Spring Mountain Vineyard is arguably one of the more photogenic wineries in all of Napa Valley. The winery is located just outside of the St. Helena town limits – off of the narrow windy Spring Mountain Road connecting St. Helena to the city of Santa Rosa to the west. The oldest winery on this sizable property (La Perla Winery) dates from the early 1870s. Several other historical buildings all from the late 1800’s include an old barn containing vintage horse drawn carriages & miscellaneous winery equipment. The storied history of both this winery and property can be simply described in two words: intriguing & extensive.
Modern day Spring Mountain Vineyard dates back to 1969 when founder Mike Robbins (died 2013, unfortunately we never met him) produced his first wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Mike’s background was in real estate with projects in Los Angeles and San Francisco. At one point he was also an investor in Mayacamas Winery. Mike did not establish Spring Mountain Vineyard in its current location, rather it was founded in an old Victorian house and hillside property located north of the town of St. Helena (he purchased this site in 1964).
This historic Victorian can still easily be seen while driving Highway 128 (on the west side of the highway just north of Markham Vineyards); it was built in 1878 by Fritz Rosenbaum (with the proceeds earned from his glass and mirror company based in San Francisco at the time). He called this mansion Johannaberg – named in honor of his wife Johanna. He made wine here (fermenting primarily Riesling and Zinfandel in the basement of the home) but never sold the wine. William Casey, an ophthalmologist (who we met years ago at a tasting in St. Helena) founded St. Clement in 1976 and built a winery behind the iconic historic home. He chose the name St. Clement to honor his ancestors who helped found the state of Maryland. He eventually sold St. Clement to the Japanese brewer Sapporo USA in 1987. Treasury Wine Estates was the previous owner – they sold the winery, home, land + vineyard to current owner, Huneeus Vintners in late 2016.
Despite getting his winery bond for the Victorian, Mike did not produce his Spring Mountain Vineyard wines here, because the cellar was so small. Rather he produced his earliest vintages at Heitz Cellars – located at the end of Taplin Road, west of St. Helena. The first vintage of Spring Mountain Vineyards was a non-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon ‘made’ in 1971 with grapes from both 1968 and 1969, from wine already aging in barrels purchased from Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars. A small portion of this blend was from the acclaimed Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville. And Mike’s early source for grapes was from a vineyard in Rutherford on site of what is now Mumm, Napa Valley. The image of the old Johannaberg Victorian was used on the label on several of the Spring Mountain Vineyard early wines up through the 1973 vintage.
In 1974, Mike purchased what was called the Parrott Estate and the Miravelle mansion. The original owner of this property was Tiburcio Parrott – he was born in Mexico; his mother was his father’s mistress. Much later in life, Parrott made his way to the Napa Valley; he was a prominent vineyardist who along with his father John, owned the Sulfur Bank Mine in Lake County to the north – whose products were borax & cinnabar. Because of his ownership of the mine and a strong moral compass, it was Parrott who would make labor history in 1880. Earlier that same year California legislature has passed a law prohibiting businesses from hiring Chinese employees. After the law passed Parrott refused to fire his employees and was arrested, imprisoned, released on bail and later went to trial. Ultimately his decision was validated by the courts and he was able to rehire all the employees that were forced to resign.
But back to the Napa Valley. Tiburcio’s parents purchased this property for their son in 1884. A contemporary of the Beringer Brothers, Parrott becomes one of their friends and nicknamed them, “Los Hermanos” – meaning, the brothers, in English. He hired prominent architect Albert Schroepfer (responsible for designing the Niebaum home and the Rhine House at Beringer Vineyards) to design a mansion that he called Miravelle. This impressive structure was built in 1885. The nearby carriage house till contains old wooden carriages and was referred to as the ‘owl house’ by Tiburcio (one understands why he called it this when one views the exterior). Parrott’s primary wooden carriage is still housed on site – with a horn in the back to alert the brothel at the time, the Stone Bridge Salon and Brothel which was located on the eastern part of Pope Street (near the Pope Street Bridge and on the edge of the grounds of what is the Upper Valley Campus (UVC) of Napa Valley College in St. Helena of his impending arrival. Parrott died in Miravelle prematurely in 1894 (only 54 years old).
