Three decades of Dunn: tasting 1984-2008 Howell Mountain Cabernets - the most epic Dunn tasting ever

For background, see notes from my two previous tastings at Dunn Vineyards atop of Howell Mountain here and here. It's been 2.5 years since - almost exactly my son's age and my tenure at Tango, the two passions that have dominated my life. But finally, the stage was set for my third passion - and on a very rare day off, off to Napa Valley I went!

Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernets: 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2008

The first whiff of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet with some age, and a smile comes over my face... I love this stuff, just love it. So damn delicious and drinkable. "Oh yeah, that's what I was hoping for!"

In front of me a lineup of epic proportions - three decades of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet, from 1980's through 2000's, fifteen bottles in all, 100% cab. A fascinating display of the evolution of the wines through time. A rare treat, perhaps never done before, maybe never again, as some of these older bottles are precious few remaining, and are certainly not for sale. Dunns have a second wine - the Napa Valley blend, but we stuck to the big bro, the flagship - the Howell Mountain, blended from 4 to 6 different vineyards, mostly estate owned (or leased), depending on the vintage. While the common DNA runs through the line, each decade highlights differences the age brings. Mike Dunn, my host on multiple occasions, has been working with his dad Randy Dunn since childhood, beginning in 1979, and officially taking the job 20 years later, in 1999. While Randy, now in his late 60's, is still a major force in the winery, doing vineyard scouting, examining the grapes and approving the final blends, Mike now runs most of the operations, including wine-making. He also has a separate Petite Sirah label called Retro, and is starting to experiment with Rhone varietals. And... he even has a barrel of Pinot tucked away, not for public...

But back to the cabs... The incredible lineup included *every* even-numbered vintage of Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet since 1984, plus 2003 and 2005, affording me an unprecedentedly close look at the evolution of this venerable house.

General Observations
In an extensive tasting like this, it's tough to capture all the subtle differences and descriptors of the individual vintages. It would take me significantly more time than the 2.5 hours we spent. But the common signature and themes among the wines were easy to spot. They all boasted dark fruit, roasted espresso coffee bean / cassis / graphite / olive / tobacco elements, delicious savoriness, particularly as they aged, and excellent acidity. The 1980's and 1990's seemed superbly food-friendly. Clearly, to my palate, Dunn cabs find their peak at around 20-30 years of age. 1986 was just beautiful. But the '88 and '90 also great! Had the '84 not been slightly corked, it would have been a candidate for the wine of the tasting. The 1990's had more intensity and lusher textures, and still rather firm tannins. The 2000's were dramatically more fruit-forward, with strong tannins blanketed by ripe fruit and almost charcoal-like overtones. They divided into two camps - even years (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008) were warm, rich, sweet, fruity, with lower acidity, and odd years (2003 and 2005) - more reserved, Bordeaux-like, with higher acidity and herbaceous nuances. I imagine that in time the 2000's will temper their opulent fruit and converge toward similar profiles as the decades before. The odd years are certain to be great! Of course, in the context of other Napa Valley Cabernets, a lower acidity Dunn is like a high acidity for others! So typical Napa cab lovers may prefer the warmer (even) years, while Bordeaux palates might lean toward the odd.

Tasting Notes (listed in the order we tasted, although I went back and forth many times over the course of 2.5 hours)

1984 - fragrant, beautiful olives, great acid. An almost imperceptible hint of cork and slightly cloudy appearance. An un-flawed bottle should be great.

1986 - my wine of the tasting. At its peak, tannins resolved, creamier than '84, suave, relaxed, beautiful acidity, medium body,  olives, tobacco, pine needle, lip-smacking deliciousness. Due to savoriness and acidity, this should pair very well with a wide range of foods, far beyond just the typical steak.

1988 - step up in intensity and darker than the '86, medium body, tobacco, tasty fruit, savory. Love it.

1990 - huge jump in intensity and tannin from the '88, creamier, bigger, inkier. Like it a lot.

1992 - dark fruit, leather, tobacco, tannin. Like it.

1994 - smoky spice, intense, tannin, super long, toast, touch of licorice, really interesting flavor nuance. Like it.

1996 - intense, tannic, dark roasty graphite. Like it.

1998 - beautiful flavor, softer and not as tannic as the '96, '94 or '92. The most ready to drink after the '90, though there is no hurry whatsoever. Like it a lot.

2000 - a little animal on the nose, super intense, almost painful, bitter chocolate, charcoal, Bordeaux-like smoke spice. Good.

2002 - milky, popcorn, cheesecake nose, super fruity, ripe, liqueur, candied, slightly herbaceous sweet dill aftertaste combining sweetness, herbaceousness and tartness. Starting in 2002, Dunn switched from ~50% to 100% new oak.

2004 - fruity, smoke spice, tannic, pucker, low acid. This was the latest they ever picked.

2006 - intense and fruity, spice covered by glaceed fruit, super tannic.

2008 - very fruity and intense, tannic, smoke spice.

2003 - huge contrast from the even years of the decade. Much cooler and less fruity, beautiful silky mouth-feel. Like it. Very young but very good.

2005 - a little pine/eucalyptus, smoke spice, very distinctive fruit + herb character. Very good.

At prices significantly below other top-tier California cabs, these brilliant wines are still available for sale going back 20 years. Incredibly they remain off the radar of typical Napa trophy hunters. But in discerning wino circles, Dunn is one of the most respected producers of the New World. Wines of longevity, they have much to offer throughout their lifespan. Evolving gracefully from big and fruity in their exuberant youth, to firm and inky in adolescence, to ultimately suave and savory when mature, Dunn is one of the very few California wines I treasure in my own cellar.

Mike Dunn and me


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