapes and make wine from where it came from. What I've always loved about Mount Veeder is that you can make a really powerful mountain wine with all the concentration and depth, but if you make it in a certain style, it has elegance too.
A minute ago, I mentioned the complexity of the soils and how that contributes to different locations in the valley coming through in different wines. But another really important component is micro-climate. What's really wonderful about the mountains is that with the upheaval of the soil, you have all these different exposures — sunlight exposure, wind exposure, soil type, soil depth — you just have so much going on that there's a built-in complexity.
Generally, when I talk about mountain vineyards, where you have absolute diversity, I usually contrast them to those on the valley floor, where you have absolute consistency. For our winemaking techniques, the mountains work really wonderfully because we like to pick about four to eight tons each harvest day and have that as a separate fermentation lot, because the fruit ripens at different periods. In a valley floor vineyard of, say, about 20 acres, you're probably going to pick it all in about a week or so. On the mountain, we're harvesting [in waves] over a period of five or six weeks. It's great because Stephen can see what's in a particular lot, and ferment it accordingly. If it's really beautiful and fairly light, we might feel that it won't hold up to the tannin extraction late in fermentation and decide to take it off the skins and finish fermentation in barrel. But if another lot is really powerful, we might feel that it can go all the way through, so we'll ferment it to dryness and perhaps even do some extended maceration. And so at the end of fermentation, we have a cellar full of these different wine lots [from a single vineyard].
NM: What have you learned in making the wine from one appellation that has compelled you to reevaluate your choices or assumptions in the making wine from a different appellation in the portfolio?