The 5th and final (for now) installment of my Affordable Cult California Wines series brings us to the Howell Mountain District of Napa. At $50 and up per bottle, this wine is by far the most expensive of series and a lot of people would consider it to be profoundly unaffordable. However, if you put the price in the context of its appellation, total production, and ratings, it is one of the best values coming out of California.
Let’s start with a quick look at the Howell Mountain A.V.A. It is home to well known brands like Cakebread, Duckhorn, and Robert Foley. Robert Foley produces a Howell Mountain Cabernet (available only through lottery) and a Claret. The 2001 Robert Foley Claret received 99 points from Robert Parker and the 2007 vintage received 98 points. Unfortunately, these wines only start at $110 a bottle, giving them “Cult” status, but not “affordable cult” status. There is however another Robert in the Howell Mountain district whose wines are more affordable and equally legendary.
Before we get to him, let’s take a closer look at the area. Howell Mountain became an A.V.A back in 1983, making it the first sub appellation of Napa. The history of vines on Howell Mountain date back to the 1880’s. Howell Mountain is located in the northeast corner of Napa in the Vaca mountains with the elevation of its vineyards ranging between 1,400 and 2,200 feet above sea level. The elevation means that the vines are located above the fog line, allowing ample access to sunlight, as well as cooler days and warmer nights. There are two types of soil in the Howell Mountain A.V.A: volcanic ash, also known as “Tuff’ and a dry red clay, both of which are not nutrient rich. As if that is not enough, the terrain is rocky and porous. This environment places stress on its vines, which fits right in with the “High Risk, High Reward” philosophy of viticulture. Stressing the vines produces smaller harvests and smaller berries, but the fruit that is produced is considered superior, more concentrated, intense and complex.
Which other Robert am I talking about? Robert Craig. The Robert Craig Winery is located in the very north end of the Howell Mountain District. Robert Craig has been making wine for the better part of 30 years. Craig was actually in real estate-asset managment in the ’70’s and in 1978 he formed a group and purchased a 300 acre vineyard on Mt. Veeder. Three years later they sold the vineyard to Donald Hess. Hess asked Craig to stay on and he became the general manager of the brand new, well-known Hess Collection Winery. In 1991 Craig also established the Pym Rae Vineyard, and in 1992, with the help of friends, he finally established his very own vineyard.
Robert Craig Winery has recently been receiving rave reviews. In 2006, Wine Spectator ranked Robert Craig one of the top 50 Napa producers based on the last 15 years of ratings. Speaking of ratings, how about the ratings from Robert Parker on the 2007 vintage? Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon: 93 points. Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 94 points. Affinity: 96 points. Finally, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 96 points! The ‘07 Howell Mountain Cabernet is not yet available on the website, so instead, why not try the ‘06 vintage while you wait?
The blend is 84% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. The wine saw 20 months in French oak, 75% new. The alcohol comes in at 14.8% and production was a minute 1,240 cases.
If the $70 price tag is too rich for your blood, you could pick up a bottle of the 2007 Affinity for only $48! The Affinity should be much more widely available, with a more accessible but still small 5,700 cases produced.
Want to read about my prior four Affordable Cult California Wines? They can be found below. Let me know if you have had the chance to taste any of these, and if you’d agree with me. Also, do you have any wines that you consider to be “Affordable California Cult” wines? I’d love to know about ‘em!