Wines sourced from above the fog come down to sea level for a memorable evening of tasting in San Francisco.
On March 20th the Howell Mountain AVA held their spring tasting event at the Bently Reserve in San Francisco. 30 wineries were present pouring the best the mountain has to offer.
Although there has been much debate about terroir or lack there of in California, there is no mistaking wines from this magic mountain. Vineyards here sit between 1,400 and 2,300 feet above sea level and are thus quite different in character from vineyards only a few miles away. The growing season here begins much later than in the valley. Early on, cool foggy nights and day time temps as much a 10 degrees cooler than the valley are common. By mid-summer, however, the mountain enjoys much warmer temps as it is above the fog layer that dominates the valley in mid to late summer and early fall. Bud break occurs much later and veraison too is much later than in the valley.
This produces big, bold, and very complex wines that have a unique character all their own. Howell Mountain wines are truly unique and are among our favorites. While the quality of these wines can rival any, their price points are quite a bit less than most top valley wines adding value to the list of reasons to try these fantastic wines!
First, A Bit of History
Nestled high above the North-Eastern edge of the Napa Valley, the rugged land dominated by ponderosa pines and redwoods would probably not be an obvious choice for a world-class viticultural area. Fortunately for us wine lovers, the founding vintners of Howell Mountain saw things differently.
The first vineyard was planted in 1877 by Jean V. Chaix and Jen Adolf Brun and produced fruit for their Howell Mountain Winery which managed to make 150,000 gallons of wine per year. The wine, named a Nouveau Medoc, was a huge success and an integral part of the wine boom of the 1880’s.
Not long after, Napa legend Charles Krug established vineyards on the mountain in 1884. Krug was struck by the intense and unique flavor profiles derived from these mountain grapes.
As the mountain’s reputation grew, more and more valley vintners were crafting world-class wines from Howell sourced fruit and by 1891, up to 700 acres were planted.
It was in 1900 that the mountains wines became world-famous. Former newspaperman Frederick Hess establish vineyards and then built his winery named La Jota in 1898. La Jota quickly gained a notable reputation and was accepted into the Paris Expo of 1900 where it took a bronze medal in a field full of first growth and second growth Bordeaux wines. A gold medal at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 cemented the mountains reputation as a terroir to be reckoned with.
Prohibition killed the wine industry on the mountain but a renaissance took place in the 1970’s and thanks to the talent and tireless efforts of Howell Mountain legends such as Randy Dunn, Mike Beaty, Mike Lamborn, and Robert Craig the Howell Mountain AVA was born in 1983.
Today, wine lovers can enjoy both stunning vistas and some of the best wine in the world when visiting the mountain.
Without further ado, here’s our coverage of this wonderful event.
The event was held in the elegant Bentley Reserve in San Francisco’s financial district. The 30 wineries were appropriately spaced around the roomy hall. Tasty cheeses, meats, and artisan breads were provided by Winery Chefs and there was a thoughtful supply of water to assist us in getting through all the great wines.
Overall, the setup and atmosphere was perfect for sampling these wonderful wines.
Adamvs, Arkenstone, Atlas Peak, Blue Hall Vineyard, Bravante, Bremer Family, Cade, Cakebread, Charles Krug, Cimarossa, Cornerstone, Cresta Vella, Dunn, Haber Family, Howell at the Moon, Howell Mountain, John Robert Eppler, La Jota, Neal Family, Notre Vin, O’Shaughnessy, Outpost, Pina, Pine Ridge, Press, Red Cap, Retro, Roberts + Rogers, Sbragia, Spence, Summit Lake
Our Favorites (in no particular order)
Although we will highlight some of our favorites below we do wish to emphasize that all the wineries listed above are worth seeking out. Most offer private tastings in arguably the most beautiful area of the Napa Appellation.