Soon after acquiring this historic property, Mike restored the stately old Victorian and built a winery – moving Spring Mountain Vineyards to its current location. And astute long time followers of the Spring Mountain Vineyards wines will notice that the image on their bottles appropriately changed from the 1973 vintage to the 1974, now reflecting the Miravelle mansion.
In addition to producing excellent wines under Mike’s ownership, Spring Mountain Vineyards was one of several Napa wineries to appear in the TV Show, Falcon’s Crest. Mike even released several wines under the Falcon Crest label in the early 1980s. And the winery was one of a select few featured in the 1976 Paris Tasting – the 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay took 4th place.
Switzerland based businessman, film producer, investor in Encyclopædia Britannica and Merriam-Webster among numerous other interests, Jacqui (Jacob) Safra purchased and combined three historical wineries (four adjoining vineyard sites) between 1992 and 1996 – Miravelle, Chateau Chevalier and La Perla, totaling 845 acres of which 225 is planted to vine. For perspective, Spring Mountain Vineyard is slightly larger then New York’s Central Park.
Located at 400 feet, Miravelle is the lowest winery site on the property and is also where visitors to the property are hosted.
Villa Miravelle exterior
Villa Miravelle, interior
Heading up the property to about 1000 feet is Chateau Chevalier. Its namesake is French born Fortune Chevalier who trained as a stain glass artist and in 1857 founded F. Chevalier and Co bottling and selling a variety of whiskies and other alcoholic products. He purchased this part of the property in 1884 and five years later deeded the site to his son George (who would later accidentally and tragically shoot his own son). The family built the original mansion here in 1891 and also finished construction of the still standing gorgeous gravity-flow stone winery, Chateau Chevalier in 1892. Some of Fortune’s original stain glass windows still are in place in the building.
By 1895 Chevalier owned/housed approximately 400,000 gallons of bulk made wine through a one-time acquisition from St. Helena Winery, Dowdell & Co. According to an article in the Napa Register, this transaction was the largest wine sale ever made in the state of California at the time. The 1906 earthquake devastated the buildings on their property – destroying the mansion and as well as their wine warehouses in San Francisco. They sold the property two years later to the Howard Hart, a family with oil connections in Alaska. They soon called their property Harthaven – the old stone Harthaven marker is located next to this properties’ driveway off of Spring Mountain Road. Incidentally a large portion of their original driveway slide into York Creek next to Spring Mountain Road many years ago – so a new road had to be built after Safra purchased the property.The Hart family built another mansion near Chateau Chevalier – unfortunately it burned down in 1927 when a butler left a mattress to close to the fireplace. So they rebuilt another mansion in the footprint of the previous structure. Incredibly this one also burned down, in 1936. Mrs. Hart was trapped inside at the time of the fire – but did escape with her life although was left with permanent disfiguring scars and refused to leave the property.
The remnants of what were formidable formal gardens can still be seen around Chateau Chevalier including a number of stone steps, terraces, a pool and several small structures whose uses remain a mystery. Remarkably a portion of the original hedge maze/walkway is still alive. And what is an incredible rarity in the Napa Valley – a wooden carriage house still stands, dating from the early 1890s.
After the Harts sold, the property was acquired by several other owners including the Bissonette family who resumed commercial winemaking for the first time in 1973 and produced a number of wines in the 1970s. Spring Mountain Vineyard even produced a single Cabernet Sauvignon in 2006 bottled under the Chateau Chevalier label. Eventually Napa Valley vintner Gil Nickel and his brother John purchased the site in the 1980s – they were going to rename this site to Nickel & Nickel but then John decided to move back to Oklahoma and with vines infected with phyloxxera at the time, they sold the property. However during their ownership, they did register the old winery with the National Register of Historic Places.
