A Taste of Howell Mountain Wines, 2013
If you’ve paid even a perfunctory attention to wine over the last 30-40 years you’ve noticed that wine is produced in Napa Valley and you’ve heard of Robert Mondavi. And if you’ve taken a liking to wine you might know a dozen or more wine names and you might have seen the movie “Sideways”. The more you interested you become the deeper you dig until eventually (hopefully) you discover the taste of Howell Mountain wines.
These mountain fruit wines are not for everyone. They’re big, they’re tannic, they need time to unwind, but given patience they can develop into something unique and mind blowing.
Throughout the year the Howell Mountain Vintners & Growers Association holds tasting events in the San Fransisco area. The main event, however, is held every June on the grounds of the historic Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena.
Guests pay $125 to sample wines from over 40 wineries, all of which have wines made from Howell Mountain fruit. $125 may seem like a lot, but when you consider than many of these wines cost $100-$200 a bottle, its actually a great deal. In fact, you’ll probably even sample wines that are just not for sale!
At this year’s event I visited as many of the participating wineries as possible, but just like Disneyland, it’s just not possible to experience it all in a day.
My first stop was Robert Craig’s table. I sampled the 2010 Howell Mountain Cabernet from his estate vineyard and the 2010 Howell Mountain Zinfandel which is made from fruit from the neighboring Black Sears Vineyard. Robert “Bob” was also pouring an unreleased Rose which was really amazing. The rose was dry and crisp with good floral aromatics.
I managed to get a quick video interview with Stephen Tebb, which you can see here. I also got to chat with Bob a little bit, which is always nice as he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Check back for an upcoming article on Robert & Lynn Craig’s 50th wedding anniversary…
Next up was Robert Foley. I sampled the ’09 Howell Mountain Cabernet. “Bob” wasn’t in town, so new assistant wine-maker Eric Reichenbach and Bob’s wife,
Kelly Kehoe were on hand pouring the wine. Both were a little camera shy, so I couldn’t get them to agree to an outrageous YouTube interview about fine wine. But I picked up the vibe that they had something to say or announce, something to do with an upcoming new release perhaps? hmmm… There will be an article in the near future on my visit to the Robert Foley Estate on Howell Mountain.
On the other side of Robert Craig was Red Cap Vineyards. I’d heard about them through Instagram and noticed a number of people commenting on how great the wine was so I was eager to try it out. Owner and grower, Tom Altemus was on hand pouring wines and giving a brief history of Red Cap’s brief history. I sampled both the 2009 Howell Mountain Cab and 2011 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc. Red Cap’s production levels are also low, even by Howell Mountain standards. Only 260 cases of the ’08 Cab were produced and only 150 cases of the ’11 Sauv Blanc were produced! $65 for the Cab and only $22 for Sauv blanc, you’d better get some shipped to you before its all gone!
I ran into wine maker for Rutherford Grove and Pestoni Family Wines, Alejandro Alfaro, whom I’d met the day before at the winery. I tried out the ’08 Pestoni Estate Reserve Howell Mountain Cab and was really pleasantly surprised. This is a REALLY nice wine. With only 350 cases made and $65, this wine also won’t last. I have to say Alejandro is also a very nice and friendly fellow, if ever you’re in Napa, stop by the Rutherford Grove (not to be confused with Rutherford Hill) tasting room and say hi. Future article on that visit also coming up…
During my happy wandering it was suggested to me that I head over to the Aloft table. I was filled in that there was quite a bit of buzz surround the new project. And when I arrived at the table I knew why. It was there I met and had a long conversation the Marc Mondavi. He explained that they wanted to create a new project of exceptional quality, and not have it associated with the Charles Krug brand in any way. So they went with a totally hands off approach. The grapes come from the 21 acre Cold Springs Vineyard, the Mondavi’s hired Jim Barbour as vineyard manager and Thomas Rivers Brown as wine-maker!
If you don’t know Thomas Rivers Brown, just consider this feat: In 2008 he scored two 100 point wines from the same vintage from Robert Parker and then in 2010 he scored another two 100 point wines from The Wine Spectator! He is the youngest wine maker to receive a 100 point rating and also the first American wine maker to receive 100 points from Wine Spectator. But wait, there’s more! He received 3 consecutive 100 point scores for both the Shrader CCS and Shrader “Old Sparky”. Ok, so the critics like him, what’s the wine like?Its remarkably approachable for a mountain wine. It’s definitely big, but exceptionally smooth and complex. Nice dark fruit and a hint of earth. That’s what I wrote down on the back of a business card. A third of a glass of wine is really not enough to give this or any of these wines a fair taste, I prefer bottle tasting.
Another highlight was when I spotted the elusive Randy Dunn! Dunn Vineyards has been producing exceptional Howell Mountain Cabernet since 1981. His wines are some of the most age worthy wines you’ll find in Napa. Randy was pouring his ’05 Howell Mountain Cab. This wine is still a baby and will evolve for many years to come. I asked Randy: “How did you have the foresight to make and save magnums from every vintage so that you..”
He finished my sentence: “So I could give them away to charity?”
“Heh” he answered and continued pouring.
Randy donates verticals from every vintage he’s released so far to be auctioned at the Taste of Howell mountain every year. This year he donated 18 magnums of his cab ’83 thru ’99 with a just a few years missing. In 2011 he donated an 18 year vertical ’89 thru ’07.
Randy’s son Mike has his own label – Retro Cellars. Mike’s wife Kara was on hand pouring and talking about the wines. I tried out their 09 Howell Mountain Petite Sirah, and it was amazing! Only 100 cases of this wine were produced, so this was a real treat for me to be able to try it out. Look out for this wine in the future I think they’re really going to make a name for themselves
With all the talking and sipping time really flew by at this years event. Before I knew it the clock struck 3 and the tasting wrapped up, and guests moved indoors, into the beautifully renovated upstairs dining room of the Charles Krug carriage house. The live auction of some really amazing wines, wine dinners, and private tastings helped raise a lot of money for Howell Mountain schools and charities. This year over $110,000 was raised with $73,000 of that coming from the live auction. Live auction highlights:
Lot#5 Outpost Wine,Dine and Dance. Table for 10 sold twice at $4000 each
Lot#9 Spence dinner and fine wine: 10 couples, $400/couple
Lot#15 18 Magnums of Dunn Vineyards wine: $7400 (assorted vintages ’83-’09)
All in all, this was a great event. It was nice to see more wineries and guests than in previous years. It was also nice to meet Samuel Peters, executive director of the Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers association who was kind enough to petition the board on my behalf and secure a media pass for me. (FCC disclaimer-I received a ticket to this event)
Next time you see a bottle of wine labelled Howell Mountain, give it a try!
See more photos from the event on the Weekly Wine Journal Facebook Page