When people talk about old school Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, there´s certainly no way around Randy Dunn and his son Mike, who create their understanding of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from 29 acres (12ha) of mostly volcanic as well as red clay soils from their Howell Mountain vineyards.
Next to the flagship wine, the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, which is always made of 100% Howell Mountain fruit, they also produce a second wine simply called Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In the past, in addition to the grapes from the Mountain vineyards,
about 15 to 20% Napa Valley (floor) fruit went into this wine as well.
Then, in 2009, 10 and 11, the wine was made just like the the Howell Mountain Cabernet from 100% Howell Mountain fruit, but in 2012 Randy and Mike decided to put fruit from the valley into the Napa Valley Cabernet again. From then on all the purchased fruit comes from the Coombsville AVA and makes up for about 60% of the blend in Dunn´s Napa Valley Cabernet.
However, only a few things changed over the years at Dunn; especially in the winemaking. There´s still no sorting table or fancy equipment at the winery. Everything is pretty much basic and hands-on. Well, after using 50% used and 50% new barrels from only one cooper over the years, Dunn now works with 100% new oak and the wines stay a little longer in barrel (H.M. Cabernet for 30 months). Less sulphur is used; less micro oxidation tolerated – but the overall goal to create an elegant wine of moderate alcohol that expresses the Howell Mountain terroir remained the same.
After tasting many vintages of the Howell Mountain as well as the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon over the years, it was about time to dive deep and taste the wines side by side in a comprehensive tasting:
We started into this exciting night with the 2009 Howell Mountain.
The wine is already surprisingly open and ripe with tons of dark fruits, cassis, dark chocolate, sweetness and minty freshness. Dark and dense, yet approachable and nicely balanced on the palate. Perfectly integrated oak, present tannins and fine acidity guarantee a long life. Keep.
The 2005 Howell Mountain is a little more robust and not as round as the 2009. It´s a dark, deep and robust wine that is fruit-driven still, but shows a lot of fresh herbs, ethereal notes and herbal spiciness. However, it´s well-balanced and smooth on the palate, but sturdy with strong tannins and fine, solid acidity. Finishes long with dark fruit, licorice, mineral notes and peppery spiciness. A great wine of substance, drive and potential.
Our next flight gave the opportunity to compare the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon directly with the Napa Valley Cabernet. Thereby, the 2001 Howell Mountain showed tight, dense and focused with aromas of black fruit, barnyard, ash, little leather and iodine. Structured for eternity with substance and a dense core of solid tannins and present acidity in good balance and harmony. Great length with darkness and spiciness. Softer and more approachable than the 2001 Howell Mountain, the 2001 Napa Valley presents itself dense and ripe with dark fruits, sage, some animalistic notes and minty and eucalypt freshness. More fruit-driven and fresh and juicy on the palate and, due to that, very drinkable, but, compared to the Howell Mountain, lacking drive and precision.
1999 Howell Mountain is a focused wine of barnyard, mushrooms, chocolate, coolness of herbs, little iodine and with dark fruit more in the background. Finely-grained tannins with nice juice and fine acidity make the wine fresh and very drinkable. Fresh herbs and some green notes support the overall fresh and almost ethereal appearance of this wine. Finishes long with dark fruit, mint and herbal spiciness. A very fresh and special Howell Mountain. 1997 Howell Mountain is a blockbuster with aromas of dark fruit, herbs (parsley, lovage), some animalistic notes and barnyard, orange zest, pencil lead, leather, smoke and oaky notes. Great concentration and depth with tannins that are starting to dry out. But the wine has still enough substance and juice to deliver greatest drinking pleasure. Finishes very long with beautiful fruit, anise and herbal spiciness. Keep or drink. 1993 Howell Mountain: Tight and focused wine of dark berry fruit, little barnyard, eucalypt freshness, florals and salty minerality. Appears softer on the palate as you would expect after smelling the fresh and focused aromatics. Nicely integrated, juicy and perfectly balanced with black fruit, little earth, graphite and peppery spiciness. Dusty tannins and vital acidity show the long road ahead. Very nice and one of my favorites as well as surprises of the night!
The 1991 Napa Valley gave us a hard time. Aromatically totally animalistic (“pure barnyard”) with nothing else on the nose, which is a real pity especially when you consider how great the wine shows on the palate. It´s tight and robustly structured for eternity with blackberries, earth, leather and herbal notes. Perfect length and concentration. Within this flight we served an Araujo 1991 Eisele Vineyard blind to compete with the 1991 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was shining bright with fine and sweet fruit, cedar, earth, hints of oak, mint and petrol. Perfectly balanced, harmonious and, while still young, the wine has obviously reached a great plateau now. Smooth and juicy on the palate with black and red fruits, chocolate, tobacco, peppery and herbal spiciness.
Beautiful and of great length.
1990 Howell Mountain shines with velvet and focused aromas of paprika, iodine, saltiness, some dark fruit and goji berries. A little edgy and tight on the palate – and in this way in line with a recently tasted 1990 Napa Valley Cabernet – with black fruits, gooseberry, some green notes, spices and a mix of herbs. Medium-long finish. Still, a beautiful wine of character, complexity and focus. Drink soon.
1989 Howell Mountain showed smooth and elegant with dark, red fruits, salty minerality, herbal freshness, and traces of barnyard and chocolate. A little austere and lacking some substance on the palate, but with fine fruit, raspberry (!) a mix of herbs and gravelly minerality. Fresh, forward and dynamic wine. If this is how wines from an alleged off-vintage taste like, that´s alright with me.
1987 Howell Mountain measured up to our high expectations and really sang with intense dark fruits and fine sweetness, plums, some vanilla, little lovage, cigar ash, leather and cedar. Fine, deep and perfectly balanced on the palate with vital acidity and dusty tannins. Finishes very long with freshness of beautiful fruit and peppery spiciness. An exceptional wine where power and presence meet finesse and complexity!
Only a small step behind was the 1985 Howell Mountain. Fine, but little fruit of plum and cassis, some barnyard, vanilla, herbal spiciness, salty notes and freshness on the nose. Dense, yet juicy on the palate with black fruit, tobacco, road tar, smoky minerality, herbal spiciness and saltiness. Still young, complex and fascinating wine of youth, density and perfect length.
To wrap up this memorable tasting we also took a look at Mike Dunn´s project Retro Cellars and tasted the 2007 Petite Sirah from old vines (planted in the 1950´s) in the Park Muscatine Vineyard. A wine showing what Petite Sirah is able to do: Cool, deep and concentrated wine without being overripe or broad. It´s driven by black currant, black cherry, herbal and peppery spiciness and sage. Focused and young on the palate with great concentration, present backbone of acidity and youthful tannins. Finishes medium-long. Keep 5+ years to really see what this wine capable of.
Even if the wines from the early 2000s until today became fresher and more fruit-driven and, thereby, a little bit more approachable in their youth, the distinct style of Dunn Vineyards, and especially the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, stayed the same from the beginning until now. Massive dark fruit, graphite and minerality in a powerful, yet elegant wine packed with structure, depth and character made for a very long life.
A very special wine that is intriguingly different from the many alcohol-driven, overripe Napa Valley Cabernets that lack fascination and expression of place.