Napa Wine Maker

Affordable California Cult Wines | Robert Craig

Robert Craig Wine label

96 points, Robert Parker

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.

Robert Craig and I

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!

Affordable California Cult Wines | Von Strasser

Von Strasser Diamond Mountain Reserve

The "Reserve" labels will cost you $150+ a bottle, but you can pick up the DMD labels for around $50

The fourth installment of “Affordable California Cult Wines” takes us to the Diamond Mountain District of Napa. Most everyone who follows Napa wines has heard of Oakville, Stag’s Leap and Rutherford Districts but what about the districts that make up the Eastern Vaca Mountain Range in the Mayacamas?  There are five: Atlas Peak, Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and the newest of the 5, Diamond Mountain District (DMD) which became an AVA in 2001. Although the AVA is 5,000 acres, only 500 acres are planted with vines, most of which is Cabernet, making it the smallest of the Napa sub appellations.   Diamond Mountain itself is named after the volcanic glass crystals found in its soil. With a climate that is moderately warm, it is significantly cooler than the Napa Valley floor during the day, but slightly warmer at night.  As the name suggests, this is a higher elevation region, starting at 400 feet all the way up to 2,200 feet. The wines are generally more tannic than the wines produced on the valley floor. Some of the more well known wineries and vineyards from DMD include Sterling Vineyards and Schramsberg Vineyards. They have great structure and aging potential. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety but according to The Wine News it is also home to the greatest concentration of Petit Verdot in Napa.

The Von Strasser vineyard is home to the second largest planting of Petit Verdot in the Diamond Mountain District. The winery is known for using high doses of Petite Verdot in their blends, sometimes upwards of 44%. While it may seem like a wacky blend to some, Rudy Von Strasser has plenty of wine making credentials to put your mind at ease. His wine career began after graduating UC Davis in 1985 and working as an intern at none other than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.  Rudy returned to Napa a year later and was hired by Trefethen Wines. From there he went to Newton, and by 1990 he managed to purchase the Roddis Estate Winery located on Diamond Mountain. The Von Strasser brand has a 3 tier system: “Reserve” which is only made in great vintages, “Single Vineyard”, and “DMD”, or Diamond Mountain District.  While the first two tiers can run upwards of $100+ a bottle, the Diamond Mountain District Cabernet is available at a very reasonable $50, direct from the winery website.
The 2006 Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain District is a blend of 85% Cabernet, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Zinfandel and 2% Merlot. The alcohol is a moderate 13.5%, with a Bordeaux-like structure, along with tart blackberry and cherry fruit encompassed by smoky oak. The tannins are more intense than most Napa Cabs, yet the wine is still wonderfully balanced and has a nice lush mouth-feel.  Wine Enthusiast gave this wine 91 points and they estimate that the wine should continue to develop through 2012, which is just around the corner.  You won’t have to wait too long for this wine to reach its peak.  The wine was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 30% of which were new barrels. A miniscule but attainable 2,465 cases produced, making this wine the most accessible in my ‘Affordable California Cults’ series wines. Von Strasser is starting to get some rave reviews and was recently crowned Value Winery of the year (2009) by Wine & Spirits magazine, to go alongside their Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year award, received in 2005. Get your hands on Von Strasser’s wines now, before more wine publication awards send its prices high and its availability low!
Edited by Jon Troutman