“Breathing new life” into something is a phrase we hear time & time again (there’s another one), but what about when one uses a pillar of California wine history to bring a winery back from the dead?
Mount Peak Winery died in the 1920’s, a victim to, as many other wineries were, the failed experiment of Prohibition. However, the secret to its success lived on just a few yards away; while the old buildings housing the winery decayed & were lost to nature, the storied Monte Rosso vineyard continued to thrive. And that is where we will begin, that thread that carries us from the closing of one of California’s best wineries to its reemergence nearly a century later.
Originally planted in 1886 by Emanuel Goldstein & Benjamin Dreyfus (and then known as Mount Pisgah Vineyard), Monte Rosso sits in the Moon Mountain AVA of Sonoma, sitting hundreds of feet up in the Mayacamas mountains. Due to a history of volcanic history, its soils are rich with iron & have taken on a reddish color, lending to its current name. Along with the Zinfandel & Semillon vines planted, a gravity-feed winery was built the same year, named Mount Peak. The unique soil composition, high altitudes, extreme angles & use of dry farming all came together to bear incredible fruit (pun intended) & Mount Peak wines were considered some of the best in California. The winery went on for the next three decades experiencing wonderful success. However, once Prohibition hit, the Goldstein family was forced to close the winery’s doors, never to reopen. Even once the 21st Amendment passed, there was not much celebration at Monte Rosso & the property was eventually sold off to the Martini family in 1938.
By 2002, Monte Rosso vineyard, now part of the Gallo family’s holdings, had expanded in size from 75 acres to around 250, & about a dozen varietals were represented. Alongside the Zinfandel & Semillon now grew Cabernet, Petit Sirah, & if you look hard enough, you’ll even find some Alicante. The vines bore fruit for the winemakers at such properties as Biale & Bedrock, but it was in 2013 when things truly began to change. Enter Brenae Royal, a graduate of Chico State’s horticulture program. Managing Monte Rosso was her first position in the wine world, but she has done an incredible job. Not only is she responsible for the 250 acres that the vineyard encompasses, she must work to cultivate the 105 separate blocks & sub-blocks as well as fight against the elements to ensure that these vines will last for generations. Her goal is for her vines to live for a century & beyond, against all that Sonoma has to throw at her.
If you are curious as to whether or not Brenae has found success at Monte Rosso, you need only open a bottle of the revived Mount Peak wines. The brand was renewed by E&J Gallo in 2014, utilizing mostly Monte Rosso fruit. Currently, vinification happens offsite, but there are plans for a new Mount peak facility to be constructed in Soda Canyon in the coming years. The three wines, Sentinel, Gravity & Rattlesnake, all pay homage to historic blocks in the Monte Rosso vineyard, under the vigilant eye of Brenae Royal.
Sentinel is almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon (with just a drop of Petit Verdot), named for a shield-like plot on the vineyard. While most of the fruit (84%) is indeed Monte Rosso, a bit of Napa Cabernet is added in to provide a bit more roundness. However, that Monte Rosso shines through here, with waves of dark chocolate & earthiness playing alongside blue fruits. The juice sees 21 days of maceration before vinification, & ages in a blend of French (mostly new) & American oak for 19 months before bottling. Only about 7,000 six packs are produced each year.
Rattlesnake is so named for “Rattlesnake Hill,” the highest elevation block at Monte Rosso. I imagine there’s also some snakes there living amongst the vines, taking in the prolific sunshine that hits the Mayacamas. This is a blend that showcases the heritage of Monte Rosso, its Zinfandel. Joined by Petit Sirah & Syrah from both Monte Rosso & partnered growers, one encounters flavors here of zippy Sichuan peppercorn juxtaposed by a hint of flowery vanilla, nudged along by 14 months of oak aging (in both French & American). Only about 500 cases are produced each vintage, which again lends to the mental image of those rattlesnakes for which the bottle is named, clearly guarding the treasured grapes.
Gravity is a Petit Sirah-heavy red blend which lends itself to some gravity-defying vines that quite literally lean over the edge of a canyon in a lower part of Monte Rosso. Added in is 33% Syrah & 10% Grenache, a gift from grower friends at Snow Lake. The Petit Sirah here is potent, with plum & cinnamon notes pushing through, & the Grenache adds a lovely dash of red berries. The wine sees 14 months in mostly neutral oak, & is a personal favorite of mine. There are just over 4,000 six pack cases produced for each vintage.
Mount Peak was lost to us in the 1920’s but based on what the first three vintages of its newest iteration has brought us, it is back like a phoenix. And guiding the way is Brenae Royal, ensuring that century-old vines continue to inspire new wine drinkers for generations to come.