Sitting on Top of the World: Barnett Vineyards

BARNETTIn Northern California there are a lucky few who sit on top of the world,  gazing down on the valley-dwellers below and quietly going about their business.

Which is a very wonderful business. The select few winemakers who live way up on Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain make red wines that for decades have stunned wine drinkers and critics alike. They face challenges from cultivating the steep slopes, but they reap the rewards in the extraordinary fruit they’re able to produce.

Just getting to Spring Mountain separates the average Saturday winery-hopper from the true acolyte. The narrow, twisting road up the mountain is not for the faint-hearted (or those prone to car sickness). But the experience is rewarding. Breaking out on top, and seeing the Napa Valley spread out below, is breathtaking. We experienced it recently when we went in search of Barnett Vineyards, where we found much more than we bargained for.

First, we found Hal and Fiona Barnett, who discovered Spring Mountain in 1983 and dreamed of planting vineyards there. More than one vineyard management company told them they couldn’t do it – the grades were just too steep. But they persevered and in 1989 released 100 cases of their first vintage of Barnett Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon.

Their  property included one rocky hilltop that looked particularly intriguing to Hal and Fiona, so they cleared it to grow fruit for a single vineyard Cab. Clearing the land for grape vines scared up lots of the local flora and fauna, and earned the hilltop its name – Rattlesnake Hill. But the grapes the hill grew were worth the effort — the first vintage of Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1991, earned a whopping 96 points from Robert Parker, Jr’s The Wine Advocate. And unless you’ve been living in a cave (and not the kind of cave the Barnetts store their wine in), you know that a 96 rating will catapult a winery to the top of the “Must Have” list.

So what makes these mountaintop reds so special? Elevation is the obvious factor, because at 2050 feet above sea level the temperatures are 10 degrees cooler than on the valley floor below. The cooler temps create more acid and structure (tannins) in the grapes, and on top of that, the solid rock not far below the soil surface makes the vines work very hard to get nutrition and water. The vines are said to be “stressed”, but in this case stress is good. It produces more intense, complex flavors in the grapes. The  sunshine on top of the mountain is also more direct, producing very ripe fruit. All of this is a recipe for big, bold, long-lived wines.

And it’s not just the Cabs that are so noteworthy: I was knocked out by Barnett’s Spring Mountain District Merlot 2007. I’d like to pour a glass for every wine snob and “Sideways” wannabe who’s told me, “I don’t drink Merlot.” After I remind them that Chateau Petrus, Pride and Paloma are all world-class reds that happen to be made from Merlot, I’d make them taste Barnett’s stunner. The nose rushes up to meet you with deep plum and berry aromas, and the palate explodes in your mouth with intense fruit, a hint of licorice and spice. Did I say deep? The mid-palate just keeps going and going, and the finish brings acid to balance the huge fruit, and well-integrated tannins to let you know you’re drinking an age-worthy wine. Not your typical Merlot, for sure, but right in the ballpark for mountain-grown reds.

I have to mention Barnett’s 2009 Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay, too, although it’s not mountain grown. They source fruit from the well-known vineyard in Carneros, but this is certainly the best Sangiacomo I’ve tasted. The perfect balance is what made it for me; the fruit has rich tropical notes with a hint of tangy pineapple, and the French oak aging lays a beautiful butterscotch note on top. But the oak isn’t too heavy or woody, because only 30% of the barrels  are new. And the fruit and caramel run into a nice snappy finish, because only 30% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. Balance: it’s a wonderful thing…

Of course, Big Cabs is what mountain fruit is all about, and the 2007 Barnett Spring Mountain District doesn’t disappoint. From the nose to the finish you can sense the massive structure that will make this drink well for years to come. The fruit is classic blackberry and cassis, but with mocha and a hint of spice. The tannins are chalky, but the French oak rounds off the corners. I could have sat all afternoon, gazing at the views and sipping Barnett’s mountain Cab.

Next time you’re in California Wine Country, make the time to go out of your way to journey to the top of the mountain. You’ll feel special, and specially glad you gave yourself the opportunity to taste some really great wines. Cheers.

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