Dunn's greatness confirmed - drinking the 1980's and 1990's Howell Mountain Cabernets

My last memory of 2010 was my first visit to Dunn Vineyards, on January 31. Mike Dunn made time to taste through a royal array of his Howell Mountain cabs: 1989, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Out of appreciation of the wines, and sub-consciously maybe the appreciation of his hospitality, I did extol the winery. Value-wise, Dunns appear to be priced incredibly competitively for California, and arguably more in-line with 3rd, 4th, and 5th Growth Grand Cru Bordeaux of similar quality. Not inexpensive (new releases selling for $80+), but certainly nowhere near the prices of the top wines of the other Napa brand names that I have visited in the past year. The account of my first meeting with Mike Dunn, along with the introduction to the winery and the Howell Mountain sub-appellation is here.

The follow-up visit this weekend was to dive deeper into the Dunn cellar, and to hopefully re-examine the initial impressions. Mike pulled a 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, and 1993 Howell Mountain Cabs. Given the age and rarity of these wines, asking about their cost is somewhat irrelevant. Most of them can still be found through wine-searcher in the $100-200 range, but not in pristine condition of the Dunn's cool storage. For bottlings this old, storage fidelity is critical.

I was impressed and touched by both the wines and the personality of Mike Dunn (I met his dad Randy briefly as well, but spent vast majority of the time with Mike, while as I learned later, Randy was heroically saving a neighbor's house from burning down!). The least self-important, the most down-to-earth person I've met in all of Napa Valley? Perhaps. Mike is a "dude" with worldly sensibilities. Well educated, he invests no time in making himself appear an important figure of California wine industry. He is content being a village worker in the small town of Angwin, 15-min drive from St. Helena, where his Popeye-like forearms swell and ache tending to the Dunn family vines. You sit down with him, no white table cloths, no fancy glasses. He hardly even talks about the wines, he just lets you experience them, while he puts on funny Indian and Russian accents in the presence of my multi-ethnic tasting companions.

Still very much under the shadow of his dad, the legendary wine-maker and wine consultant Randy Dunn, Mike is itching to spread his wings. He looks toward slightly more modern wines, approachable earlier, less "Bretty", higher alcohol if that's what the vintage gives. I'd rather he not. Perhaps in the future, I will sit both of them down and document a real heart-to-heart as to where the Dunn style would go if Mike were to do it on his own, but for now, Randy - now in his 60's - makes the final blending decisions, and if necessary, in warmer vintages, calls the shots to do reverse osmosis to drop alcohol down into the 13.8-13.9% range.

While Mike was cracking jokes with Rona and my friends wine geeks Sonia and Maureen, I was preoccupied with the wines. The more I sampled, over the course of 2-3 hours, the more I discovered. The first pass was analytical and critic-like. But after that, I relaxed and started enjoying. The oldest - 1985 - was fresh and cool as Spring. The youngest - 1993 - more youthful and intense. Remarkably Barolo-like: medium texture, acidic precision, fresh tannins, laser-like fruit intensity, and great overall finesse. "Barolo of Cab" I exclaimed, because if not for the flavor itself, this could have been a Barolo. Possibly the most complete and balanced California wine I had ever tasted.

"1993 Dunn Howell Mountain - beautiful nose, aromatic, intense and elegant. Relatively light, but oily texture, with great intensity and length, reminds me of Barolo in texture and intensity, great finesse, light stony mineral after-taste (in a good way)..." -- Iron Chevsky, Feb 2011

I was happy that Mike had 1993's available for sale, the fact of which I took immediate advantage. Alas, there was no more 1985's, my other favorite.

The 1986 Dunn was noticeably hotter (more alcoholic, despite the same 13% listed on the label) than either 1985 or 1987 - fruitier, thicker, stronger, with some cured meat, leather, and eucalyptus mint. The 1987 was cooler, with herbaceous edge, tannic and tart. The 1991 was a step up in youthfulness - fuller, denser, hotter, with obvious toasty/roasty notes.

The 1992 for me was just a notch more complex than 1993 - but not as balanced (showing more herbaceousness). I called it the most intellectual wine of the line-up, evidenced by the descriptors in my tasting note:

"1992 Dunn Howell Mountain - intense, inky, touch of chocolate, high-acid, tannin, limestone/soapy minerality, eucalyptus and mint, makes me salivate and want food, earthy, dry leaves on the forrest floor, running through Autumn woods naked, smelling wet earth and many other things I can't quite capture..." -- Iron Chevsky, Feb 2011

We finished the 1985 and 1992 later on that night at a friend's dinner party. I was inspired to suggest pairing the 1985 with fresh-from-the-garden arugula salad topped with nuts, dried blueberries, and balsamic vinegar - an amazing match! And pairing the 1992 with Beef Bourguignon, served with sauteed baby carrots, lardons, and shallots was perfect. The savory Dunn easily out-matched the pungently white-peppered great young 2006 Cornas Reynard from Allemand.

All of the Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernets exhibited mouth-watering, hunger-inducing acidity, notes of mocha and graphite, and stony minerality. Mike was smart enough to suggest that we take the remains of several wines with us - having those with dinner that night further highlighted their appeal and sealed my high opinion.


Unknown said…
Excellent review, thank you. I hope you do not mind me linking to it. I had the 1984 recently and it was very good as well. I also found that it was drinking much younger than it "should be".

I just ordered bottles of the 1985, 1989, and 1993. I picked the '85 and '93 specifically because of this review. There are still some bottles of '85 available if you look...

Thank you again.


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