Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards


On your next trip to NorCal Wine Country, please make the picturesque drive to the top of Spring Mountain and visit Pride Mountain Vineyards. It will be well worth the effort to plan ahead and arrange the required tasting appointment. The winery and vineyards are beautiful. The attendants are friendly and engaging and the wine is amazing. Of the true “super-premium” Napa wineries, Pride has consistently produced top quality wines at comparatively good value. This winery is definitely on the higher-priced end of the Napa scale. So, join them if you are comfortable in the $75+/btl. range. My wife and I have a special connection to Pride. The winery represents more than one epiphany in our lives’ wine experience…

Our first visit many years ago commemorates our initial understanding of value in this price category. The absolute commitment to quality is demonstrated in every level of these organizations and the sensory experience brings your enjoyment of wine to an entirely new level. If you are ready to take the plunge and begin your research into this price range, you will soon come to understand why Pride holds a special place among these producers.

That same visit initiated our palate’s introduction to “mountain fruit” wines (red varietals grown in steep vineyards at higher elevation). It was a match made in heaven and we have consistently sought out similar producers since. If you are looking for complex, highly structured Cabernet Sauvignon with black fruit flavors, look for estate wineries on the mountain ridges overlooking Napa Valley. Pride is one of the very best of these producers.

That trip also introduced us to “ultra-premium” Merlot. Previously, we had thought of Merlot as cheap, easy drinking wine. We spent a half-day at Pride on that visit. I won’t go into all the details, but the attendant made sure we wouldn’t forget the experience. The Pride Vintner’s Select Merlot represents the very best of the Merlot that the United States has to offer. Plum and blackberry in front, luscious amazing mouth-feel with high acidity and tannins… drink one of these 6-8 years after release and be prepared for something special. We had an experience that day that my wife and I still talk about. That trip celebrated our introduction and graduation to a category of very special wines.

A Game with Your Friends

There are a couple of outstanding Merlots made on Spring Mountain and I really enjoy converting our friends…. I hear from so many Cab Sauv drinkers the mantra of how terrible Merlot is… then I break out my Coravin and give them a taste of the way U.S. Merlot can taste. Proud to say, I am batting 1000 with conversions. Merlot CAN be excellent outside of Bordeaux, France.

The Interview

I had been looking forward to interviewing Sally for months. It was difficult to coordinate our schedules, but in the end I am glad we were able to settle on a date at the winery, rather than an interview on the phone. The setting brought back good memories of our several enjoyable visits in the past. Sally was very welcoming and she was kind enough to give us more than an hour of her time.

I struggled a bit with how to approach this piece and finally arrived at the answer… skip the typical qualifications and background. Sally is a classically trained winemaker and all that brings with it. I decided to explore the story of the 2011 vintage year in Napa that she shared with us that day.

2011 Napa Vintage: The Gamble

I found this story fascinating and an insight into the stress some years can bring to farmers/growers with any crop. 2011 was an unusually cool year in Napa. The fruit was not ripening on schedule and the producers in Napa were bracing for a sub-par year. Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Franc can produce fairly good fruit in cooler years, but Cabernet Sauvignon has specific needs and tends to require hitting just the right conditions to produce a high level of quality. So, it was a real nail-biter for producers focusing on this varietal that year.

2011 Napa Harvest

The typical harvest timeline was approaching and across Napa producers were starting to agonize over the decision to come…

This story requires a little background on the importance of harvest timing in a cool vintage year. Red grape varieties in particular are very dependent on total hours of sunshine for development of not just sugars, but also flavors and structure. If you pick too early, Cab Sauv can be thin, vegetal and very rustic. If you pick too late, it can be too alcoholic, flabby and taste like grape juice. If a grower waits too long, they also run the risk of the rainy season coming early to Napa. What happens if it rains during harvest? First, the berries actually absorb the water and the rain affects the concentration of flavors in the wine. Second, (and the scary one) the moisture can induce the propagation of mildew. Mildew can easily destroy half of an entire year’s crop.

The Pride Mountain Decision

Other growers started harvest… but Pride decided the fruit in their vineyards didn’t meet their standard of quality… yet. Everyday, the decision had to be made to harvest early and suffer a poor vintage, or wait and potentially experience the financial pitfall. Then it started to rain. The forecast was for continuing rain and fog that week. Sally and the Pride team took the gamble and made the decision to wait it out.

After a couple days of rain the clouds cleared on the mountain top, while fog continued below in the valley. This reprieve gave them enough sunshine to dry the grapes and add more ripeness to the crop. Unfortunately, many growers below made the wrong call and suffered the consequences. Some wineries settled for fruit harvested too early that year, or sourced fruit from outside the area. In addition, many growers and estate wineries suffered crop loss, due to the rain and fog.

Gutsy Call

I tasted their 2011 Cab Sauv on that trip. It wasn’t their best vintage, but Sally worked with the fruit (instead of fighting it) and produced a high quality wine. Compared to many other Napa Cab Sauv’s we tasted from this difficult vintage, it was a masterpiece of winemaking. I was very impressed. Sometimes a little luck (and a well thought-out gamble)… makes you look awfully smart!

Pride Mountain Wine Selected to Accompany this Post:


2002 Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot Vintner Select Cuvee Mountain Top Vineyard

Tasting Note:

The nose is full of rich, plummy aromas and a touch of alcohol. Still fruit-forward, with candied plum and black cherry in front with rich dark chocolate dominating the mid-palate and finish. The tannins were almost completely resolved, but there was still good acidity. The mouth-feel was soft and velvetty. The wine held-up well for 13 years in the bottle and was a pleasant accompaniment to the braised short ribs in balsamic reduction. This Merlot was a couple years past its prime, but still very enjoyable. The structure supporting the wine had started to weaken with age, confirming my past experience with well-made Bordeaux Blends from Napa hitting their prime drinking window in the 7-10 year range. A beautiful well-made wine, with the fruit holding-up, after so much time in the bottle.


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