A Serious Wine: Napa’s Howell Mountain Cabernet

About a year ago, six of us piled into an SUV from the floor of Napa Valley in St. Helena for a half-hour climb straight up the Vaca Mountain Range, rising from the eastern side of the Valley to 1400 feet of elevation and beyond. It was 10:00 am and as we zigzagged up the mountain, the impeding morning fog thickened on the ascent and I strained to read the directions, feeling more like I was on a remote part of the California country-side rather than one of the most famous wine regions in the world.

The wine in Howell Mt are as serious as the winemakers. The feeling is one of authenticity, centered on making the best expression of the mountain as possible. For winemakers and drinkers in Howell Mountain, it is a patient and long-made process, following a tradition of generations. Known for being “above the fog” that rolls from the Pacific Ocean east through Sonoma and Napa, Howell Mountain has a high elevation. The vineyards are grown in a microclimate of cool, dry mountain air, cooler during the day than the valley floor, yet warmer in the evening. Grapes grow more slowly, and are more concentrated in flavor. The soil is rocky and volcanic and slopes downward, making for easy drainage. They have a bit more structure – more acid and more tannins – than valley floor wines, leading to very complex, concentrated flavor. The wine is best expressed and developed with some aging in a barrel and beyond for years in the bottle.

Howell Mountain isn’t the type of place you happen to travel up 20 minutes on a switch back road and stumble upon the winery. You need to make a reservation, generally a few weeks in advance, as most wineries here are all small producers. The three wineries we visited: CADE (the largest and most modern, part of the Plumpjack Family from Gavin Newsom), Brevante Vineyards (small and quaint), and O’Shaughnessy Estate (ultra-premium and world renown by serious somms) are deep in hospitality and delicious bordeaux blends. For the last two, we were the only visitors during our time at the wineries.

O’Shaughnessy’s wine reflect the very top of the serious winemakers of Howell Mountain. On your private tasting tour, you see the entire operation from grapes taken in from the vineyard, sorted, pressed and fermented, to the beautiful cave of aging wine in oak barrels, and the very intimate tasting table and private wine cellar. The cellar has rows and rows of wine bottles that are a visual history of the wine industry development in Napa Valley. Many of the founding wineries are represented with bottles from the mid-1970s: Freemark Abbey, Silver Oak, Stags Leap Cellars, Duckhorn, Chappellet, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Pine Ridge and Robert Mondavi.

You can tell the proprietors, Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls and Paul Woolls, deeply respect the history of the winemakers who have worked so hard to elevate Napa’s wine to world-wide status. O’Shaughnessy’s wine are no different in the heritage of Napa Valley – deeply intense layers of dark red and black berries, coupled with cocoa, earthiness, and a long finish of notably tannins. O’Shaughnessy makes three wines (two Cabernet blends, and a Merlot) that are released once a year. The winemaker, Sean Capiaux, employs a technique to preserve the characteristics of a single vineyard with minimal interference in the process. They are impeccable wines, stunning examples of the balance and intensity of Napa estate vineyards. I will return again to Howell Mountain for the beauty of the mountain and the seriousness of their winemakers.

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