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Posts Tagged ‘Howell Mountain’

The original gangsta: Dunn Vineyards

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 Dunn, Susan, Mumu and Randy Dunn

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.

Enter at your own risk!

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!

Way up and above the fogline: the vineyards of Dunn

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.

Red wax for the Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvigon

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.

 

step into the Dunn wine portal..

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.

The ultimate earthwork at Dunn

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!

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Team K&L: Melissa, Mumu, Susan & (Theo)bromine

By the time Susan and I wrapped up our visit at O’Shaughnessy, lunch was calling..as was our friend Melissa, who was to meet us down the mountain in St. Helena. Melissa, who also works at K&L Wine Merchants, was up for the day visiting several wineries too.

After a quick lunch “in town”, the 3 of us headed back up Deer Park Road for our afternoon appointment at Ladera Vineyards.

After our initial photo op in front of the winery, we were greeted by Jerry Baker, Ladera’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Jerry’s 30+ years in the wine business, including 15+ here in Napa definitely qualified him as a resource and authority on the wines and history of Napa Valley.

The chai of Nouveau Medoc Vineyard: est. 1886

Speaking of history, this particular winery certainly has an illustrious one.  In 1877, two Frenchmen, Jean Brun and Jean V. Chaix, found themselves enchanted with the land and potential of Howell Mountain.  Brun & Chaix quickly set about planting Bordeaux varietals and named their winery Nouveau Medoc Vineyard. With approximately 115 acres under vine, Brun & Chaix became California’s 13th licensed winery.

Yes, the engraved stone above reads: 1886.. the year that the beautiful stone winery of Brun & Chaix was completed. By California / Napa Valley standards this domaine definitely qualifies as “Old School”.

A 19th century gravity flow winery in action

An Italian stonesman by the name of Frank Guigni, along with a team of Chinese workers (most of whom had immigrated to California during the state’s gold rush of the mid 19th century) built the Brun & Chaix winery with rock from a quarry located on Howell Mountain.

The sweat, determination and ingenuity that went in to completing the stone structure is very evident as we toured the building.  Not only are the stone walls a formidable 30 inches thick, (how’s that for sweat and determination) but the entire winery was constructed such that the entire winemaking process would utilize gravity flow.

More specifically, grapes would arrive by horse on the top level of the building. Vinification would take place on the second, or middle floor, and ageing would take place on the lower or first floor.  At every step of the winemaking process, the wine would naturally flow downwards to the next level, thereby avoiding the use of pumps to transfer wine from one vessel to another. Not only was this less damaging to the wine, but gravity flow also proved to more cost effective.

Same as it ever was: The Ladera chai in the 21st Century

Fast forward to 1980, when the property (which endured a tumultuous 100 years of social, viticultural and political history) was purchased by Francis and Francoise DeWavrin. As former owners of Bordeaux’s Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, the DeWavrin’s knew a thing or two about wine.

They renamed the property Chateau Woltner, replanted much of the acreage, this time including Chardonnay, and released their first vintage in 1985. When the DeWavrin’s decided to retire at the turn of the century, the domaine was sold to it’s present day owners, Pat and Anne Stotesbery.

ENTER THE NEW SCHOOL:

Under this new ownership, the Stotesbery’s made several significant changes. First, the chardonnay vines were replaced with traditional Bordeaux varietals, most of which included cabernet sauvignon, along with merlot, petit verdot and malbec.

Second, the Stotesbery’s decided to both preserve and continue the tradition of the Howell Mountain property by giving the original Jean & Chaix cellar a complete renovation.  Today the building as been rightfully restored to its former magnificence, and looks pretty much just as it did 100+ years ago.

Third property was to be re-named Ladera, which translates to hillside or slope..naturally in reference to the topography of Howell Mountain itself.

 

Enlightened with this detailed history of the winery,  it was now time to taste some wine! Jerry took us through a selection of Ladera’s current releases.

First, Ladera’s 2009 Howell Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, which is grown on several of the cooler sites on the property, where red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot will not ripe adequately.

However these cooler sites are perfect for the production of crisp and brisk whites like this SB. Ladera practices about 15% barrel fermentation (the rest in stainless steel) in order to impart a bit of mid-palate richness to the wine.

Grapefruit, a bit of green melon and a hint of vanilla spice make this a great choice for folks in want of a crisp white that is not as stridently mineral or grassy as a Sancerre of New Zealand SB. $25

Next, Ladera’s entrée du gamme, or entry level so to speak, is their 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Although comprised of 100% estate grown fruit, the vineyard sources include the property’s Howell Mountain (57%) as well as their Lone Mountain (43%) vineyard down at the foot of Mt. Veeder.

Lots of rich dark berried fruits and plum shine here, along with hints of dark chocolate and spice. Fine, ripe tannins and only a modest amount of noticeable oak make this cuvee ideal for enjoyment now and over the next 4-5 years. At under $40 a bottle, I think that it represents on the top values in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. .not trying to be too big for its britches (not over ripe, over oaked), just a delicious and balanced representation of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

 

Ladera’s two flagship wines come from two distinct locations at opposite ends of the Napa Valley. Tasted together, they represent a great exercise in the subtle differences that location or terroir will often impart to a finished wine.

