Complex and Ageworthy Howell Mountain Cab

Today’s Story: Red Cap Vineyards

Red Cap Vineyards’ story begins in 1998 with Tom and Desiree Altemus when they purchased a 10.5 acre property on Howell Mountain. Though Tom’s background is originally in finance working for IBM, he grew an appreciation for fine wine during business trips and ultimately quit to pursue a career as a chef in 1991. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Tom worked for famed chefs and restauranteurs including Michel Richard and Bradley Ogden before settling in at Brava Terrace in St. Helena. With the birth of the couple’s first child, Tom left the restaurant industry and the birth of their second child created the need to expand from Napa to Howell Mountain.

Having purchased their property, the Altemus family started planning their vineyards in 2000 with viability studies and archeological, biological, and botanical surveys. Due to seemingly endless regulations, the land was finally cleared and prepped in 2003 and the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon released in 2005 with 50 cases. Having personally visited the property, I can attest that the land is not only beautiful but the vineyard rows are stunning to look at. The vineyards are planted on iron-rich volcanic soil that in person is very red and rocky, while all fruit is grown organically and hand-farmed.

I previously reviewed Red Cap’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, though I’ve consumed many bottles of their wine across vintages and including the Sauvignon Blanc as well.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% ABV

The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby in color, though incredibly opaque and nearly black at its core. I decanted this for about six hours, as these wines tend to need quite some time at this youthful stage. The aromas are of pronounced intensity, with the nose showcasing notes of blackberry, plum, blueberry, black cherry, violet, licorice, graphite, tobacco, cola, cedar, and chocolate. Meanwhile the flavors are also of pronounced intensity and the palate displays notes of blackberry, blueberry, cassis, anise, violet, tobacco, cola, chocolate, and baking spice. This dry red is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) but fine-grained tannins, high alcohol, and a long finish. 310 cases produced.

Price: $120 ($102 as a member). I’m a huge believer that these wines offer great value, especially with the club pricing. The wines are deep, concentrated, and complex beasts that need time in the cellar or plenty of air, but they always perform above their price-point to me.

An Unusually Approachable Dunn Howell Mountain Cab

Today’s Story: Dunn Vineyards

Dunn Vineyards dates to 1979 when Randy and Lori Dunn purchased a 14 acre parcel in Angwin with about 5 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Randy worked as a winemaker in Rutherford for his day job, he spent the nights and weekends with Lori and their young son Mike farming their vines. The Dunn family also farmed Harry Frank’s adjacent vineyards and purchased the fruit resulting in a first harvest of 9 tons of fruit. With an additional purchase of 3 tons from Beatty Ranch, the Dunn’s were on their way to producing their first vintage.

The family moved onto their property shortly thereafter with another young child, Jennifer, and Dunn Vineyards was officially bonded in 1981. After their second daughter, Kristina, was born, Randy was still working in Rutherford when the winery’s success picked up and encouraged him to leave his job in 1985 to move into a new family house and put all of their effort into Dunn Vineyards. By the late 1980s, Randy was consulting for other wineries, their wine was selling out, and the family needed to burrow into the mountain in 1989 to create more room for barrels.

Mike returned in 1999 and three years later became a full-time employee at Dunn Vineyards and after Kristina graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in winemaking and viticulture she joined as well. Today, Kristina’s daughters play in the vineyards and Mike’s son helps bottle the wines, making it seem the family tradition at Dunn Vineyards is set to continue into three generations and beyond. Today, the family farms 42 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon high up on Howell Mountain and the resulting wines are elegant yet profound and built for cellaring.

I previously reviewed the 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn, which is a generally more accessible bottling made from mountain and valley floor fruit.

