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Foreign vineyards

Napa Valley, Dunn Vineyards

This article was originally published in Spring 2017, R&B n°124
Vertical tasting of Howell Mountain Cabernet-Sauvignon in Paris
This article was originally published in Spring 2017, R&B n°124

Taking advantage of a few days business trip in the Bay area,
I managed to escape the SFO city to head to Napa Valley.
Story of a true encounter.

I look for him among the noisy tasting stands, on this sunny afternoon of 24th of October 2015, at Yountville Lincoln theater. I introduce myself, and he welcomes me with a friendly bantering wink, a straw hat on his head: “so, did you see Napa, it’s a kind of a Disneyland, isn’t it”?

I have to admit it would be hard to think otherwise. The area feels like an overly commercial wine park.  Overblown chateau-type entrances, high-speed winery tours for busloads of visitors, trendy restaurants, shops full of wine merchandizing and accessorized gadgets and apparel; all this feels as inappropriate as what I saw in the Australian wine county, the Yarra valley near Melbourne, Victoria.

But well, we have to accept this, after all, we’re in California, a bit more than 1 hour’s drive north of San Francisco, and in the land of the holy dollar.  Our wine tasting habits are going to need some reworking, a bit disturbing for the me as a Frenchie. True, we are far from the muted atmosphere of the little Burgundy wineries where you have to call before to get an appointment and where you taste with the winemaker who will describe and explain what you have in the glass and know what they are talking about. To be honest, what tires out is having to talk with sales staff using a commercial spiel to sell me a 6-bottle pack, and who have no perspective or personal opinion on the wine itself.

Never mind, I’m OK if I find a single real winemaker, e.g. Mike Dunn, the trip is worth it. I contacted him some weeks ago, while on a business trip in the region, and he suggested we meet at the end of October, at the “Paulée” of the Howell Mountain winemakers. Howell Mountain is a sub appellation of Napa, and certainly not the least interesting one as we will see below.

Instead of a “Paulée”, it’s actually a 95 $ entry to the tasting, with a very heterogeneous level of quality including some fancy projects like this couple I will not name who proudly announced their intention to produce a 100/100 Parker rated wine. We wish them good luck. It doesn’t take much time to taste a few dozen commonplace samples and decide that for us, Mike’s wine is far and  above the best of the lot.  It has a terroir restitution missing in the others, all oak aspect aside. What I’m looking for is a wine that actually speaks to me, with an identity, and not an insipid technical assembly, part make-up and part industry-standard that doesn’t awaken anything in me and which leaves me cold.

From a historical perspective, I realize that the background of winemaking in Napa is somewhat similar to the Aussie one. The first plots were introduced during the 19th century and the first wineries were founded by pioneers. Yountville by the way, the town where I met Mike Dunn, comes from the name of Georg C. Yount, who is said to be the first to have planted wines in the area near 1840. The region of California became highly prosperous during the gold rush, and the increase in population globally stimulated the demand for wine, and then, the number of wineries and investments in Napa Valley. 

The Phylloxera epidemic, and the period of Prohibition (from 1920 to 1933) put the brakes on this expansion, and it was further fragilized by the 1929 economic crisis. A lot of vineyards were ripped out and turned into fruit orchards. It wasn’t until the fifties and sixties that wine production began increasing again, further accelerating after 1970 under the impulsion of local personalities (like Robert Mondavi) and some foreign investors (like some French Champagne estates or baron Philippe de Rothschild cofounding Opus one with the Mondavi family in 1979).

Today, the area counts over 400 estates, some selling their bottles at very high prices and the main grapes varieties that can be found are Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir which is also raised in the Sonoma valley, Zinfandel (local grape almost similar to Italian Primitivo) and Chardonnay.

Napa Valley is almost entirely surrounded by mountains. Mount Mayacamas and the Vaca coastal range actually close off the West, North and Eastern sides and protect the area both from too much Pacific oceanic influence as well as from the heat of central California plains. The result is a climate that could be called “Mediterranean”, favorable for grape growing. High average sunny periods which are are good for the maturity of berries associated with cool evenings are the main regional characters. San Pablo bay area, close by, brings fogs and ocean breezes through the southern end of the valley and they carry into the center. . The soil has a very varied composition, primarily of alluvial types, but also including sediments and volcanic aspects coming from the very intense tectonic movements which contributed to shape the whole region (San Andreas rift, and terrible earth quake in 1906).

Napa now contains no less than 16 sub-appellations, called AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) which show high diversity of climate and soil identities due to their geographical positions in the valley. Howell Mountain is historically one of the first to have been recognized and registered in 1983. It is the most northern AVA in Napa in its eastern part and benefits from much higher elevation (430 to 670 meters above sea level) than average in the valley (0 to 100 meters above sea level), this particularity let Howell receive more direct ocean influences. This results in less heat during the day and more in the evening and is associated with above average rainfall; all this on well-drained soils of 2 types: rocky with iron-rich red clays or more dominated by decomposed volcanic ash. To sum it up, this is very good for the balance of wines in this area, those will exhibit more acidity and a more regular maturity of small berries due to the lack of water in the vineyards and natural poverty of soils.

If we had to describe the current situation at Dunn vineyards in a few words, we would highlight the aspect of long transition between father and son. Randy, the father, founded the estate more than 35 years ago, in 1979, purchasing well-placed existing wines that had been planted in 1972. Those vineyards, just below the forest, and whose clone of Cabernet-Sauvignon remains unknown, provided the backbone of the Howell Mountain cru until 2013. They were uprooted and replanted in 2014. The average production is currently around 30 000 bottles of Howell Mountain Cabernet and 15 000 bottles of the Napa generic Cabernet.

