Escape to Spring Mountain, Where Roots Run Deep In Napa Valley

Sunny Stony Hill Vineyards. Photo: Alexander Rubin.
Sunny Stony Hill Vineyards. Photo: Alexander Rubin.

Confessions: first, I’m usually drinking European wines, where dry farming is the law. And I’ve been pretty brutal to Napa Valley’s wine. The unholy alliance of high alcohol, high points, glamour marketing, and bombastic fruit profiles — the preferred drink of heavy-handed cologne wearers, whose senses are all but dead to the world — is the exact opposite of everything I’m looking for in a wine.

I’ve noted this strange correlation firsthand while working in wine retail. Often, drinkers and peddlers of bombastic, fruity wines are a suit-clad social elite, slathered in an ungodly amount of cologne, obsessed with how many points a wine scores. These are the sellers and consumers of what we’ll call Big Fruit: Amarone, pricey Super Tuscans, post-2000 vintage Bordeaux, and of course, pricey Napa Valley reds.

But not all Napa Valley reds are built alike.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering two producers, Smith-Madrone and Stony Hill,  who have been dry farming a corner of Napa Valley called Spring Mountain — an AVA that until 1993 (Click to Read more)

half-dead wines of Reims

Burgundy vs. Champagne: An 18th Century Flame War

Is this the earliest recorded flame war between wine geeks?

A searing debate raged in France from the mid-17th to mid-18th century between the Universities of Reims and Paris.

Guy-Crescent Fagon, Royal Physician, and Louis XIV.
Guy-Crescent Fagon, Royal Physician, and Louis XIV, his patient.

It all started with a change in Louis XIV’s Royal Physician in 1693.  The previous Royal Physician, Antoine d’Aquin, was a fervent promoter of the wines of Champagne.

The new Royal Physician, Guy-Crescent Fagon, made clear there would be no more Champagne, and that it would instead be Burgundy that would be used as a vehicle while administering quinquina infusions to Louis XIV1. You may recognize quinquina, or chicona bark, as a source of quinine — a modern day ingredient of tonic water and a whole host of liqueurs, which has retained its reputation as a treatment for fever and malaria.

Bag for cinchona bark, Peru, 1777-1785 Wellcome L0058857; Drug jar for cinchona bark, Italy, 1701-1730 Wellcome L0057626.
Bag for cinchona bark, Peru, 1777-1785 Wellcome L0058857; Drug jar for cinchona bark, Italy, 1701-1730 Wellcome L0057626.

Fagon was seeking to remedy Louis XIV’s fevers2. And once Monsieur Fagon had pushed Champagne off the royal table, each town’s university medical department became engaged in a century-long battle to prove — trading blows, via graduate theses — whether the wines of Burgundy or the wines of Champagne (which were not yet sparkling) were superior.

And it got really dirty, really quick. (Click to Read more)

  1. En 1679, Robert Talbor visita la France et l’Espagne. En France, il eut l’opportunité de guérir le Dauphin d’un accès de fièvre et traita avec succès d’autres éminentes personnalités. Ces résultats lui attirèrent les faveurs de Louis XIV qui, moyennant une forte somme d’argent et la garantie d’une pension annuelle, obtint de lui la composition de sa recette. Le secret tenait essentiellement dans l’administration de fortes doses d’écorce de quinquina infusée dans du vin et dans le renouvellement régulier des prises. []
  2. []

Robola: the Voice of Cephalonia’s Limestone

Melissani Cave, Kefalonia, Greece.
Melissani Cave, Kefalonia, Greece.

Robola is often touted as Greece’s second noblest white grape1, forever trailing on the coattails of Assyrtiko. If Assyrtiko has a greater footprint in consumers’ minds, it’s in part due to the crushing influx of tourists to Santorini and the enduring affective link they build while traveling in Greece.

But Robola remains a total mystery to the rest of the world: no one seems to have heard of it outside of Greek industry tastings.  And unsurprisingly, no one has heard of its home: the stunning Ionian island of Cephalonia itself.

Only Italian and English tourists seem to have discovered the Cephalonian secret. Historically, they’ve an unfair advantage, as the Venetians and later the English ‘protected’ the island after the Turks lost control in 1460.

Poor Robola. No one speaks of this silver medalist, this silent prince, who lives in the shadow of its Santorinian counterpart.

Or — more precisely — who lives in the shadow of Mount Ainos.

  • Mount Ainos, the darkest peak, with typical clouds nearby.

The Robola grape grows on the slopes of this highest peak of Cephalonia (also spelled Kefalonia). A fair share (10-30%) of these are ungrafted vines, over 100 years old, planted at up to 2600 ft (800 m).

Which is to say: this is the real deal. Here is a unique wine expressing Cephalonia’s limestone terroir in the most raw, direct form possible.


Cephalonia is a shimmering, turquoise-watered island paradise; yet another otherworldly, karstic limestone world in Greece, whose crown jewel is the Melissani cave.

The Melissani cave’s roof fell in thousands of years ago, and left a 50 x 40 m gateway to a cavernous lake world.  The cave beneath had been hollowed out (Click to Read more)

  1. Malagouzia has also risen in fashion, and has more recently acquired this moniker. []