Outpost Winery 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (Barrel Sample)
$75 upon release
As our readers know, the 2009 Cab from Outpost was in our top three of last year. Here’s what we said:
“This is a big, bold, fruit forward wine but is wonderfully complex and nuanced. Lush flavors explode out of the glass with plenty of dark huckleberry, plum, currant, and a host of other dark mountain berries (pick one or all here). Plenty of berry, plum, and a slight hint of floral vanilla on the nose and a long finish with hints of bright stone and subtle spice make this a truly classic Cabernet.”
The 2011 is looking to be just as impressive! Time will tell but the streak of amazing wines from Outpost is most certainly going to continue.
Cresta Velia 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
The second label of Outpost, this wine is sourced down the road from their estate vineyard. A very nice complex Cab for a very nice price for a premium wine of this caliber. Plenty of dark berry, plum, vanilla, and italian roast coffee notes with that perfect hint of subtle oak and spice.
Red Cap Vineyards 2011 Savignon Blanc
As you may recall we found the Red Cap wines to be among the best in last summers Howell tasting event in Yountville. This spring, we still find them at the top. Their Savignon Blanc was our favorite out of several outstanding Sav. Blancs being poured. This wine is plenty fruit forward but has a wonderful food friendly nuanced quality. Versatile enough for a myriad of seafood dishes and would also play very nicely with some grilled chicken, goat cheese confections, or light salads.
Red Cap Vineyards 2008/2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
One of our favorite wine makers Rudy Zuidema (formerly Robert Craig, White Cottage) has created a simply stunning Cab here. This wine is lush, big, and complex with a nose consisting of dark mountain berry, cola, and ever so subtle earthy spice. The mid is full of big dark mountain fruit and finishes long with tobacco and minerals. The $65 price point is another big plus for a wine this elegant. Both of these are drinking very nice now but have no shortage of potential in the cellar. Very highly recommended!
Summit Lake 2011 Blythe Susan Rosé
This delicious blend of 50% Cabernet and 50% Zinfandel has plenty of raspberry, pomegranate, and bright strawberry. Wonderfully lush but dry just the way we like it. Great value at $19.00 for a summer sipper that tastes like a guilty pleasure.
Summit Lake 2008 Emily Kestral Cabernet
Wonderfully nuanced but big Cab. Nice dark plum and hints of graphite on the nose leads to big dark berry, mocha, and very subtle spice on the nice long finish. A steal at $60.00!! We also liked the 2008 Summit Lake Zinfandel which has all the Howell Mountain Zin properties we love.
La Jota 2010 Merlot
A very big but smooth Merlot with plum, dark mountain berry, and black cherry notes. Great balance and just the right hit of smokey oak. Finish is smooth and long with a nice subtle blast of cocoa. We also were impressed with their 2010 Cab although we feel it will significantly improve with more time in the bottle. Both are highly recommended!
Arkenstone 2009 Obsidian Cabernet Blend
A huge, opulent Cab. effort here. Rich plum, mountain huckleberry and blackberry abound with a very nice balance of tannins and acidity. Great finish with a perfect blast of smokey oak and vanilla.
Bravante Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley TRIO
Wonderful blend for a nice premium price! Nuanced but big claret like red that will pair perfectly with your favorite BBQ.
Bravante 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
We were anxious to try this as the last time we did it was 106 degrees and the only white being poured at the Howell Mountain Benefit last summer. Just as refreshing when we were not sweating. Perfect for grilled fish or salads!
Bravante 2007 Cabernet, 2008 Merlot
We’ve gone on and on about Bravante’s amazing reds so we’ll keep it short and sweet here. Buy these! Outstanding!
You can find our previous reviews of these wines HERE
We love O’Shaugnessy Vineyards 2009 Cab (reviewed here) and were once again impressed with their amazing and creative Cab.
Notre Vin’s Rosé and Cab were once again a true standout as were the Cabs from Cade, Cimarossa, Howell at the Moon, Roberts + Rogers and Atlas Peak. Needless to say the Cab from Dunn and the Syrah from Retro cellars were also at the top of our list as they were last time.
Once again, we must give our sincere thanks and applause to Sam Peters and his staff, the wineries, Winery Chefs, and the great folks at the Bently Reserve for a truly memorable day of tasting. Until next time!