Drive up one of Napa Valley’s mountain roads, and you know you are somewhere different. Whether it is the thick forest of Spring Mountain or the impossibly large boulders of Atlas Peak, it is clear: You are no longer on the valley floor.

There is much debate about mountain versus valley floor wines. Those on the valley floor are said to be lush and soft, from deep rich soils versus the more structured wines of the mountains. Plant on the hillsides and you get more concentrated wines: The thinner soils produce fewer berries, and the resulting grapes get maximum aromas and flavors. While there is some truth to this, it gets complicated.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Bill Dyer of Dyer Vineyards said of the discussions on hillside wines, which took place among members of the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone last week.

Through the panel’s tasting and discussion, the complexity of Napa Valley’s hillsides and their wines became glaringly clear.

First came the question: What is a hillside or mountain vineyard in Napa Valley? Those up on the big five AVAs are included: Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain in the east, and Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain in the west. But the group also discussed Chiles Valley and Calistoga, both having elevations up to 1,200 feet, as well as the benchlands, sloping up the hills.

If inclusion started at a certain elevation, it would be easy, but Kristin Belair of Honig Winery explained that one needs to look not at elevation above sea level but elevation above the valley floor, which changes from north to south in the valley.

Temperature differences were brought into the discussion. While the common belief is that it is always cooler at elevation, there are exceptions as pointed out by Alison Rodriguez, winemaker at Sterling Vineyards. In late October, she said, she needs to shed some of the three to four clothing layers she wears on the valley floor as she makes her way up to Sterling’s hillside property, where it is much warmer.

Many of the mountain AVA vineyards are above the fog level, and are bathed in sunshine when the valley floor is covered in chilly fog. Evenings can be warmer in mountain areas, too, where the diurnal swing – the change between day and evening temperatures – is not as varied.

The group discussed the incredibly wide diversity of elevations, slope angles, exposures and soil types that exist within a single appellation.

“Every vineyard is a Rubik’s Cube,” said Rodriguez. “Hillside vineyards just take more care and contemplation.”

Turning to the taste differences in the wines, Bill Dyer responded positively when asked whether there is a unique taste profile for each of the different mountain AVAs. Other panelists agreed, while still others thought the complexity made it extremely hard to define.

When vintages were discussed, it became clear that many panelists preferred hillside wines in difficult vintages like the 2011. Many had attended the October tasting that covered Napa Valley cabernets more expensive than $50, which included wines from the 2011 vintage, many valley floor wines.

Rodriguez noted that you can make wine in more difficult years. She explained, “The 2011 hillside wines are showing better (than valley floor) because the soils are better draining and there is enough air circulation in cooler years; it’s not surprising.”

The tasting itself consisted of 29 wines from three vintages: 2010, 2011 and 2012 with vineyard elevations ranging from 400 feet (Spring Mountain Vineyard and Spiriterra) to over 2,000 feet (Pride Mountain Vineyards).

Prices of the hillside wines ranged from $44 to $210, and — interesting to note — some of the least expensive in the group were chosen in the blind tasting as the panelists’ favorites. They included:

2010 Burgess Cellars Napa Valley ($44). Burgess is Howell Mountain-proud, with decades of experience in making mountain wines. Their aptly named wine club, the Guild of Mountaineers, has three levels, the top called the Summit. The vineyard for this wine is at 800 feet and is dominated by blackberry fruits, sweet baking spices, violets and herbs.

2010 ERBA Mountain Vineyards Napa Valley ($55). Visit the Erba website and you’ll have no trouble determining their focus: It is all about mountain wines. Their vineyards range from elevations of 1,100 to 1,550 feet above sea level. This cabernet sauvignon has generous red fruits, baking spices and herbs, with an approachable softness on the palate.

2010 Rarecat Wines Calistoga ($100). Sharon Harris, Paula Kornell and Joel Aiken form the formidable team behind Rarecat wines. The Calistoga fruit for this wine comes from vineyards at 700 feet. Aromas of rich red fruits and sweet baking spices turn to darker, concentrated flavors on the palate.

2010 Vineyard 511 Diamond Moutain District ($125). John Anthony Truchard manages the vineyards on this Diamond Mountain property, and with winemaker Rob Lloyd they produce wines like this intensely fruited, sweet spiced cabernet sauvignon. The vineyard for this wine lies at 700 feet.

2011 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain ($80). This wine comes from a vineyard at 1,800 feet and shows off power while being drinkable now. There is everything to love about Napa Valley cab here: the rich, fresh blackberry fruit, dark cherries, anise, and other baking spices, herbs and a bit of violet.

2011 Davies Vineyards, J Davies Diamond Mountain District ($90). Blackberry fruit, an earthy forest brush, violet and a touch of caramel are all wonderfully integrated in this wine made from vineyards at 550 to 1,000 feet. Jacob Schram was one of the first to head to the hills of Napa Valley, choosing this mountain property back in 1852. The Davies honor Schram’s pioneering spirit with wines like this.

2011 Marketta Winery & Vineyard Mount Veeder ($69). This wine tastes like Bordeaux in Napa, even though winemaker Marketta Fourmeaux is Finnish-born. As one of the founders of Chateau Potelle, she’s been making wine in Napa since the late 1980s. This cabernet has deep cherry flavors with a great earthiness and freshness to match the rich fruit flavors.

2011 Spring Mountain Vineyard Spring Mountain District ($75). This winery has a collection of vineyards at varying elevations, from 400 to 1,600 feet. This provides an incredible source for blending. Sweet oak spices dominate with red fruit aromas followed by a dense, dark palate.

2012 Artesa Winery Foss Valley Ranch Atlas Peak ($85). If you think Artesa is all about Carneros, think again. At 1,500 feet, this 90-acre estate high up on Atlas Peak produces this single vineyard wine full of concentrated blackberry, vanilla, sweet baking spices and earthy flavors.

2012 Frank Family Vineyards Winston Hill, Rutherford ($150). Owner Rich Frank likes things big, from his prior Hollywood days to his Napa Valley wines. At vineyards between 400-500 feet, this wine has intense black fruits, black pepper spice, sweet oak and intriguing orange citrus peel flavors.

(Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)

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