The 2006 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon comes from volcanic rich soils grown on gently sloping hillsides at an elevation of 1,600-1,800 feet above sea level. As they vineyards sit well above the fog line, the growing season is (relative to Napa Valley floor) a relatively long one. Fruit for the 2006 was harvested between late September and the first of November.

Ladera’s rendition of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is big, deep and full-bodied. Described as such, I still found it to possess a fine elegance..perhaps even gracefulness about it.  Dark berried fruits, black tea, dried lavender and a very fine mineral note running through the wine are for me characteristics point to a mountain wine grown on igneous soils like volcanic or granitic rock. (like the northern Rhone). $70.

In contrast, the 2006 Ladera Lone Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon hails from a steep vineyard site approximately 15 miles south Howell Mountain. Here, largely sedimentary soils composed of clay and loam provide the backdrop for Lone Canyon’s 75 acres of vineyards. In addition, the steep vineyards lie at an elevation of 1,100 feet above seal level.

Bigger, broader and a bit brawnier than its Howell Mountain cousin is how I would describe the 2006 Lone Canyon. In addition to blackberries and plums galore, there’s a dried fig nuance to this wine as well. In addition, it’s structure is definitely more rough and tumble.  The texture/mouthfeel is not as refined as the Howell Mountain, and the tannins are more strident to boot. $65

I would suggest hanging on to both of these wines for several years before enjoying them. I suspect that at point the subtle differences that I picked up will be even more evident and enjoyable..hopefully with a beautiful herb grilled steak or roasted leg of lamb!

Thanks to Jerry Baker and Ladera Vineyards for the great tour and tasting!

NEXT: A visit to Dunn Vineyards

 

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It’s Friday morning and a few minutes shy of 10 am.  Susan and I have just made the beautiful drive on Napa Valley’s famed “road less traveled”, a.k.a. the Silverado trail.  As we drive north past winery legends like Clos du Val, Stag’s Leap Winery, and Joseph Phelps, Susan reminds me that we need to keep a keen eye out for Deer Park Road, which could prove to be difficult due to the heavy morning fog blanketing the valley.

a sea of fog..Howell Mountain

Well, we find it. At the well marked intersection of Deer Park Road and the Silverado Trail, we hang a right and begin our climb up, into and through the fog and into another vinous dimension. At around 1400 ft. above sea level, which is just about where the limit of the Howell Mountain AVA begins, we cut through the soupy mess and find ourselves bathed in a bright, crisp winter light.

We continue through the town of Angwin,  take a couple more lefts, rights and arrive at O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery right on the dot. From the gated entrance up to the winery itself, it’s another three quarters of a mile of so, which is the perfect opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery: Madrone oaks, pines and cypress.

Cabernet Sauvignon @ O'Shaughnessy

 

And of course vines, and lots of them.  As we were soon to learn, O’Shaughnessy encompasses approximately 100 acres of Howell Mountain hillside set on two vineyard sites.  The Del Oso and Ampitheater vineyards, which were planted between 1997-2002, include 29 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6 acres are planted to the following blending varietals:

Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere and St. Macaire (a traditional Bordeaux varietal no longer cultivated in the region, but adopted in small measure in the US.)

 

21st century winemaking..

At the cellar door we’re met by Sean Capiaux, who is the head winemaker and COO at O’Shaughnessy.  A quick tour of the cellars, as well as a breakdown of the winemaking practices at O’Shaughnessy primed us for the tasting that was to follow.

Old world or New world? Bascially, the O’Shaughnessy winemaking ethos can be distilled or tweeted something like this: Neo-classic, using modern tools and analysis to make non-interventionist wine that is fermented naturally and bottled unfiltered and un-fined.

In addition to the modern stainless steel tanks, temperature control and automated pigeage, O’Shaughnessy boasts its own in house lab, which is ideal when timely decisions need to be made regarding the vinification and elevage process.

step back in time...

However state of the art is only one part of the larger picture at O’Shaughnessy. Make a sharp exit out the backside of the chai, and step back in time, to winemaking the way it’s been done for centuries..

to centuries old elevage techniques..

This 11,000 square foot cavern was dug out of the hillside directly behind the winery. 26 foot ceilings,  as well as the perfect ambient temperature for ageing red wine is where the O’Shaughnessy reds spend the better part of 2 years  in French oak barriques undisturbed as they mature.

 

amphora..oeuf or avocado?

Now what’s that? Along the wall, and tucked away within a separate little grotto we spotted this imposing concrete egg. I had seen these amphor-esque “oeufs” in France, and was curious to know what vinous project the O’Shaughnessy egg was incubating.

This concrete “avocado” (“..afterall, we are in California.” Sean states) contained 150 gallons (approx. 560 liters) of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc that had been vinified and was presently undergoing elevage in this vessel.

