Robert Craig

A Taste of Howell Mountain Wines | 2013

A Taste of Howell Mountain Wines, 2013

charles krug property

The setting for the Taste of Howell Mountain 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.

Robert Craig wine-maker Stephen Tebb and director of retail sales Rachel Miller

Robert Craig wine-maker Stephen Tebb and director of retail sales Rachel Miller

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.

rose wine bottle

Robert Craig Rose

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,

Eric and Kelly

Eric and Kelly

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.

Tom Altemus, owner-Red Cap Vineyards

Tom Altemus – Red Cap

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!

Napa wine maker

Alejandro Alfaro – Rutherford Grove, Pestoni Family

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.

The elusive Randy Dunn

The elusive Randy Dunn

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?”

“yes”

“Heh” he answered and continued pouring.

18 Magnums

18 Magnums of Dunn Vineyards wine

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.

Retro Cellars - Kara Dunn

Retro Cellars – Kara Dunn

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

Some of the live auction lots

Some of the live auction lots

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)

Charles Krug carriage house

Inside the Charles Krug carriage house where the live auction was held

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

Robert Craig video interview | part one

Earlier this year I was fortunate to get some one on one interview time with Napa Valley wine producer Robert Craig.  He was in Phoenix for the official release of the new 2010 “Affinity” his flagship wine.  Those of you who have been following this blog are well aware of my affinity for Robert Craig Wines and Bob and his wife, Lynn.  If not, do yourself a favor and read up on why I consider Robert Craig Wines to be “Affordable California Cult” wines.

Video interview, part one

How one Napa Valley producer has found success by focusing on Quality not Quantity

wine bottleRobert Craig, one of Napa Valley’s most dynamic and hard working winemakers, recently took a small break from his busy schedule to visit the Phoenix area. I was lucky enough to be invited as a guest at a wine maker dinner he was hosting at the outstanding, newly designed restaurant, Bistro Laurent Tourondel (BLT).

BLT has built a reputation for their fabulous cellar, stocked full of top tier Napa Valley and Bordeaux, valued at a cool $100,000.  As quickly as I was let in to their cellar, I was let out… I think the manager was concerned with my wandering, awestruck eyes.  You have to be careful of those blogger types, eh?
dining room

Dining room and wine cellar

Returning to the dining room, Robert Craig entered to a warm round of applause.  Craig took us on a journey of his winery’s history and experiences before delving into an important piece of his wine making philosophy.  He critically referred to the American culture of always looking out for what’s next, always trying to get bigger and bigger and bigger, especially in business.  At this point in his life, which he jokingly refers to as “getting on in years”,  he is not concerned with producing more wine as many of his neighbors are. Instead, his focus is on quality.  It became obvious that his philosophy is taken from many smaller, boutique European producers, as he continually referenced the ideals of these overseas cohorts.

scottsdale BLT

Guests enjoying champagne before dinner

The first course was a country style duck pate with brandied cherries, pistachio and arugula paired with the 2008 Robert Craig “Durrell Vineyard” Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley.  This Chardonnay is the only wine he makes outside of Napa, and the only white wine in his entire portfolio.  Aged in a mix of 10% new French oak, 65% neutral French oak and 25% Stainless steel, it is a wine that is light on oak, focused on fruit purity and a distinct sense of the Durrell Vineyard terroir. Less than 500 total cases were produced.

This was followed by roasted pork belly, ricotta gnudi, root vegetable fricassee and crispy pork skins paired with the 2007 Robert Craig “Affinity”, a Bordeaux styled blend created specifically with “the restaurant experience in mind”, as Craig explained.  The wine should not require additional aging or decanting to be enjoyed.  Each year just under 6,000 cases of Affinity are produce and every year it sells out.  With a 96 point score from Robert Parker, it’s no wonder they have no trouble selling it.  I found the wine to be smooth and supple in the way it just seemed to glide across the palate.  It screams quintessential Napa Valley, with cassis, perfume, violet and a hint of tar.  At $48 retail, this might be the steal of the century.

I just had to take this picture!

The third course was a Grouper stew featuring lobster mushrooms, chirozo and northern beans, a great but non-traditional pairing for the 2006 Robert Craig Mt. Veeder Cabernet.  A big and chewy wine with rich tannins, this is a bigger style than the Affinity, requiring a slight decant for maximum enjoyment.

