WORD OF mouth is powerful advertising. It has quietly brought a loyal following to the family-operated Flora Springs winery, which has produced 10 vintages of delicious wines. Neighboring Napa Valley wineries have histories of landmark significance, but Flora Springs dates back only to 1977. That was when Jerry and Flora Komes came upon the neglected hillside property once owned by the late Louis M. Martini. The Komeses bought the property and enlisted the assistance of their son John, a contractor, to remold the old stone winery. And the Komeses' daughter, Julie Garvey, and her husband Pat, with careers in education, were lured into handling marketing and vineyard management.
Some friends helped the family with the first harvest, thinking that it would be a lark, but "we never saw them again," Julie says. The family finished the picking, crushing, fermenting and bottling and produced 250 cases. The good wine inspired them to proceed with full-time devotion.
When Flora Springs' 1979 Chardonnay captured a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair in 1981, the road to success seemed clear. Today, with four other vineyards, Flora Springs, with John as president and Julie as sales manager, is producing 17,000 cases a year.
In 1980, Ken Deis was hired as wine maker. And Pat Garvey, who had made the '79 Chardonnay, turned his attention to grape growing.
Pat Garvey saw potential for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes in unplanted sites higher on the hillside of the vineyards of the Komes ranch home. But he quickly learned that natural springs in a hillside vineyard are not necessarily a blessing. Vine roots don't like wet feet, drainage being essential to healthy vinifera. So, drainage tiles were installed.
As Deis became more familiar with the taste potentials of these new plantings (the characteristics of the soil are different at the top of the hill than at the bottom), the wines emerged with more engaging complexity, more berry intensity.
Current releases include:
Flora Springs 1985 Trilogy ($30). With equal parts of the grapes from new Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines, this claret has the richness of varying supple tastes, suggesting cassis and ripe berry flavors. Cellar aging will round out its fine grape origins to full velvet-textured smoothness.
Flora Springs 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($8.50). Night-harvesting and cool fermentation give this wine the crisp freshness of the grape, a melonlike taste and a floral bouquet with a hint of grass. It's 100% Sauvignon Blanc, impressively long on the palate.
Flora Springs 1987 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay ($21) is fermented in new French Limousin, Nevers and Troncais oak barrels, with Montrachet yeast, bringing silky richness. Time on the yeast lees gives added dimension and complexity. The wine is elegant, almost grand.
Flora Springs 1986 Merlot ($15) is well worth trying to find; it's in limited supply because most of the Flora Springs Merlot goes into Trilogy. This edition has a blending with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, giving the wine more substance and longevity.