Mike, his son, would probably like to change some winery habits. But Randy does not seem ready to leave him a free hand on all decisions. For example, Randy still sets the harvest dates.

Since US winemaking is highly inclined towards technology and security (all is made to avoid any deviation), and  little is left to chance, we are not surprised to find out that the estate uses conventional methods: in particular a bit of inoculation for the yeasts, a bit of reversed osmosis to drop the level of alcohol just below 14°, which gives a regularity through the years that some of our tasters did not miss to notice.

But is this really necessary, knowing that the natural maturity of grapes load them with potential 14.5°, reflecting the nice sun exposure of the vineyards ? I ‘ll let Mike speak for himself: “I would prefer not to remove any alcohol beyond this arbitrary line of 14°…it’s a stylistic solution for hot years when sugar level raises before the phenolic maturity but we could also add some water like a lot of people do. Reverse osmosis is costly in time and money and this practice is closely monitored. It’s also a kind of filtration probably has an effect on the wine”.

I like to think that the wines we tasted can be made better; by improving their processes (eliminating this yeast inoculation for example, not using reverse osmosis which prevent the full potential of the grapes from expressing itself, or even moving to organic farming)  while keeping what already shapes their quality, meaning non-mechanized vineyards, low yields, long barrel aging before bottling, the vines of the estate could be even higher quality.

Time will tell, as vine is also a generation story, each one having the legitimate character to question the choices of the previous one and to make them evolve.



Tasting Notes

Samples were kindly sent by the estate from the USA to France in order to be tasted in Paris (April 2016).

Following the estate’s instructions, the wines were stood on end the day before, opened at 6.00 pm to be tasted at 16° celsius 2 hours later, rapidly reaching 18° celsius in the glass.


Dunn Howell Mountain 2009, Cabernet-Sauvignon

The nose has a high-class woody and roasted character, with some graphite and elegant flowers notes on top. It’s ripe, but not cooked. The first impression in the mouth is fresh, with interesting bitterness in the well enrobed tannins trail and with just a bit of asperity. The is well constituted, it holds well on the palate with notes of black fruits, noble vegetation, flowers. The final is bloody, spicy, with some nuances of orange marmalade. A complex wine, very charming indeed.


Dunn Howell Mountain 2005, Cabernet-Sauvignon

This has more austerity and closed character than the previous one. The nose is a bit muted at first and starts to open onto nuances of licorice, blueberries and black olives giving us something coherent and racy. The mouth owns a silky aspect, still consistent however, with a juice that has a real fullness. Without showing drought, this is more reserved, it’s finally still very young. The salty impression is emphasized by some noble bitterness (pencil lead, licorice stick which turn to floral notes with some air). This beautiful vintage, full of promises, is still keeping its secrets. We are confident it has a future.   


Dunn Howell Mountain 2004, Cabernet-Sauvignon

This production from a late and complicated vintage immediately seems colder; inky, wild berries, licorice, tar and humus fragrances bring in some bitter discomposed notes.  In the mouth, the wine starts to express itself, it is powerful, male, a little rough, rustic. Behind that, greater depth can be perceived: juicy sensations, construction, structure, a body which is soft and melting.  Aromas are again expressed in vegetal and floral notes but with a more questionable maturity. Some of us found the finish too sharp and heavy, others, on the contrary, found it delicate and refined. While we wouldn’t call it “a grand vin”, everybody found something to interest them.


Dunn Howell Mountain 2003, Cabernet-Sauvignon

This 2003 will be the wine of the tasting for many of us. The nose is a bit mute at first, but after breathing, it opens onto ripeness, long macerated black fruits, an earthiness that brings us back to the vineyard. Immediately we are seduced by the elegance, the qualities of straightforwardness of the concentrated juice, with some graphite and chocolate aromas that impose themselves naturally.  As a whole, It’s an architecture with beautiful, clean lines. The wine maintains tension until the finish, it makes you salivate, bringing nuances of scorched earth and pencil lead, then a clear terroir sensation appears. Almost decadent, almost a bit dry, this wine has a real personality and is ready to drink.


Dunn Howell Mountain 2002, Cabernet-Sauvignon

Elaborated from the complicated 2002 vintage with its fragile and delicate grapes, this wine offers a decadent nose, with nuances of blood, wild herbs, blackberries, floral nuances. The taste is marked by iodic, seashell sensations (seaweed) that prevail, evoking the freshness of a terroir at altitude, and is completed by decomposed pencil notes. This wine was less convincing than the others, with weaker raw material that tends to become precarious and dry with oxygen action, on top of a very step backed impression. Some of us felt it lacked definition.


Dunn Howell Mountain 2001, Cabernet-Sauvignon

The color is intense and the nose develops some toasty, leather style, licorice notes that bear witness to a certain evolution (not too old though) , but still showing its classy. Some tasters found some drought and rustic tannins that made the overall impression less convincing, as if the wine was from a vintage not really mastered. However, the trilogy pencil lead / bitterness / floral character found in the raw material of the wine and again in the finish, award an honorable grade to this composition where terroir is clearly present.  


Dunn Howell Mountain 2000, Cabernet-Sauvignon

Last vintage tasted in this vertical exercise, this wine definitely needs a lot or aeration to express itself because the nose is not yet well defined. It then evolves positively towards notes of camphor (menthol), licorice, smoky, and balsamic vinegar style. In the mouth the wine is full of tension, marked by salty character and chocolaty bitterness. The stuff shows good quality of tannins (smooth and ripe) and some velvet style. The wine is above all well balanced, tasty and calls out to be paired with food…Some of us tempered this judgement and commented on a little lack of charm and some drought in its finish (cold coffee).