Sean pulled out the ladder, climbed up and retrieved a sample for us to taste.  Bright and crisp citrus flavors, along with that requisite SB juicy bite of acid were matched by atypical minerality.  Atypical for California SB at any rate. This avocado SB took me closer to the Touraine in France’s Loire Valley, where I a more often find a more flinty or chalky quality to their sauvignon blancs. I suspect a bit has to do with the unlined concrete interacting with the wine.

 

With a tour of the winery and caves behind us, it was now time to taste some wine!

First up, the 2007 O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Composed mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon (83%) with smaller amounts of Merlot (6%), Malbec (4%), 4% Petit Verdot and St. Macaire (3%) from largely volcanic soils.

Lovely crushed red berry fruits..raspberry..dark cherry, damson plum, vanilla and black tea notes, along with fine medium+ tannins make for a rich, yet balanced “neo-classical” wine. I suspect that a beef tenderloin would be a great food/wine pairing.

Across the valley and some 15 miles to the south, O’Shaughnessy’s Mt. Veeder vineyard turns out a slightly more dense and strapping rendition of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 vintage comes from vines grown on “Betty’s Vineyard” (named after co-proprietor Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls), a steeply terraced site composed of largely sedimentary (ancient riverbed) soils.

Deep, black cherry, blackberry and smoked meat and a brambly quality along with coarser tannins make for a more rough hewn and less elegant wine (right now) than its more refined cousin to the north. Ideally, I would wait 3-4 years before enjoying this with grilled ribeye (more rustic and hearty than tenderloin).

We rounded out the tasting with this rich pinot noir from Capiaux Cellars.

Sean Capiaux established his eponymous winery back in 1994.  Single vineyard bottlings of pinot noir throughout California are the focus here.  Sean’s “neo-classical” winemaking ethos remains in play with the Capiaux wines as well. Indigenous yeast fermentations, no fining or filtering at bottling.

The 2008 Capiaux Pinot Noir from the Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) is big indeed, but in no way a bruiser. Admittedly, the 15.2% abv had me more wondering if this pinot would taste more like cough syrup than fine wine.

However my fears were more than assuaged upon tasting. Deep cherry notes, spice, cinnamon stick, a touch of black tea and a lushness that envelopes the mouth without seeming hot or syrupy.  I suspect that this king size pinot noir would be pretty awesome with say roasted duck, filet mignon or a hearty mushroom risotto.

Many thanks to Sean Capiaux and O’Shaughnessy for such a great introduction to the wines of Howell Mountain and then some!

NEXT STOP: Ladera

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The first official wine trip of 2011 took my colleague Susan Thornett and I up north to the Napa Valley. Some of you might recall that just about a year ago, Scott Beckerley and I braved the stormy weather and pouring rain for a trek up to Spring Mountain.

Well this time around the weather was much more amenable to our cause. Sunny skies (at least when we hit 1400 ft. above sea level) and a crisp 60 degrees F or so was just perfect for a wine adventure!

Howell at the Mountain..let's go!

So let’s get to it! In the next several weeks we’ll take a tour in, around and through the vineyards and wineries that make Howell Mountain such a unique place. We’ll be making visits to old school, new school and super new school (you’ll see what I mean) wineries:

O’Shaughnessy

Ladera Vineyards

Dunn

Cimarossa

CADE

I’ll also introduce you to the growers, winemakers and other Howell Mountain wine folk who so enthusiastically share their passion for the vines and wines of the region.

In order to get you up to speed so that we can hit the ground running, you’ll find a couple of handy maps below, as well as some key factoids on the region.

courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners

District: Howell Mountain

Region: Napa Valley

A.V.A. granted: 1983 (Napa Valley’s first sub-appellation)

Location: On the northeast side of Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountain Range and around the town of Angwin.

Latitude: 38.5 degrees

Elevation: Vineyards lie across the Napa Valley from and above the town of St. Helena. Virtually all of the vineyard sites lie above the fog line, between 1400- 2200 ft. above sea level. Most vineyards are planted at 1800 feet above sea level and on southwest facing slopes.

Climate: Cool days and warm nights, especially compared to the Napa Valley floor. Maritime with significant influence of winds from Pacific Ocean. Mornings are generally warmer than temperatures on the Napa Valley floor, however afternoon temperatures can be cooler due to Pacific maritime influences.

Annual rainfall: 40-50 inches (135cm)

Soil: Shallow soils composed of decomposed volcanic ash, volcanic rock and clay rich in iron provide poor fertility but very good drainage.

Chief Viticultural Hazards: spring frost, Pierce’s disease, phylloxera

 

courtesy of Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers Association

 

Principal Varieties:

Predominantly red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Grenache

White: Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Total area under vine: 600 acres

Winemaking: Various, although leaning more towards traditional winemaking practices. Vinification mostly in stainless steel tanks for red and white wines. Most reds will age in barriques (225L) for 12-20 months. Many wineries do not fine or filter their red wine.

Number of wineries: approximately 30

Useful and important websites:

Napa Valley Vintners

Howell Mountain  Vintners and Growers Association

NEXT: A visit to O’Shaughnessy!

 

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