There is definitely a difference between the fruit that is grown on the Napa Valley floor versus the fruit that is grown high up in the mountains. We got to taste that difference first-hand when we visited Barnett Vineyards, atop of Spring Mountain, at the northern end of the Mayacamas Range that separates Napa from Sonoma.
Barnett Vineyards is the creation of Hal and Fiona Barnett. Hal is a real estate developer from Stockton, California and his wife Fiona is a CPA who was practicing out of San Francisco, but originally hails from our own Vancouver. In 1983, the Barnetts acquired 40 acres on Spring Mountain, originally to build a second home away from the city. They thought they might grow a few vines on their property as a hobby, but the original intention was to enjoy the solitude and the beauty of the region, not create a winery.
Of course, things change, and we can tell you that we are sure glad they did. Barnett is now producing some very special wine from their Estate Vineyard and from a few other carefully selected Napa and Sonoma vineyards. What is it that makes their wines special? We can sum up that question with two words: People. Place.
When they decided to plant their estate on Spring Mountain, they were faced with a daunting challenge. Spring Mountain is rugged terrain, especially where they are…right at the very top!
That means very steep slopes, with the planted areas at slopes of up to 38%. Due to that constraint, only 14 of the 40 acres were planted. To plant their vineyards, they hired iconic vineyard manager Laurie Wood. Laurie is credited with creating and/or managing some of Napa’s finest vineyards: Martha’s (Tom and Martha May and Heitz Cellars); Bella Oaks (Heitz); Bosche (Freemark Abbey); Chabot (Beringer); and Grace Family Vineyard.
The Barnett’s know how to hire talent. Their first winemaker was Kent Rasmussen of Ramsey Wines. 13 years ago they brought on their current winemaker and General Manager, David Tate. David is a wonderfully disarming person. His personality is relaxed and very humble, and he imparts his encyclopaedic knowledge of wine with down-to-earth terms and easy to understand concepts. This ability to communicate is no accident. He has learned from the best, working with Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, one of the true pioneers of the California wine scene. He also has WSET Level 3 Certification and teaches their courses.
We sat, talked, and tasted, with David and Fiona Barnett at a table just outside the glass doors at the entrance to their cellar, overlooking their steep vineyards and the Napa Valley floor below. Located at the top of Spring Mountain (elevation 2,000 feet), only Paloma Vineyards sits at a higher elevation. The Barnett property faces east in an amphitheatre shape that captures different aspects and different slopes. This is a view that could take your breath away and is steep enough that if you had vertigo, it probably would take your breath away!
David tells us some of the intricacies of farming at these elevations and slopes. “The tree line was held to halt erosion and after the tree line there’s another terrace – this is literally a priceless vineyard now given you can’t plant beyond a 10% slope. At 38% we’re well beyond that but were grandfathered in.” Tending and harvesting a vineyard with these sorts of slopes at these elevations means no mechanical harvesters or equipment of any sort; it is just too steep. Everything is done by hand – suckering, pruning, picking, everything.
We asked David why they would go to the trouble, and the obvious expense, of working land this rugged. “This is agriculture in the extreme due to the slope, which means low yields of less than ½ what they get on the Valley floor”. Low yields drive all of the vine’s energy into fewer grapes creating greater intensity. “We’re on top of a mountain, to the back of us 30 miles or less is the Pacific Ocean; a constant breeze comes off the ocean, slowing ripening down of everything from the Chardonnay to the Pinot to the Merlot and the Cab – we’re growing in places where we JUST get the fruit ripe.”
David explains how he wants the vines to struggle, it is what gives them their character. He tells us how the mountain fruit differs from the Valley which is why they are where they are: “Mountain fruit is not necessarily more rustic than the valley, it depends on the winemaker. If you make wine on the mountain in the same way as you make it on the Valley floor, you’ll end up with a very unpleasant, tannic wine. Down in the valley the berries are bigger, so you have more juice to skin. It is all about that tannin management and how you extract it. You really have to put your thinking cap on and think outside of the box when you come from the valley to up here.”
Their estate vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the classic Bordeaux varieties. The vines are now 30 years old. The original blocks were planted at 6×4 foot spacing. Now they are working with a 4×4 foot spacing. This greater density serves to increase the struggle of the vines which yields fewer, smaller berries of greater intensity.
Barnett also purchases fruit from some select properties to make other vineyard-designate, varietal wines. They make a Chardonnay from the highly regarded Sangiacomo (pronounced san-jack-amo) Vineyard in Carneros whom the Barnetts started working with in 1991.