The main course, a pepper-crusted NY strip with huckleberry braised beef cheek, roasted carrots and fava beans was paired with the 2006 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc.  With a miniscule production of  1,240 cases, this wine is simply stunning.  It is riper than the Mt. Veeder with an even longer finish. This is a serious Napa Cab with a long future ahead of it, meaning that decanting is recommended in the near future.
The fifth and final course was caramelized French butter pears with cambozola ice cream inside of a walnut crisp pastry paired with the 2007 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Zinfandel. This is where the pairings really pushed the envelope.  Cambozola ice cream tastes like ice cream made with brie and blue cheese.  However, it really worked with the sweet pears and the earthy zinfandel.  The fruit comes from the famous Black Sears vineyard on Howell Mountain, the highest vineyard on Howell Mountain. The wine is peppery with a pronounced minerality that I found to be quite interesting. Again, at only 800 cases produced, Craig’s mantra for quality and not quantity becomes evident.
Sitting next to Robert Craig throughout dinner and having deep conversation with him, you get a real feel for the winemaker.  Humble, soft spoken and gentle, but also exceptional.  More producers should take a cue from Craig and focus on their wine, not the numbers.
Edited by Jon Troutman

An Evening with Robert Craig. part 1

Robert Craig Winery is one of the producers I highlighted in a Corkd.com series titled “5 affordable California cult wines”.

Robert Craig wine bottles

Robert Craig Wines

In combing through the internet literature I put together in my mind an idea of the man Robert Craig and his wines.  Shortly after the article posted Claudia Chittim, the Executive Director of the Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers association was able to introduce me through email to Robert and Lynn Craig.  I noticed Mr. Craig was going to be in Phoenix in September and so we made plans to meet up.

What transpired far exceeded my expectations, not that my expectations were low but here’s what happened.  Instead of doing just a quick flipcam video interview, I was invited as a guest of the Craig’s to attend the Winemaker dinner at BLT restaurant.  BLT is located at the Camelback Inn which recently underwent a 50 million dollar renovation.

I met with Mr Craig before the reception and we sat on a couch near the bar.  We chatted a while learning a little about each others backgrounds.  I learned that Robert Craig was actually born in  Bisbee, Arizona.  He lightheartedly referred to his age and said that in fact he was born after Arizona received statehood.  His family had been coal miners back east and decided to move to Bisbee to mine copper.  But eventually moved to South Texas and became electricians.  This led to Robert Craig becoming an electrical engineer,  he joined the coast in the mid 1950’s and was transferred to the coast guard base at San Fransisco International Airport.  San Fransisco was where he met Lynn, his wife, and where they both developed an affinity for wine.  After he got out of the Coast Guard Mr Craig became involved in real estate.  In the mid to late 1960’s when Haight Ashbury, Monterey Pops and the summer of Love were happening, the Craigs were heading up into the hills of Napa Valley.  San Fransisco was the epicenter of a huge cultural shift towards the future and progressiveness. The Craigs ventured up into the hills and back into the Old World.  It was around this time that Robert Mondavi started out as well.  Mr Craig’s job involved assessing the value of land and real estate and by the mid 1970’s he had come across some interesting opportunities.  However, the company he worked for didn’t seem to be too interested in Mr Craig’s ideas about vineyards on the tops of mountains at the north end of Napa Valley.  One opportunity presented itself that Mr Craig couldn’t pass up, and he put together a few investors and together they bought some land atop Mt Veeder.

Fast forward 32 years.  Robert Craig has been instrumental in getting Mt. Veeder and Spring Mountain A.V.A status.  He sold the original vineyard to the Hess Collection and helped develop that brand before acquiring some land on Howell Mountain to start the Robert Craig Winery.  These days the Winery produces about 10,000 cases of premium and super premium wines, almost exclusively mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon.  In 2006 Robert Craig was included in Wine Spectators Top 50 Napa Valley Cabernets ranking based on the past 15 years of ratings.  So he’s obviously achieved virtually everything a struggling wine maker dreams of and I asked him “What’s next?”

“People always ask me what’s next, and I say, well I’m 72 so I don’t know.  You know here in America the culture is that if you are not doing better and bigger and producing more than the year before and bigger than the year before then you’re not a success.  In Europe they don’t tend to have that as much. ”

Mr Craig went on to say that 10,000 cases is the maximum that he will produce.  10,000 cases is still quite a lot of wine if you think about it, but with Robert Craig’s name he could easily sell double.  But his focus is not about quantity, it is now singularly focused on quality.  All he wants to do is make better and better wine each year, not more and more wine.  I asked him about his prices.  Why are they so low compared to other Napa wines, considering the reviews and demand.

“I come from humble beginnings and I just don’t feel that its right to charge too much”

We are very fortunate that Mr Craig feels that way because it allows many of us the opportunity to try a 96 point Bordeaux blend from one of the most famous A.V.A’s for about $45 retail.

Here a quick video of Robert Craig, I will post part 2- the part about the actual dinner soon, cheers!  Read part 2 here