When I started covering Dunn Vineyards few years back, they seemed to be a classic winery, kind of left in the past, unpretentious, un-marketed, appreciated mainly by wine geeks. I immediately fell in love with the wines, and wrote about them with great enthusiasm and appreciation on this blog. In the last couple of years, the famous critics seemed to have re-discovered Dunn, bestowed raving articles and high scores upon them, and the winery now enjoys more prestige and buzz, which in my opinion they duly deserve. I am proud to have jumped on the Dunn band-wagon earlier, and happy to see that Mike Dunn has not let the recent recognition go to his head. Still the same down-to-earth, easy-going man that makes you feel comfortable whenever you sit down with him at the Dunn's family home in Angwin (Howell Mountain). Unfortunately, alas, prices expectedly are up, though still far below other top cabs.
In January, I made a trek over there to pick up my case of 1998's - one of my favorite Dunn vintages, both Napa Valley and Howell Mountain, and to catch up with Mike. He surprised me with a mini-vertical of Dunn's little-known Petite Sirah, made in classical Dunn style by Randy in the stretch of 4 vintages - 1992-1995, and practically forgotten in the cellars until about 10 years ago, when they decided to dust them off and offer to select customers. With only a few cases now remaining from the original production of approximately 150 cases, these are very rare bottles. Just like the Dunn cabs from the 90's, Dunn's Petite Sirah is very different from what I have come to expect from that varietal in California, which usually delivers heavy, jammy, thick fruit and high alcohol. In the hands of Randy Dunn, these wines produced from the Park Muscatine vineyard near their house show savory, dark, tarry mountain fruit, lithe body, great acidity, low alcohol, and grippy tannins, quite serious albeit more rustic than the cabs. Even at 20+ years, they seem to need another 10 to mellow out, not totally surprising given that Petite Sirah is known for being a very structured, tannic grape, often blended in to reinforce Zinfandel. Would have never guessed this was Petite Sirah though - an impressive effort.
In 2003 Mike got Randy to agree to let him make his own wine. So Randy handed the Petite Sirah Park Muscatine vineyard to Mike, who proceeded to make wine from the same good old vineyard and the same good old vines under his own Retro Cellars label. So it was fascinating to taste the 2003-2005 vintages of the Petite Sirah right next to Randy's original 1993-1995. It appears when Mike was getting started on his own, he went into higher level of ripeness and alcohol, but the more recent vintages of Retro Cellars Petite Sirah pulled the alcohol and ripeness back down to 12-13%, and I recall them being more drinkable and closer to the classical Dunn style.
Tasting (wines were opened 1 hour prior)
1993 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
Very restrained. High acid, tannic, fresh, foresty, herbs, zesty, pretty
1994 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
Fresh zesty nose. Smoother tannins, herbs but not herbaceous
1995 Dunn Howell Mountain Petit Sirah (13.6%)
More powerful, sweeter, orange peel, good acid, smooth tannin, old leather. I tasted it the next day again. It didn't smell quite as "old". Zesty peppercorns, tart plums, olives (briny and leathery), still tannic and tight (not super aromatic). With braised beef, this was singing! Then after pouring off to a half bottle (3/4 of 375ml filled) and keeping it refrigerated, a week later it was still going strong when paired with rare New York steak which brought out the earthy tones of the wine. That's Dunn DNA! It suggests that the wine is still about 10 years away from its peak.
Next, Mike's wines. The key to making good Petite Sirah, according to Mike, is the right kind of oak barrel, with tight grain, that serves to soften the tannins without imparting much wood flavor.
2003 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.4%) plum liqueur, a hint of brandy, herbs, leather, loads of tannin, acid
2004 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.2%) - riper, smokier, cumin, tannic, pepper, probably would be great w/ Chilli.
2005 Retro Cellars Howell Mountain Petite Sirah (14.3%) - ripe, very tannic, herbs, sweet plums, cherries, chocolate.
Petite Sirah is a lot more work to farm, says Mike, and it is not a great business, doesn't sell as well as other varieties, especially when he charges ~$40-45/bottle to justify the effort he puts in. He plans to reduce production from ~1000 cases down to 400. It was a great way originally for him and his wife to venture out on their own, but now Mike feels he is happy to invest more of his energy elsewhere. Interestingly, the nursery that supplied the original vines for the Park Muscatine vineyard must have accidentally included some genetic ancestors of Petite Sirah -- Syrah and Peloursin, the latter being a very rare variety now. There is apparently enough of it found in the vineyard that Mike will actually bottle some - a hoot for wine geeks!
2011 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet (13.9%) opened 4 days prior, about half full now. Hint of zesty roasted bell pepper, delicious velvety fruit, like a rich velvety borscht, unsweetened chocolate, tannins, with very fragrant red fruit and zesty herbs, fantastic food wine, fine tannins, tart zesty finish. Should be great with time (10yrs+). Finished the bottle the following day. Mineral dust, rich velvety roasted root vegetables, caramelized tomato, pomegranate, unsweetened cherry extract, herbs, hint of chocolate. Happy to have two hand-signed mags of this in the cellar for my son's birth-year collection.
Great visit, as always. Thank you Mike and Randy!