Top Ten Wineries of Howell Mountain
I have always loved mountain fruit wines. There is an edge to them, a notable distinction that emanates authentic character.
Howell Mountain Appellation, with its rolling hills, picturesque views and unique setting offers outstanding options to anyone willing to veer slightly off-the-beaten-path. Nestled in the Vaca Mountain Range, overlooking St. Helena, it’s home to several notable vineyards which are planted up to a couple of thousand feet above sea level. Dramatic microclimates, cool Pacific breezes caressing the grapes, and volcanic soil known for its excellent drainage, generate a confluence of superb terroir.
The Mountain is known for its Cabernet and Zinfandel grapes, with a few other varieties that are making waves of their own. For instance, in my piece on “the other Sauvignon” I went mad for Arkenstone’s Estate Sauvignon Blanc.
The brand was founded in 1988 by Ron and Susan Krausz. Crafted from 100% estate grown fruit, the wines are as soulful as they come. The vision has always centered on stewardship of the vineyards and a long-term approach to preserving the fragile ecosystem, way before it was en vogue. Farmed organically/sustainably, the brand delivers wines of distinction, featuring immense intensity and enviable palatal range. I believe their 2012s are the best to date. Look for their Obsidian blend, which is super lush without being over the top. It will undoubtedly thrive in the cellar, if patience is one of your virtues.
This is a fantastic brand that has been around for 30 years. If you had their vineyard designates from Robert Craig, T-Vine, Turley, or Schrader you may have noticed a common thread. Stellar fruit is squarely behind the success of these producers. Joyce Black and Jerre Sears bought the mountain-top vineyard in 1979. With a mentorship of Mike Beatty (of Howell Mountain Vineyards) they launched their first wine, a Zinfandel. It did exceptionally well, paving the way for their own brand, Black Sears Estate.
Sue-Marie and Ron Haber bought their five and a half-acre Howell Mountain property in 2005 and shortly after planted it to Cabernet Sauvignon. Prior to a leap of faith with their new viticultural endeavor, they visited Napa Valley often, nurturing their oenophile passions, while running their glass business in NYC. They hired a dream team to plant and manage their vineyards, and craft their wine. Jim Barbour, viticulturist extraordinaire and one of the most revered personas in Napa Valley, was tasked with the vineyard development. Tim Milos, an award-winning winemaker (whose portfolio of former and current clients include Cliff Lede, Hidden Ridge, Howell at the Moon, Rubissow, and The Bounty Hunter) carefully crafts their distinguished wines. He produces wines of vivid varietal character and subtle sophistication.
Mike Beatty is a legend on the Mountain. In 1983, along with other growers, vintners, and viticulturists he played an instrumental role in establishing the Howell Mountain Appellation. His own brand, launched in 1988, continues to thrive. Mike continues to honor the AVA by maintaining the integrity of the land via organic winemaking. A tradition of minimal cellar intervention along with sustainable viticultural practices ensure long-term health of the land. Unique microclimates, combined with Beatty’s dogged dedication to the vineyard cultivation and careful land management yield spectacular fruit. Winemaker Bryan Kane makes powerful yet refined and nuanced wines.
Rock star winemaker, Denis Malbec, along with his partner and wife May-Britt, launched Notre Vin (which translates to “our wine”) to celebrate their love affair with California terroir. Originally from Pauillac, France, the former Château Latour Cellarmaster spent decades consulting at Napa and Sonoma’s most prestigious brands. A vineyardist at heart, he chose his fruit sources carefully. His signature winemaking style is all about balance, concentration and inherent elegance. Notre Vin produces a number of wines, notably Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and “Opportunite,” a vintage port blend. I was floored by their 2009 Howell Mountain offering. Backward, broad and expansive it showcased an indulgent opus of perfectly orchestrated flavors and textures. Layers of flavor, velvety tannins and infinite finish made for a sensational wine to enjoy now or way later. All wines are made in tiny quantities, so readers are strongly advised to join their mailing list while it’s still open.
The brand, founded by Betty O’Shaughnessy, is a small producer with a large presence. They have roughly thirty acres under vine, predominantly planted to Bordeaux varieties. Sean Capiaux, is both a winemaker and viticulturist. He was deeply involved with vineyard layout, row orientation, trellising system, and planting.
They make two fantastic Cabs. Both are some of the most consistently delicious offerings I have ever sampled from Howell Mountain. I was particularly taken with the 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a slightly lighter than usual, elegant offering. It is unquestionably fruit-driven, with loads of boysenberry, blackberry and cassis. It offers a supple, sexy mouthfeel and polished, integrated tannins. Racy and expressive, it is a great candidate for the cellar.
A cult winery from the very beginning, Outpost is a great example of a producer with no bad vintages, no inferior offerings, and near perfect record of excellence. Established in 1998 with a single-minded goal of making the very best Howell Mountain wines, it certainly achieved its lofty goal. All estate red varietals, such as Cabernet, Grenache, Petite Syrah and Zinfandel are bottled as a stand-alone variety, rather than blended. The twenty-eight acre vineyard is farmed organically, sustainably and harvested by hand, typically late in the season. Winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown is highly selective when it comes to fruit. He is a proponent of gentle handling and low intervention. It’s all about letting the grapes speak for themselves. The wines aren’t fined or filtered. They are rich, intense, fruit-forward and a pleasure to consume. They ooze hedonism and a sense of place.
The Piña brothers are well-known for their vineyard management prowess. Eighth generation farmers, their predecessors came to Napa Valley in 1856. Today, they oversee some of Napa’s most prized vineyards. Mega-talented winemaker, Anna Monticelli, crafts their vineyard-designated Cabernets. One of my all-time favorites is Buckeye Vineyard. Given its pedigree, this wine is a bargain. The 2011 is brimming with dark bush berry fruit, notes of roasted coffee, semi-sweet chocolate, baking spice and forest floor. Its essence bespeaks purity and persuasive palatal presence. Full-bodied, yet lithe, its solid structure and bright acidity are the hallmarks of epic winemaking in what was a challenging vintage.
Bob Foley’s decades long career includes making wine at some of Napa’s most famous wineries, capped by his fifteen year run at Pride Mountain Vineyards. He has also worked at such notable wineries as Hourglass, Paloma and Switchback Ridge, where he is still a consulting winemaker.
Foley launched his namesake brand in 1998. It’s well known for its Claret, along with several other varietal bottlings.
Foley’s Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon enjoys a cult-like following. Crafted in the stunning estate caves atop the mountain, it is everything you want in a Cab. At $200, it is the priciest offering from the Mountain. This 120 case offering is swoon-worthy. The fruit comes from a vineyard planted at two thousand feet elevation. Intense and beguiling, it’s seductive, heady aromatics will capture and keep your attention for hours. Sipping this jewel is akin to sinking into a magical berry cloud surrounded by a mist of cherry cola, licorice and silky tannins.
All great stories start with a journey. Bill Smith ended up driving up a road on a steep slope of Vaca Mountain range to discover an abandoned winery called La Jota Vineyard Co. Bill was instantly head over heels in love with the charming spot. Over the next forty years, he and his wife Joan have transformed the property and its two acre vineyard into a world-class award-winning winery. They eventually sold the brand, but kept the love of Howell Mountain intact. Another seven acre vineyard was planted in 1998, to seven Cabernet clones, and two more spectacular estate Cabernets are being made. Fourteen additional acres went under vine in 2015, so there is much more excitement in store for lucky consumers.