Rising in elevation to around 1200 feet is the Beringer brothers’ original vineyard site, planted in 1882.
Topping out at about 1,600 feet is one of the older wineries in the Napa Valley; La Perla was founded by George Charles Lemme and dates from the early 1870s (possibly construction began in 1870 and was completed by 1873). The old winery still stands with its stone walled first floor built into the side of the hill with an enormous wooden second floor that today is used for various storage, including numerous historical items. Some of the original wooden carriages are housed here – some with wooden brake pads, others with at the time, state of the art leather brake pads. And an ever flowing trickle of water from a naturally occurring spring flows through a sculpture mounted into a rock wall in front of the winery.
Wine was made commercially here through 1919 when Prohibition became the law of the land. But wine continued to be made at the winery during parts of Prohibition – being sold to family in New York. No wine was made here commercially during later ownership.
On the hillsides surrounding the winery is where Lemme planted by hand the first ever Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the mid 1870s – in what is now the Spring Mountain District. At its peak, his vineyard was 65 acres. It is truly a trek to drive here – on a narrow windy road that climbs well above the valley floor. And one can only imagine how long it took primitive wooden horse drawn carriages to make this journey.
Interestingly the Schilling family (known for founding Schilling Spices in San Francisco – now Mcormick Spices owned this particular part of the property) are related to another Napa Valley winery family, the Steltzners (as told to us by Allison Steltzner during a lovely visit at her place in Uruguay). The connection with the Schilling family was through marriage – George Charles Lemme’s granddaughter married into the Schilling family. In 1903 the Schilling family incorporated their vineyards as Spring Mountain Vineyard Company.
And what is a truly intriguing piece of history – are the two military wooden barracks that were constructed presumably in the early 1940s built just below La Perla. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the United States built a number of forts and other military outposts up and down the west coast. We can find very little information about this – but these two barracks were apparently one of these hidden outposts and were staffed with military for some time. In later years they served as worker housing.
And Draper Vineyards operated here for a number of years beginning in 1944 when Jerome C Draper purchased this property from Russian immigrant Herman Hummel; Herman was hired by the Lemme family initially to help work in the vineyards. The old Draper home (dates from 1971) is still here with the surrounding gardens designed by prominent landscape architect, Thomas Church (California post modern). Apparently Church enjoyed his negronis because he always requested the Drapers have one waiting for him when he arrived on property.
This is one of the more incredible home locations in all of the Napa Valley – it sits on a knoll with expansive vistas in all directions – connected to a strip of land with another knoll slightly higher (the highest point on the property). And from here on a clear day, one can see much of the Napa Valley spread out far below.
This is not the only Church influence in the Napa Valley – he also designed the gardens at William Cole Winery located just north of St. Helena. The house is empty and has not been lived in since the 1980s – a visit is like walking back in time with the era look and feel of the interior.
Over the years, the Drapers had sizable real estate holdings in both the central valley near Modesto and in the Napa Valley having owned over 1,000 acres in Carneros.
While Draper Vineyards never made commercial wine, they sold their grapes to a number of prominent wineries. No relation to Paul Draper, who coincidentally began purchasing grapes from Stanford University college classmate Fritz Maytag on Spring Mountain starting in the 1970s for some of his wines at Ridge Vineyards (a relationship that continues today). We met with Jerome Draper Jr (Jerry) for more insights into his family’s holdings in the Napa Valley (at 96 years young at the time of our conversations, his memory is still like a vice – quick to recall specific dates, people, and stories).
