School House Vineyard is a very small producer of entirely estate wines nestled in the hills of the Spring Mountain District a few hundred yards in on Langtry Road at about 1500 feet. A visit here is for the serious wine enthusiast as a tasting is conducted at the owner’s home. This winery is located in the Spring Mountain District, it is quiet and relaxed here; this is Napa’s unassuming mountain Appellation. The owners of School House, John Gantner and Nancy Walker concentrate their efforts entirely on the vineyard management.
They subscribe to the saying that 90% of the wine making is done in the vineyard. As a result they do not make the wine themselves but rather work with a local long-time Napa winemaker to produce approximately 500 cases a year of three types of wines. All wine is made at a nearby winery. Their vineyard is named after a small one-room school house which used to be on site until it burned down in 1986. You can still see the original site where this was located.
The original vines on the property were planted in the 1890’s. John Gantner Sr. purchased the property in the 50’s and produced his first vintage in 1957. This first vintage was made at Stony Hill – they have moved the winemaking home around over the years including at California’s oldest winery, Buena Vista in neighboring Sonoma County. Today they make the wine at Pride Mountain Vineyards (also in the Spring Mountain appellation).
Remarkably there has been a vintage every year since 1957, making this one of the longer continuously operating vineyard producers in Napa. By our count they are one of only 9 wineries that were producing in the 1950’s in Napa or prior – who are still producing today. However, vineyards on site were originally planted in the 1890’s and even today some of these original vines are intermingled in with the much newer plantings.
The 2004 Pinot Noir is Burgundian in style with a very earthy bouquet that leads to a palate rich in red fruit including cherry, plum and raspberry. Unfortunately this wine is available in very limited production and usually sells out rather quickly.
The first wine released from the 1957 vintage was Pinot noir; they still produce wine from this varietal today. All grapes grown on site are dry farmed and are probably one of only a few wineries in California dry farming Pinot noir. In addition, very few wineries on Spring Mountain actually grow Pinot noir – we can think of only two others. The 2011 Pinot Noir (their 54th vintage in a row) reveals an appealing and pretty bouquet – think raspberry jam, hints of mocha and notes of mushroom. On the palate higher toned fruit shows. This is a very balanced wine with excellent acidity and fine-grained tannins.
Their small vineyard contains bud-wood from several very respectable Napa sources. The bud-wood from this wine came to be planted here as an indirect result of famed soils and winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff’s encouragement for local growers to remove other varietals and replace these with Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, John Daniel of Inglenook Winery decided to remove all his Pinot Noir in Rutherford and gave some bud wood to Schoolhouse.
John’s father was friends with Fred McCrea, founder of Stony Hill Winery (also on Spring Mountain); their Chardonnay came from Wente “small berry” cuttings that Fred gave him in 1968. The 2012 Chardonnay shows a nice golden hue in the glass revealing aromas of honeysuckle, creme brule and brown sugar notes. On the palate it is all about the varietal and fruit characteristics rather than oak or manipulation in the winery. It is a balanced Chardonnay – slightly creamy (not oaky or buttery) with mineralities on the finish.
They produce two Mescolanza wines (appropriately meaning “Medley” Spanish – one that is Zinfandel based and the other Syrah based. The Zinfandel is a delicious blend predominately of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah with a touch of Carignane, a Spanish red varietal rarely grown in the Napa Valley. As Nancy says, “Excessive consumption of this wine may cause Zinfomania”! The 2011 Mescolanza Zinfandel based blend shows some spicy white pepper notes, cassis and red fruit. It is balanced on the palate showing higher toned fruits – with a lingering tartness on the finish (red currant). The tannins are fine-grained, delicate and perfectly integrated into this wine’s structure.
The Mescolanza Syrah is the newest Schoolhouse project – made from a vineyard on site jointly planted with Pride Mountain. Old vines that originally were used by Beringer to make a sherry were pulled out and replaced with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvédre. The 2011 Mescolanza is Syrah based but also contains the other two varietals. This wine shows earthy notes on the bouquet with cedar and hints of white pepper. It is pleasing on the palate – very well balanced.
Tasting is an intimate experience sitting around the table with Nancy or John at their home. They are setup to see only very small groups.