When I first asked my colleague Mike Jordan, our domestic wine specialist at K&L, for advice regarding whom I should visit up on Howell Mountain, Dunn Vineyards were the first words out of MJs mouth.
Along with Philip Togni across the way on Spring Mountain, MJ described Dunn as an “old school” family run winery that year in year out produces ageworthy and distinct wines that totally reflect the soils and environment from which they come.
No two vintages taste or age alike, and experiencing wines from Dunn is more akin to tasting through a retrospective of grand red burgundy (an exercise in vintage variation and terroir) than many Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mike, Susan and I were met by Randy and Mike Dunn for a tour of the vineyards, winery and a retrospective tasting of cabernet sauvignon. Randy Dunn, who is also a UC Davis alum (1975), established the winery in 1979 with is wife Lori. 30 years later, Dunn Vineyards is very much a family affair, with son Mike coming on as cellar master and the assistant winemaker.
In 2003 Mike Dunn and his wife Kara also started their own project, Retro Cellars, which features petite sirah grown on the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain.
But before we dipped into the winery cave (literally, as you’ll see), Mike took us on a quick tour of the vineyards, located just a stone’s throw from the cellar door. Perhaps more effective than a no trespassing sign, this vineyard mascot (wild boar anyone?) captured my attention!
In 1981 Dunn released it’s first vintage, which amounted to 660 cases of 100% Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon. A year later, the winery released its first Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, Dunn farms 24 acres of cabernet sauvignon vineyards and an additional 6 acres of several other varietals, including these petite sirah vines shown above.
Currently Dunn produces around 2500 cases of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and 1500 cases of Napa Valley bottling, which includes up to 15% cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley floor.
The Napa Valley Cabernet is generally considered more user friendly and approachable sooner than the more structured and tanninc 100% Howell Mountain bottling. However both wines can definitely stand several years in the cellar and then some before they really hit their stride.
Although both wines are robed in a no nonsense, no frill sash like label, the most obvious way to tell them apart is by their respective closures. The Napa Valley bottling is finished with a foil seal, while the Howell Mountain bottling is finished in red wax. Mike provided us with a quick demo of how the waxing is done. When it’s time to wax the new release of Howell Mountain cabernet, about 100 cases worth (1200 bottles) can be hand dipped a day.
Next we were off to Dunn’s winery cave, which was completed in 1989 and is used for wine storage and elevage. This cave, along with numerous others like it found on Howell Mountain, provide excellent natural temperature and humidity control for wine.
Dunn’s elevage regime includes approximately 75% new French oak every vintage, and over a period of 30 months. Ageing these bottles in a conventional above ground and temperature controlled cellar for 2.5 years would cost a small fortune in heating/cooling bills.
At the end of the long cellar corridor, I spotted what appeared to be a relic of or portal to an ancient world. Mesopotamia? The Mayan Empire? This formidable relief was also seeping some type of primordial looking ooze. Turns out, this end of the line marked the point where the enormous drill bit used to carve out these cave stopped and pulled out. Stumbling upon this dramatic earthwork is one of the coolest things I have ever seen at a winery.
After a tour of the vineyards and cellar, it was now time to taste some wine! Randy Dunn led us through the tasting and provided additional commentary on each wine. Additional wine tasting notes for each wine are available on the Dunn website too.
True to the varietal, this young 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits lots of deep, rich blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, along with notes of bittersweet chocolate and mineral notes. Full bodied and fairly tannic, with a rich and lush mid palate that finishes with formidable tannins, I would give the wine a 3 year head start before opening. Then try it with grilled steak or pork roast. 13.9% abv.
Bump up the structure and intensity one notch and you’ll arrive at the 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Along with black berried fruits, a distinct earthy minerality prevails, along with toasty nuances courtesy of barrel ageing in French oak. The tannins here are a bit more strident as well, providing the opportunity to age this mountain wine a good 5-7 years before enjoying. 13.9% abv.
Ah, now we’re talking! Open and let this 1997 take in a bit of air and stretch its vinous legs so to speak. Medium + bodied, this 13+ year old red is growing up just fine. Dried berry fruits, notes of violets, crushed autumn leaves and toasted nuts are still supported by a good spine of acidity and a fine tannic structure. 13.0% abv.
At 23+ years of age, this stately and mature Howell Mountain red is drinking beautifully.
The dark blackcurrant fruits of the young 2007 have over time given way to deep and spicy red fruit nuances. Dried hibiscus flowers, along with light dash of cedar make for a Howell Mountain red that exudes finesse and elegance. I would try this with some sort of game bird..perhaps squab or pigeon? What a lovely wine! 13.0% abv.
Many thanks to Randy and Mike Dunn for the tour and tasting of one of Howell Mountain’s true originals!