Like his father, Jerry also enjoyed a career in real estate (developing Northgate Mall in San Rafael, Quail Hill and Northgate Industrial Park). In addition, he owned Draper and Esquin, an importer of wines and at one point operated a wine shop in San Francisco and in Paris. Later he founded Draper Farms in 1995 in San Anselmo. In 1971 he co-founded the San Francisco based Vintner’s Club (still in business) with Lee Foster (Ravenswood) with the early tastings held above Jerry’s office and always attracting the whose who of the wine world. Over the years, the club has influenced and provided education for numerous winemakers or vintners. Those interested in more information about the early days of the Vintners Club and their 1x a week 12-wines blind tastings can reference: Vintners Club – Fourteen Years of Wine Tastings 1973-1987 by Mary-Ellen Mcneil-Draper. Incidentally Jerry wanted to be an investor in Ravenswood Winery with Lee, but due to Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) regulations he was not able to do so (since he already was involved in a number of other wine ventures).
And Jerry helped organized the first ‘rematch’ blind tasting of the Paris Tasting of 1976 – hosted at the Vintner’s Club in 1978 and even flew Stephen Spurrier over to oversee the tasting.
Jerry has loads of stories about his time in the Napa Valley from working at his family’s 1,100 acre Rancho Rincon in Carneros (part of the historic Stanly Ranch; the Draper property was named after the original Rancho Rincón de los Carneros land grant) for 50 cents/hour in the 1940s, recalling how he and his wife Norma’s entire grocery bill for 1948, they year they were married was $31 – all spent at W F Giugni & Son Grocery in St. Helena (well before it became a deli), hunting pheasants with André Tchelistcheff, fun parties his family used to host on Spring Mountain and the time their family property was mentioned in an extensive National Geographic article about the Napa Valley (May 1979 issue). The magazine printed an aerial photograph of their family home and surrounding vineyards, taken by Napa Valley based photographer Charles O’Rear – originally the magazine was going to caption the photography as La Perla but Jerry’s mother Virginia decided that was not a good idea and told the magazine to leave the name of Draper Vineyard out of the article.
Close friend, Martin Stelling (owner of the majority of To Kalon Vineyard in the 1940s), a bit sauced on good wine at Jerry’s engagement party – offered Jerry one of his homes rent-free for the rest of his life should he be interested. This home is the pool house that still sits on what is now property in Oakville owned by the Detert family (Deter Family Vineyards).
And his father Jerome helped introduce the Davies family to Katharine Cebrian, the owner at the time of Schramsberg. After the successful sale, Jerry asked his father what their commission would be on the sale. His father simply told him there are no family commissions! The Draper Vineyard manager at the time, Joe Torres helped oversee the initial plantings at Schramsberg under the Davies ownership. And one day when a coyote killed all the ducks in a pond on the property, Jerry quickly took action, found a place in Sonoma that sold Mallard ducks – and soon had them swimming in the pond.
Jerry recalls the first grapes his family sold from their Spring Mountain property were to Lee Stewart at Chateau Souverain. Later, Lee introduced his young winemaking helper at the time, David Lett to Jerome Draper. The Drapers gave him permission to take cuttings from their vineyard of Chardonnay (which they had sourced from Wente Vineyards in Livermore, years earlier). David did so and took them to Oregon where in part these cuttings were planted in the first vineyard for what would become David and his wife Diana’s Eyrie Vineyards. And this ‘Draper Chardonnay’ was part of the first ever Chardonnay vines planted in all of the Willamette Valley.
Jerry and his sister inherited the La Perla site when their parents died in the mid 1980s. Jerry wanted to keep the property – his sister did not. They ended up selling after a contentious and legal battle. Jerry made sure his former employees were treated very well from part of the proceeds from the sale; he recalls one of his employees broke down into tears after receiving a fairly substantial check.
Part of the 1959 film staring Rock Hudson, The Earth is Mine was filmed at La Perla. Jerry recalls the gorgeous and leading actress of this film, Jean Simmons forgot her sunglasses at their property one day after wrapping up some filming and had already returned to the motel where she was staying. His father Jerome offered to drive them over to her motel and drop them off at her room – Jerry remembers his mother saying something like, ‘oh the hell you will’!
