Napa’s St. Helena AVA is well-known worldwide for its world-class dining, wineries and resorts. However, there is a gem hidden just behind St. Helena – mere minutes off the iconic Highway 29 – whose luscious varietals very much deserve the discovery. The region: the Spring Mountain District.
This quiet, rural, hillside escape and AVA since 1993 boasts more than 30 family-owned and -operated wineries and 1,000 acres of vineyards. How good is this juice? Nearly every winery or tasting room requires reservations, so solid planning ahead is important.
Spring Mountain is especially tailored to red wine lovers as nearly 90 percent of its wines are of that variety. The region is especially known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but be sure to seek out spots that offer sips of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec as well, and there are even some with Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and limited Pinot Noir well worth the time.
Given the quaint nature of the area, the best spots to stay are about a mile from most of the vineyards, notably Alila Napa Valley and Harvest Inn. It is important to note that given the vineyards are located on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains (separating the Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain, in fact), getting a driver or having a designated driver in one’s party is important.
Another best bet when planning: bring an umbrella. Often, this AVA gets more rainfall than anywhere else in Napa, which makes for some stunning, dramatic views any time of the year.
Now, let’s taste!
Stony Hill Vineyard is a great place to start. Though winemaking in Spring Mountain dates back to the mid-1800’s, vine viruses, the Great Depression and Prohibition definitely killed the industry from the 1910’s to the 1940’s until 1946 when Fred and Eleanor McCrea decided to try their hand in growing, leading to the establishment of Stony Hill in 1953. Still standing today, Stony Hill invites guests to make a reservation to taste explore its limited-production estate wines via the Residence Tasting ($95), which takes place at the mid-century modern residence of the McCrea Family on property, or the Terrace Reserve Tasting ($145), which features a walking tour, tasting and bonus sips on the property’s oak terrace.
Smith-Madrone is another stunner (pictured at top of page). Its wines are made entirely from the winery’s dry-farmed estate, and the winemaker himself is a pioneer of dry farming in the region. Right now, they have a Golden Anniversary Tasting to celebrate 50 years in Spring Mountain available several days a week by reservation that includes an outdoor tasting and adventure through the historic property.
In the mood for love? Barnett Vineyards, perched 2,000 feet above the valley floor, was founded by husband-and-wife Hal and Fiona Barnett in the early 1980’s. Their shared dream was to transform the then-rattlesnake haven and dense, steep property to a powerhouse winemaking operation taking full advantage of the unique and flavor-forward characteristics of grapes able to grow because of challenging terrain. The nuanced result is intoxicating in more ways than one. Barnett only books personalized tasting reservations, so each one is unique to the group, and there are only limited reservations available each week.
Other must-sip spots, each of which similarly requires a reservation:
Pride Mountain Vineyards Summit Room Tasting ($90): Available for up to six guests, the Summit Room experience is a seated VIP tasting with complete privacy that gives a rare glimpse at the award-winning winery’s limited release offerings, such as library, Vintner Select or Reserve wines.
Paloma Vineyard complimentary tasting: Winemaker Sheldon Richards does not charge for reservations to taste along with him directly as he discusses his style, process and gives a great history of the area with little-known facts and colorful stories
Spring Mountain Vineyard Explore Elivette Tasting ($200): A rare chance to sample five vintages of the coveted Elivette, one of which will be a 2006 vintage or older.
Hungry after all that tasting? Do not miss Gatehouse Restaurant and The Grove at COPIA, which are the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (just down the hill) eateries; the casual family-owned Mexican fare at Villa Corona Cocina; or the fresh-churned hot cocoa (available seasonally) at Woodhouse Chocolate.
Finally, when visiting Spring Mountain, cap off any day with a stop at Erosion. This combination wine and beer tasting tap room – with ice cream! – opened during the pandemic and is a love letter to all of Napa from a local family. A wow on every level, this winery, brewery and creamery was named to honor the actual erosion we must thank for Napa existing in the first place as well as the distinctive soils that make everything that grows in the region pure magic.
Not afraid to have some cheeky fun, there are wines by the bottle but also the can; vivid, vibrant, eccentric, wild cans tailormade for photos. The beers have notes of everything from yams to vanilla to coconut and are similarly meant to make the eyes smile. The best way to enjoy both worlds is via a beer, wine or combination tasting first then ordering those best loved for the table to continue enjoying.
And then there is the food. The food! Designed to curb cravings of every caliber, expect waffle corndogs, meat-packed and vegetarian empanadas, sharable dips, and table snacks including olives, nuts and veggies pickled in house. At Erosion, it is sacrilege to skip dessert as they source and make their own ice creams. Flavors run the gamut from guava and honey-chamomile to matcha and watermelon-cantaloupe. There is no way to leave Erosion other than with a smile.
Come to think of it, there is no way to leave after a weekend experiencing Spring Mountain and its surrounding area without a smile. A big one.
For more information, visit www.springmountaindistrict.org.