Today’s Wine: 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 13.9% ABV (though it seems like it’s actually slightly higher)

The 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby in color and opaque. Given a couple hours to decant, this wine blossoms into a complex and approachable bottling. The aromas are of pronounced intensity, with the nose showcasing notes of blackberry, blueberry, cassis, anise, menthol, lavender, leather, tobacco, and chocolate. There’s a touch of brett as well but not enough to detract. Meanwhile the flavors are also of pronounced intensity and the palate displays notes of black cherry, plum, blueberry, blackberry, dried tobacco, menthol, licorice, dried green herbs, and a touch of oak-driven spice. This dry red is medium- to full-bodied with medium acidity, medium (+) but refined tannins, medium (+) alcohol, and a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $160 (I paid $112). I’ve long been a fan of Dunn’s wines, and I think they offer solid value next to their counterparts in other mountain AVAs and especially those on the valley floor. Though you have to be very patient with the Howell Mountain bottlings, this 2011 was rather approachable given the vintage conditions and I will certainly try to buy more.

A Familiar Producer, but a Special Vineyard

Today’s Story: Davies Vineyards

Davies Vineyards should be familiar to those of you who have been around since the beginning of this blog, namely because I reviewed the 2012 Ferrington Pinot Noir, 2012 JD Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Jamie Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2015 Piedra Libre Vineyards Pinot Noir. I’ve even reviewed one of their sparkling wines under the Schramsberg label, the 2005 J. Schram Sparkling Rosé. Now it’s rare I review this many wines from the same producer, and more rare that I’m reviewing another one today. However, the fruit for today’s wine comes from a vineyard (and vintner) I hold in very high regard, and whose 2014 Cabernet I reviewed in the rightfully titled What Wine Is Meant to Be.

Davies Vineyards is one of the most storied wineries in Napa, tracing their roots back to 1862 when Jacob Schram purchased 200 acres and began the development of hillside vineyards in Napa. In 1870, Chinese laborers dug what became the first hillside caves in Napa Valley for aging and storing wine, with the winery quickly ramping up production. By 1880, Schramsberg was producing 8,403 cases of wine annually from 50 acres of vines, which ramped up to about 28,361 cases from 100 acres of vines by the year 1890. Fortunes would change in the early 1900s, however, when Jacob Schram died in 1905 and the winery sold in 1912.

It wasn’t until 1965, however, that Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the 200 acre Schramsberg property and crushed the first grapes under their proprietorship. Jumping forward in time to 1994, the Davies family started replanting their Diamond Mountain vineyard property with Cabernet Sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varietals, paving the way toward their exceptional red wines in circulation today.

Several years later in 1998, Jack Davies unfortunately passed away and his wife Jamie became Chairman of the winery. Then, in 2000, Davies truly became a family affair when their son Hugh became head winemaker. His 2001 J. Davies Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, the first vintage from the replanted vines, released in 2004 and is named in honor of Jack. Known for this Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Davies also produces sparkling wine under the Schramsberg label and an assortment of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast to the Anderson Valley and beyond.

Today’s Wine: 2013 Red Cap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.6% ABV

The 2013 Red Cap Vineyard Cab is mostly opaque deep ruby in color with deep purple hues in the bowl of the glass. Given a couple of hours to open up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry, blueberry, redcurrant, violets, volcanic soil, wet slate, green peppercorn, and oak. Meanwhile on the palate I get notes of blueberry, blackcurrant, black cherry, black raspberry, licorice, sweet tobacco, loamy earth, grilled herbs, and a hint of smoke. This is full-bodied with medium acidity, medium (+) tannins, and a medium (+) length finish. Great mountain fruit on this one but the structure is slightly underwhelming. 200 cases produced.

Price: $80. I think this is pretty fairly priced, however there are still markings of a consistent style of winemaking (justifiably so) that makes it very similar to the rest of the Davies bottlings. I’d say go for the namesake Red Cap Vineyards wines for roughly the same price if you’re in the club, or for $15-20 more if you’re not.