La Perla Winery
Spring Mountain’s property lies just west of Beringer Vineyards and extends from near the valley floor to the upper reaches of the Mayacamas mountains. Few contiguous winery owned properties in the Napa Valley span such a diverse elevation gain. Due to the differences in altitude, this property offers a wide diversity of soil types and growing conditions including the inherent differences in micro climates based on the elevation differences from the near valley floor to the upper most steep hillsides.
The vineyards are farmed extremely sustainable using cover crops, no herbicides or pesticides, using organic compounds to protect against mildew and protecting and nurturing beneficial insects.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of their vineyards are planted on steep or terraced slopes (vineyard blocks that could never be developed today because of an ordinance prohibiting vineyard development on slopes greater then 30% due to erosion concerns). The vineyards are sub-divided into small blocks based on each block’s unique fruit characteristics or soil types. These blocks are kept separate during fermentation and the subsequent aging and it is only during the blending trials will the wine from the various blocks be blended together.
Spring Mountain Vineyard used to employ several wine consultants from both Bordeaux and Burgundy. These consultants would make the trip over to the winery several times a year. The property has been associated with several winemakers over the past few decades including Craig MacLean, Craig Becker and Jac Cole.
Guests can opt to reserve a tasting only, but we highly recommend the combined tour and tasting which takes about 90 minutes. This is one of the nicer tours and tastings in the valley but be sure to book well ahead of your tour date, as these experiences generally fill up weeks in advance.
The grounds are beautiful – featuring a wide variety of Mediterranean shrubs and trees including numerous olive trees. In complete contrast to the Mediterranean foliage is their sub-tropical garden containing palms and bananas; it is remarkable these plants do so well in Northern California. Also look for the Norfolk Pines growing outdoors; since this is a sub tropical tree, it rarely grows outside in this part of the state.
The tour briefly visits the wine cave; guests will notice that the original cave is dwarfed in size when compared to their much expanded modern cave. However, it is worth seeing from a historical perspective as this was hand cut with pick axes by Chinese workers in 1885 (one of a very select few wine caves in the Napa Valley that date from the 1800s – others being Storybook Mountain, Beringer, Del Dotto in Napa and Stags’ Leap Winery). What used to take years to tunnel out a rather short cave using hand tools – is today a much quicker process using modern cave drilling machines. The “new” cave is about 20,000 square feet.
Mr. Safra spends much of his time in Europe; a few rooms in his private residence are included on the tour if he is not actually staying on site. His “carriage” house is a real gem; it underwent a major renovation and shows very nicely now. The entire property was closed to the public for almost 10 years during these renovations. No expense was spared in this house. Visitors will taste in a beautifully furnished room; the chandelier that sits above your head used to be in one of Rupert Murdoch’s homes (later purchased by Mr. Safra). A number of sports players and other celebrities have also toured this property over the years.
Spring Mountain Vineyard concentrates on red wines (although they do make an estate Sauvignon Blanc). Some Pinot Noir is also grown on site which is extremely rare in this “hotter” part of the valley, but they have found a cool spot on their property for this. Only several other Spring Mountain wineries actually grow Pinot Noir – all in small amounts.
Spring Mountain Vineyard produces excellent Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of their Cabernet Sauvignon blocks still producing was planted in 1954 – along with select vines at Scarecrow in Rutherford (1945), a one-acre part of the Monastery Block in Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard (1945), a section within the MacDonald Vineyard in Oakville (1954)and a small block at Grgich Hills (1959), these are among the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in all of Napa Valley.
The wine that they are most known for is Elivette, a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine which is blended with small amounts of various Bordeaux varieties; the varieties and blend percentages change from year to year. The first vintage of this wine was from 1999 – it is made from some of the most prized vineyard blocks on the property ranging in elevation. This wine is named in honor of Jacqui’s parents – combining parts of their first names. The select vintages we have tasted over the years all have excellent acidity and other hallmarks for long term aging.
The 2004 Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette Reserve is a very aromatic wine both with fruit and its floral characteristics. Dark fruit is at the core of the palate with structured firm tannins anchoring a long finish. This Bordeaux styled wine has excellent natural acidity, fruit and structure to age for many years.
