Visiting School House Vineyard
It’s a hint of old Napa — a vineyard far up Spring Mountain set down a slope behind an old house. There are no signs inviting visitors, or announcing the name. It’s the site of School House Vineyards.
What is now School House Vineyards began as an 1800s 160-acre homestead, the School House just at the top, including tens of acres of vineyards. By the late 1930s, the last generation of the original homestead was ready to be closer to healthcare in town. Electricity didn’t reach the site until the late 1950s.
“My father purchased this in 1940. He wanted land in the Mayacamas Range.” Owner John M Gantner explains of his father. “It took him three years to find this place. He believed to make good red wine you should be in the mountains of the Mayacamas, not on the valley floor. At the time, acreage up here wasn’t worth anything. No one could afford to keep hillside vineyards in operation so it went to forest.”
Some of the original vines would be recovered on the property after establishing deer fencing, and clearing extra growth. The vines would prove to be an old vine mixed-blacks Zinfandel planting that has since served as the School House Mescolanza Red Blend.
School House Pinot began thanks to the experimental history of the Valley floor. Friends of Gantner, the story goes, had established Pinot vines with cuttings brought back from Romani-Conti in Burgundy. Valley floor temperatures proved too high for the fruit, however, so the vines were pulled out. John’s father believed, however, the mountain’s cooler temperatures would do well hosting the variety. In 1953, John’s father took cuttings before the vines were removed to plant on Spring Mountain.
“I dug many of the holes,” John explains. “My dad put me to work.” He laughs quietly. “I didn’t have much to say in it.” The Pinot remains to this day dry farmed.
School House Pinots age beautifully. Earlier this year over dinner with friends we enjoyed a 1974 with still-vibrant, focused red fruit and forest. Over lunch this summer, Gantner and his wife Nancy Walker shared both a 1998, and 2002, both expressive of vintage with pure mountain fruit.
Chardonnay would be established in 1968 with cuttings from Stony Hill, though it wouldn’t be labeled and sold as a School House wine until 1991 when Gantner and Walker would take over the property from his father. Before that the family would make the white only for themselves.
Nancy laughs briefly as we discuss the Chardonnay. “The thing you learn from making wine,” Nancy tells me, “is you don’t place blame. Everybody makes mistakes.” The couple decide to share an example.
Gantner had traveled previously in China, but in the early 1980s decided he needed to return to the region. He wanted to see Tibet. Harvest had finished but Chardonnay was still finishing in barrel for home wine. Living in San Francisco at the time, Walker drove up the mountain to check on the wine only to discover the bungs had been pounded in too tight, and the wine had exploded over the entire garage.
In 2006, they would also establish Syrah, these vines in partnership with Pride Mountain who takes half the fruit. Gantner would break the rules, establishing the vines with irrigation, but then returning to dry farming once the roots were established. School House keeps the few rows of Grenache and Mourvedre mixed in to bottle as a Syrah blend.
Gantner hands me a bottle to take home and sample. It’s a beautiful, lean while expressive, fresh and savory Syrah, lightly grippy, and mouth watering with the long finish of pure mountain fruit.
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