Dunn is one of my all-time favorite Napa Valley wineries, and along with Diamond Creek and Ridge, is a reference point for what a mountain Cabernet should taste like. I love the wines. They have stood the test of time. They are incredibly versatile with food, due to acidity, savoriness, and low-alcohol frame. They are intense (without being heavy) with dark fruit, tar and mountain rocks, and echos of pine forest. They are not easy to understand for newbies because they are tannic and rugged, with zesty herbs and root vegetables pronouncing themselves with age. By the time the tannins soften (10-15-20 years+ down the road), the baby plushness and primary fruit sweetness are gone, and you get great intensity and complexity that is anything but "fruity" - perhaps an acquired taste.
Mike Dunn, Randy Dunn's son who works and makes the wines alongside Randy, has always been an incredibly fun and gracious host. Simple and honest to deal with - no BS, no marketing. The wines are under-priced, in my opinion - less than half of what peers now charge for similar quality. Antonio Galloni recently wrote this about Dunn 1979-1999 vertical: "Overall, the wines were striking and confirmed Randy Dunn’s place among the top winemakers in Napa Valley." He also gave 98 points to their 2010 Howell Mountain. The Dunns can raise prices if they want to, and I am afraid they eventually will. They have a fairly deep library of old vintages, many still available for sale in magnums. For now, the winery remains a go-to "secret" of wine geeks, and for selfish reasons I hope it stays that way, though probably it will not, especially if I continue to write posts like this!
This time I was particularly interested in 2011. Randy and Mike hand-signed two magnums of the 2011 Howell Mountain to my son Evan for his birth-year collection. I was just going to swing by to pick them up and be on my way. But of course, Mike wouldn't let me go without sitting down for a taste!
2011 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - opened for 1 day, with most of the wine still in the bottle. This is only the third vintage where all the fruit came from the Howell Mountain - they now produce enough from their youngest Lake vineyard on the "estate" (really more like a farm in the town Angwin, as the Dunns have a very simple, unpretentious life-style). I first tasted it on day 2 and then again on day 5. With 70% remaining in the bottle till day 5 (I pumped out the air and kept it in the fridge), it showed no signs of oxidation. Nose: juicy blueberry, pomegranate, tart ripe black plums, ripe beets. Palate: dark juicy blueberry, pomegranate, plum, hint of bell pepper and pine needle, zesty acidity, softly tannic texture, smoke / tar / tobacco, savoriness, slightly bitter Provencal spice (lavender perhaps), unsweetened dark chocolate, medium-short finish. Doesn't quite have the concentration or length of the Howell Mountain.
2011 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon - quite a step up! Signature nose: deep, dark, mountainous boulders and pine forest. Palate: I love it! Juicy, lush, but cooler vintage makes this sleek. Really classic Dunn Howell Mountain cab - dusty unsweetened dark (bitter) chocolate, pencil lead / graphite, tar, blackcurrants enveloping herbal / pine grove savoriness, salinity, tobacco and spice cabinet. Hints of bell pepper, root veggies and green peppercorns, but generously mixed with powdered chocolate and tar. Very complex. Lingering aftertaste of tobacco, coffee and very black cherries. The tannins are slightly rustic, like chewing tobacco. This is dark, rugged and full of character, not your typical generic Napa fruit bomb! Drank this over three days. It was still going strong, no signs of oxidation, even when the 2 oz. that had been left at the bottom of a decanter overnight were tasted in the morning. This wine will have a long life! Seems incredibly versatile due to its acidity and savoriness, and I would not hesitate to pair it even with arugula salad, roasted winter veggies, cheeses, let alone meat or poultry. Mike Dunn said that 2011 was not a poor vintage for them like for many in Napa, because the weather on Howell Mountain was fairly typical. In fact, the 13.9% alcohol was relatively high for Dunn (they even had to remove some to bring it down from over 14%), which means the grapes accumulated plenty of sugar. To me, though, the flavor profile is less ripe than what I recall from the recent tastings of their 21st century vintages. Mike mentioned that his preference recently started gravitating toward fresher fruit, away from the riper, less acidic profile of the last decade. In 2011, yields were smaller, 2200 cases as opposed to the normal 3000.
1998 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - we tasted this after it had been opened for 2 days, with most of the wine still in the bottle. Then I pumped the air out, put it in the fridge, with 70% left in the bottle, and re-tasted on day 5, and then finished the bottle on day 7 with lunch. Next to the 2011, this shows obvious secondary development. Nose: alluring autumnal bouquet of dark cherries, cassis and dry plum liqueur, sweet tobacco, menthol, sweet caramelized tomato sprinkled with a splash of sea-salt and balsamic, very beautiful and comforting, like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, watching your favorite movie. Palate: consistent with the nose. Forest floor and autumn leaves (love that!), leather, cassis, sweet grainy porridgy tones (like a '96 Clape I had recently), still slightly tannic, savory, hints of iron and blood (like in a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape), coffee, smoke / tar / tobacco. Just a beautiful wine in a great spot! Ready for drinking, and it should have years of life ahead. Impressive for a "second" wine. I had tasted the flagship Howell Mountain version few years ago during my original visit to Dunn, and it was one of my all-time favorites. The Napa Valley bottling is very compelling as well. A week after opening, it continued blossoming, as I paired it with a roasted goose for Christmas lunch - an amazing match!