We look south down the Valley and David tells us: “As you see the fog pulling out, it goes out all the way through San Pablo Bay so Carneros is the extension of the Bay on land. The fog just kind of sits there and rests for a longer portion of the day and that is what you want with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-that nice cool slow ripening, where you get amazing flavours. In Carneros, we’re picking in October so really long, slow ripening. We whole-cluster press the fruit, it goes straight into oak (all French, almost all neutral, 20% new) and then I let the malolactic [secondary fermentation] kick in on its own. I taste every barrel. We stop the malolactic fermentation on taste, so there’s never a measured malolactic. We’ve done as little as 17% and as much as 68%. This year it’s 27%.“
They also make a Pinot Noir from the Tina Marie Vineyard located in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma. We first tasted Pinot from Tina Marie when we tasted at Enkidu. We became big fans of Tina Marie Pinot Noir through that experience and the Barnett version confirms our lofty opinion. “When I pull in any of the Pinot I make, I crush it and de-stem with dry ice so we get it down to about 2 degrees and I hold it static for 5 days which is called a cold maceration or cold soak. Why you do that is a grape is 90% juice and pulp and that pulp gets to break down and so even though I swirled this (glass of wine in hand) a while back it’s still slowly tearing down the glass and that viscosity and richness comes from that cold soak.”
As the following tasting notes will show, Barnett Vineyards has elevated their winemaking to a level that matches the stunning views from their mountain top winery. Barnett is a spectacular winery to visit when you are in Napa or Sonoma. Tastings are by appointment only so be sure to call ahead. Appointments can be booked by calling their office Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (1-707-963-7075).
2017 Barnett Vineyards Sangiacomo Chardonnay
Medium gold in colour. Tropical fruit notes of mango and papaya blend seamlessly with the mineral notes that pick up on the back end. The medium+ body is balanced by well-judged acidity. Further complexity comes from the white peach and stone fruit that comes out with swirling. Elegant and very well balanced.
Very Good/Excellent (USD$35 at their winery)
2016 Barnett Vineyards Savoy Pinot Noir
Savoy Vineyard is in the Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma. David puts this wine through a 5-day cold soak which helps develop viscosity. We get dark cherry, earth, and hints of spice. There is great presence to this wine, but it stays well within bounds. Already complex, this no doubt is a product of the blend of clonal material: Dijon 115 and 777; Pommard and Martini 13. Medium to full body this retains poise and balance.
Very Good/Excellent (USD$65 at their winery)
2017 Barnett Vineyards Tina Marie Pinot Noir
Tina Marie is a vineyard in the Green Valley of Sonoma, near the Pacific Ocean, just north of Sebastopol. The minimal 10.3 acres, all planted to Pinot Noir, includes many blocks on steep slopes with dense planting and low yields, traits similar to those at the Barnett Estate Vineyard. The nose is very floral; on the palate we get cherry, baking spices and hints of black pepper. This Tina Marie is intense and yet very elegant. It has that essential quality that all Pinot Noir lovers are always looking for: intensity without heaviness. A quality that all strive for but few achieve in any great measure, this Barnett Tina Marie gets it in spades.
Excellent+ (USD$45 *particularly good value or this quality level)
2016 Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Merlot
Black cherry, blueberry and plum combine with spice cake notes and hints of pepper on the back end. There is great balance to this wine which makes it very approachable right now. Both the tannins and the acidity are medium and proportional to the robust fruit. The lush texture indicates a new world Merlot for sure and an example of how enjoyable New World Merlot can be.
Excellent (USD$70 at their winery)
2016 Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Notes of black cherry, blackberry cedar and spice come together and harmonize making this youngster approachable even now. Minerals and wet stone provide secondary aroma and flavour support. There is definitely enough fruit and enough structure to let this wine continue to evolve for another decade at least. Small amounts of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc round out the blend and add complexity.
Excellent (USD$80 at their winery)
2016 Barnett Vineyards Rattlesnake Cabernet Sauvignon
Here the dials are turned way up. No surprise as this blend is taken from the estate’s best barrels. Definitely showing the dark fruit end of the spectrum as we get lots of blackberry, black currant, with hints of forest floor. Full body with polished tannins that are ripe and not at all raspy. This a big wine but shows great poise at the same time which it can do because of its superb balance. This will improve and no doubt develop even more complexity over the next decade and maybe even two.
Excellent+ (USD$190 at their winery)