Dunn - the last honest Howell Mountain cab?

Few hours remaining in the year. Am I Dunn yet?
Not until Mike Dunn and I spend a couple of hours drinking through his stash.

While everyone else was getting ready for New Year's, I headed to Howell Mountain, overlooking Napa Valley, to check out what the fuss in my wine circles was all about. A year ago, a friend treated a group of us to a killer magnum of 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn, and that bottle still decorates my butler's pantry.

Dunn is a small family-owned operation, run by Randy (dad), Lori (mom), Kristina (sister) and Mike, with a long standing office manager and vineyard crew. They make a respectable 4000 cases a year, and been making cabs since 1979 from old vines (some since replanted) atop the rural Howell Mountain just 15 minutes east of Saint Helena in the town of Angwin. Not much else seems to be going on there but wine making and Seventh Day Adventist church-going.

Yet, Randy Dunn, who was the wine-maker at Caymus from 1975 to 1985, and his son Mike manage to make some of the best California Cabs I've had. The closest comparison I can manage is the legendary Ridge - and that's saying a lot! Dunn's wines are low-alcohol, between 13 and 14%, cool, deeply flavorful, with supple tannins and loads of graphite (as in pencil lead), black berries and cassis, baked sweet root veggies, cedar box, dark chocolate and coffee, good acidity, Bordeaux-like, and that's music to my ears and deliciousness to my palate.

Howell Mountain is regarded in Napa as an appellation that produces superlative wine grapes. Owing to its unique high elevation, foggy micro-climate, and nutrient-poor, mineral-rich soils, the wines of Howell Mountain tend to be dark (as in graphite and black fruits), with a bit of spice, and in the right hands - with potential for great acidity, balance, and deceivingly strong but supple tannins, which allow them to age for decades while being drinkable within just a few years of release. During the growing season, Howell Mountain rises above the fog line, so the mornings here are warmer but never heat up to the intensity of the valley floor. Howell Mountain Vintners & Growers Association explain these unique aspects of the appellation on their website and in this excellent video on the appellation:

We tasted through an impressive line-up of 1989, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. All excellent wines. The 1989 - going strong. The 1998 - my favorite - I would not be able to tell it apart from a high-end Bordeaux - cool 13.3% alc, jerky and slight gaminess, graphite, black plums and berries, dark chocolate, but good acidity and lightness on the palate, with tons of character - a very complex wine! The 2002, 2004 and 2006 showed more fruit, while 2003 and 2005 a bit more acid and herbaceousness that I enjoy in old world wines.

Mike and I lamented (or cheered?) to the fact that for the last few years, Wine Spectator has not been kind to their wines, scoring them in the 80-something range. I say "to hell with them"! Heck, these wines aren't the alcoholic, jammy, thick monsters that win certain critics over? The same critics who pumped up the 2007 vintage in Chateuneuf-du-Pape and Napa Valley, even though the wines drink like alcoholic syrup! No, thank you very much - I'll stick with "lesser" vintages and with Dunn!

The wines stay in barrels (75% new oak) for 30 months inside the property's mountain dug caves. The caves' all-natural constant temperature and humidity result in very little evaporation of the liquid and about 1/2% of alcohol loss as the wines age. The 30 long months in barrel serve to round out the tannins before bottling. The intensity of the fruit and tannins stands up well to the extended barrel aging. While typical Howell Mountain wines are said to be bold, rich and powerful, Dunns aren't, in my opinion. I guess it really depends on one's definitions. A very detailed 2005 article by SFGate.com called Dunn's cabs "massively proportioned, complex and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignons." I could agree with that as long as it doesn't imply rich, thick, or over-ripe. "It's a matter of picking at lower brix (ripeness levels) than most", says Mike, "to keep the alcohol low and the wines cool". These are wines of restraint and food-friendliness, ripe enough for my palate, with a dark character of Howell Mountain and relatively light texture that shines through in the bottle without knocking me over the head with one drink. Cheers to that!

Clearly, as Mike is coming into his own as a winemaker, he is struggling with this dilemma - stick to their guns and make the type of wine they've always made (the type of wine I enjoy), or move closer toward the style that critics and, frankly, many consumers value more - the richer, fruitier, thicker wines. While my preference is clear, and I pointed out Ridge as an example of a revered stalwart that has not wavered, it's easy for me to say, but the economics have to work for Mike and his family, i.e. the wines have to sell. I have to believe that just like Ridge has earned devotion of its many loyal followers, Dunn stands to gain the same if they stay true to the tradition. The pendulum will swing back. To me, it's really a matter of marketing, not wine.

Special thanks to Mike for handing me the unfinished bottle of my favorite '98, the wine I continued to enjoy and analyze in the hot tub back at the hotel while getting ready for the New Year's dinner at Bottega.

Happy New Year 2011 - 'tis gonna be a great one!


Dan Heirloom said…
If I saw a naked Chevsky in my bathtub I don't even think magnums of Romanee Conti could keep me from running screaming, hahahaha! Great report, Dunn is cool. The younger Dunn wants less of that cigar ash and numbing tannins, but he strikes a good balance.

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