The 2008 Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette offers darker fruit on the bouquet including aromas of Santa Rosa plum and blackberry along with some lavender notes. Takes some time to coax out the aromas – so let this wine breathe. Offers a noticeable and notable density and richness of fruit across the palate. The richness of flavor is complemented by the structure of the tannins; big, chewy and long lasting. This wine still has plenty of years of ahead (tasted 12 years after vintage date).
It is noteworthy to mention that some of the older Spring Mountain Vineyard red wines we have tried show the influence of brettanomyces (or commonly referred to in the industry, as brett). Brand Manager, Aida Parsa mentioned that their wines started showing cleaner sometime between the years of 2005 and 2007. Brett is a type of yeast that often shows its resulting attributes well after primary fermentation has occurred due to its slow growing nature. It can remain on used barrels from vintage to vintage but can also be on new barrels. Many consider brett a flaw, an infection if you will, due to improper hygiene in the cellar, but others consider this an additional source of character or complexity in wines. We fall in the latter camp – for several reasons. Most of our tastings are of current release Napa Valley wines which are ‘clean’ and reflect the fruit rather then additional influences from brett. In addition we don’t mind a bit of brett (up to a point). Therefore, its more of a novelty these days when we get to try Napa Valley wines with some brett influence.
Characteristics can include sweaty leather and barnyard like aromas among other both appealing and non appealing aromatic attributes. For more information about this type of yeast, please refer to sommelier Kelly White’s award winning article (Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards 2019) about brettanomyces here.
The 1997 Spring Mountain Estate is 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. Tasted 23 years after the vintage date. Opens immediately on the bouquet with aromas of sweaty leather, truffle oil, mushroom and a darker forest floor note. Also hints of baking spices. The palate shows flavors of black licorice, a sweet berry note, red cherries, dried herbs and hints of brown chocolate. Juicy, mouth watering – great acidity. Savory. Lingers with a light grip of dusty well-integrated tannins. Still drinking quite well despite its age.
The 2003 Spring Mountain Estate offers darker aromatics including leather, plum and some floral notes. Hints of anise, dark chocolate and some earthy notes also present. Juicy across the palate with a sweetness of both fruit and oak. Bright still, despite 17 years post vintage date. On the palate, licorice and rhubarb along with some savory attributes. Mouth watering on the finish with still somewhat tight tannins – lingers with darker spices including notes of pepper. This wine is a pleasure to drink.
The 2011 Spring Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon immediately showcases a ‘cleaner’ bouquet then the older vintages of this wine. The aromatics are about the fruit – elegant, reflecting this vintage’s cooler growing season. Notes of blackberry and blueberry with a kiss of mocha and espresso. Also nuances of dried herbs including sage and more in the background, dust. Let this wine open – the fruit continues to evolve nicely. Mouth watering, bright acidity with a tartness of cherry and plum on the finish. The tannins are still a bit tightly woven – dry in their feel, they are well-defined and linger for some time.
Spring Mountain Vineyard’s prices are quite reasonable based on the fairly small quantities of wine actually made each year. What is also fairly unique among Napa wineries is they have select older vintages available for purchase – both onsite and online (discounts are given for club members). In 2018, Spring Mountain Vineyard is is holding back more fruit for their own wines – therefore own production will increase.
For more information, to join one of their wine clubs or simply spend time browsing their extremely informational rich website including what contains probably the best viticulture and enology section of any Napa winery website, visit: www.springmountainvineyard.com
OTHER SAFRA OWNED PROPERTIES
Parknasilla Resort & Spa + Rossdohan Island
A visit and a stay, and our photographs coming by 2021 or 2022 when we take yet another trip back to Europe specifically focusing on Napa Valley connected properties. We were just near here in 2019 following the heritage of Chase Family Cellars but will try to return in Spring/Summer 2021 or 2022.