Wine Ink column: Life is sweet on Howell Mountain | SummitDaily.com

Wine Ink column: Life is sweet on Howell Mountain

Oh, to live on Howell Mountain.

OK, so the lyric by Neil Young was actually about a mythical Sugar Mountain, but life on Howell Mountain, especially for the grapes and their growers, can be exceedingly sweet.

Howell Mountain is an AVA (a designated wine region) on the northeast side of the Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountains of California. In the 1880s, vintners Jean Adolph Brun and Jean V. Chaix first began to make wine from vineyards on Howell Mountain at their winery in Oakville on the Napa Valley floor.

Prohibition slowed the wine heritage of the region, but throughout the past four decades there has been a renaissance and Howell Mountain is now renowned for growing and producing many of the finest Bordeaux varietal wines in America.

Famed names such as Duckhorn and Cakebread have vineyards and source fruit from the region. Other significant privately held wine companies, such as Plumpjack (Cade) and Kendall Jackson (La Jota), not only grow Howell Mountain fruit but also produce wines in their own mountain-based wineries.

And family wineries, like Dunn Vineyards Winery, founded by Howell Mountain pioneer Randy Dunn in 1979, Ladera Vineyards (their stone winery was originally built by Brun and Chaix in 1886), O'Shaughnessy Estate Winery and others, give the region a distinctly local flavor. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc dominate the plantings on Howell Mountain, though there are pockets of other grapes.

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Recently, at a Taste of Vail wine seminar, O'Shaughnessy winemaker Sean Capiaux and winery representatives Dan Stotesbery of Ladera and Stephen Gonda of La Jota, poured wines from their Howell Mountain estates and shared tales of why Howell Mountain is such a special place. All three enthusiastically spoke of the unique characteristics that make the wines of Howell Mountain so exceptional.

A PLACE IN THE SUN

If you have ever taken off from San Francisco Airport, heading east on a fog-covered morning, and looked north toward the Napa Valley, then that mountaintop you spot rising from above the flattened fog bank is Howell Mountain. What you see is the main reason why the grapes on Howell Mountain produce extremely concentrated and flavorful fruit.

The vineyards on Howell Mountain rest in the sky, above that fog line on most mornings getting the first rays of the day's sun. While the vines on the Napa Valley floor below wait in the fog for the heat to burn the moisture off around noon, the grapes on the mountain are already being bathed in sunshine.

With more sunlight each day the grapes respond accordingly, producing sugars and acidity that are balanced. Howell Mountain rises from 1,400 to 2,000 feet and the nighttime temperatures can be 5 to 10 degrees higher than those in the valley below. Conversely, during the day, due to elevation changes, temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees cooler.

This difference in the sunlight and temperatures, combined with a weather profile that delivers nearly twice as much rain as the valley floor and unique soils provide Howell Mountain with a special terroir, the French word used to describe the characteristics of a particular place.

Those soils can be broken into two specific types. The first, called "tufa," consists of decomposed volcanic ash. The second is dense, compressed red clay. The lack of nutrients in both soil types means the vines grown on Howell Mountain are stressed and must reach deep down into the earth to get nourishment and moisture. These struggles result in smaller clusters of grapes with smaller berries, heavily concentrated in flavors and sugars.

And it is not simply the vines that are stressed. Because of the steep and rocky nature of mountain vineyard sites, the majority of work on the vines must be done by hand. This in turn lowers the yield of grapes on each plot, so only the best clusters are harvested for production.

THE WINES

Power and balance. That was the takeaway from the nine wines the three experts from the region poured at the Taste of Vail seminar. Whether it was the cabernet sauvignons from the outstanding 2013 vintage, the merlot, cabernet franc or malbec, or the three "Library" wines that each of the winemakers graciously presented from the mid-2000s, all nine exhibited similar characteristics. The earth spice, leather and chocolate signified the wines as being from the Howell Mountain.

Mountain-grown Bordeaux varietals are well known for being dark, dramatic and big, but the beauty of each of these wines was in their balance. Stephen Gonda from La Jota said that when he thought of wines from Howell Mountain he thought of Muhammad Ali. Yes, they pack a punch, but there is artistry to the power and the strength. They, in the words of the great boxer, "Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."

Yes, life is sweet on Howell Mountain.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

La Jota 2013 Howell Mountain Merlot:

“Whenever someone asks at a wine tasting ‘pour me your best cabernet,’ I reach for the bottle of La Jota Merlot and pour them that,” said Stephen Gonda of Kendall Jackson’s Spire collection. He is not just being cute, he believes that the La Jota Merlot is wine that cabernet drinkers would love. And he is right. “Smooth” is a word that is often overused to describe merlot, but the cashmere mouth feel of this 2013 gem meets that description perfectly. Dark as night in the glass, with notes of plum on the nose, this beautiful wine is a credit to both merlot and Howell Mountain.

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