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Ask most Americans to name the nation’s premier wine-growing region, and I bet the overwhelming response will be “Napa Valley.” What many don’t realize is that Napa Valley actually contains a number of smaller regions going by the legal moniker of “appellations” (and not including “Boone’s Farm” or “Strawberry Hill”). Generally, the vineyards in these regions share common characteristics such as climate, soil type, and topography. And on the whole, these lesser-known areas produce outstanding wines at reasonable prices (at least by Napa standards). One of those appellations, Spring Mountain, sits just northwest of the Napa Valley town of St. Helena. Despite its name, the appellation is not actually a mountain but a chunk of the east-facing slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. (There are, however, lots of springs.) Being in the mountains, the vineyards face a few unusual threats. One winery, Paloma Vineyard, uses three concentric fences to keep the critters away from its tasty grapes. Even so, Barbara and Jim Richards of Paloma once found evidence of a mountain lion in their vineyards: what was left of the deer it followed in. At 400 to 2100 feet above sea level, most Spring Mountain vineyards stay above the fog line in the morning — getting more sun than the valley floor — and receive a cooling ocean breeze in the afternoon. The altitude also keeps the vineyards warmer at night as cool coastal air rolls into the valley floor below (I’m no meteorologist, but that’s what they tell me). This moderation in temperature means that Spring Mountain usually has a longer growing season than its low-lying neighbors. But most importantly, does all this equal good wines? The wineries in the appellation range from smallish (producing around 15,000 cases a year) to very small (just a few hundred cases a year). Though the region produces distinctive and differing wines, the preponderance of bright, ripe fruit coupled with good acidity runs as a unifying theme through the region’s wines. A prime example is Spring Mountain Vineyard’s 2001 estate cabernet sauvignon. Moderately priced at $50, this offering from one of the appellation’s biggest producers shows good depth and loads of fruit (notably blackberry and sweet red cherry) with very smooth tannins. Spring Mountain Vineyard’s showcase wine, 2002 Elivette Reserve (mostly cabernet with a touch of merlot and petit verdot), also displays lots of fruit but with a gripping tannic backbone and, dare I say, hints of chicken broth. With a few years of aging, the wine should be outstanding and well worth its lofty $90 price tag. Lynch Vineyards‘ 2003 cabernet sauvignon ($60) is already a nice sip. Well-balanced, the wine has silky tannins and aromas of cherries and cassis. Pride Mountain Vineyards‘ 2003 cabernet sauvignon ($65) brims with mouth-coating tannins and dark fruits such as black cherries and blackberries. The wine also displays a heavy dose of oak that should become better integrated as the wine ages. The region also produces fine merlots. In fact, the Wine Spectator, acting in a decidedly un-”Sideways” fashion, named Paloma’s 2001 Spring Mountain merlot the 2003 wine of the year. Paloma’s 2003 merlot (around $60) was the finest I tasted, with aromas of raspberries and Bing cherries coupled with silky tannins and good acidity. The wine is medium- to full-bodied but so well balanced that it doesn’t come off as a “big” wine. At about half the price, Robert Keenan Winery‘s 2002 Napa Valley merlot ($32) is a rich, deep, and well-balanced wine with black cherry and coffee aromas. Lots of other wines merit recommending too. Some of the syrahs from the region are the equals of the cabernets and merlots. Lynch’s version (2003, $65) has good acidity with aromas of smoked meats, earth, and raspberries against a backdrop of oak. Spring Mountain Vineyards’ syrah, regardless of vintage, is worth seeking out. The 2001 viognier from Pride ($40), with a bright golden hue and aromas of tropical fruit, honeysuckle, and overripe bananas, is one of the few Californian viogniers with complexity reminiscent of the condrieus of the Rhone Valley in France. Finally, Spring Mountain Vineyards’ sauvignon blanc is far from ordinary. While both the 2003 and 2004 ($30), aged in French oak barrels, smell of grapefruit and limes, the 2003 really shows its oak aging with attractive notes of vanilla and coriander. Obviously, the wines of Spring Mountain aren’t cheap. But if you like Napa Valley wines, you may find that the Spring Valley appellation has interesting wines to offer at better-than-Napa prices.
Phillip Dub� is an attorney and freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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