Boutique Napa Valley Estate for Family and Friends

Today’s Story: Zakin Family Estate

Zakin Family Estate consists of 150 acres situated between 1,250 and 1,450 feet above the Napa Valley floor with southwestern exposure on Howell Mountain, though only 3.8 acres are planted to vine. Janice and Jonathan Zakin purchased the property in 1998 to build their dream home, and at the time it was undeveloped and never once planted to vine. When Jan and Jon ultimately decided to clear land and plant their vineyards, they created three distinct vineyard blocks named The Pool Block (located just below their home’s outdoor pool), The Upper Vineyard, and the Back Blocks. 2012 marked the first vintage at Zakin Family Estate, though they held it back for extra aging and released it following the 2013 and 2014 vintages. Now with five vintages bottled, the estate is starting to come into its own and produces typically between 200 and 250 cases annually.

Jon Zakin is originally from New York and found success with a career in tech entrepreneurship which also helped foster his love of French Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Jon met Jan, an OB/GYN by trade from Hawaii, in 1998 and the couple married on their new property in 1999. I had the wonderful opportunity to tour the property and taste with Jan and Jon at their home in September, 2019 and it made for one of the most intimate experiences of my recent Napa Valley visit. Jan greeted us with glasses of Rosé which we carried around the property before settling into their main dining room with a board of cheeses, charcuterie, and home-grown figs to accompany our tasting. This was an incredibly peaceful, laid back, and friendly experience where we chatted more like long-lost friends than vintner and patron meeting for the first time.

Jan and Jon hired renowned winemaker Philippe Melka after fixating on a dream to create world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe grew up in Bordeaux and earned his Geology degree from the University of Bordeaux before his foray into wine at Château Haut-Brion. While at Haut-Brion, Philippe completed a masters program in Agronomy and Enology though with his passion for Cabernet Sauvignon blends ventured out to learn more. Philippe ultimately spent time at Dominus Estate (Napa Valley), Chittering Estate (Australia), Badia O Coltibuono (Chianti, Italy), and Chateau Petrus (Bordeaux) before settling down in Napa Valley and starting Melka Wines alongside his successful consulting business. Philippe is joined by vineyard manager Jim Barbour who has an impressive resume of his own, including work for Hundred Acre, Grace Family, Checkerboard, Blankiet Estate, Revana, Gandona Estate, Keever, Husic, Pillar Rock, and more over his roughly 40 year career.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Cabernet Franc (no tech sheet); 14.7% ABV

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is opaque deep purple/ruby in color. I let this decant for 3 hours before serving and it certainly needed every minute of air. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry purée, spiced plum, blueberry, redcurrant, graphite, tobacco leaf, black volcanic soil, clove, and oak. On the palate, I get notes of blackcurrant, black plum, black cherry, slate, charred rocky earth, baking spice, cracked black pepper, a touch of vanilla, and oak. This is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) but fine-grained tannins, and a long finish with notes of mocha and crushed rock. The wine is incredibly powerful while showcasing gorgeous mountain fruit, though you can tell there is an elegance starting to breach with more bottle age.

Price: $260 purchased at on-site tasting. It is a treat tasting wines from Zakin, whose production typically falls between 200-250 cases annually, as these are made in an opulent style that is utterly delicious and built for the long haul. Pair this with steak au poivre, herb-grilled leg of lamb, or blue cheese.

Beauty from Howell Mountain

Today’s Story: O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery

O’Shaughnessy is a small, family-owned winery founded by Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls and Paul Woolls in the late 1990s. Betty’s background is in real estate investment and development, though she grew a passion for food and wine that ultimately brought her to Napa Valley in 1990 when she purchased a home with vineyards in Oakville. Paul’s background on the other hand is law, though he also developed a passion for wine living in New Mexico during his college years. The two met at a wine tasting and have been partners in life and in winemaking ever since.

In 1997, the couple planted 35 acres on Howell Mountain (29 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and the remaining 6 acres a mix of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, St. Macaire and Gros Verdot) on a 120 acre property. Several years later, in 2000, they expanded to Mt. Veeder by acquiring a 55 acre property to which 17 acres are planted. O’Shaughnessy’s Mt. Veeder holdings grew again in 2006 with the addition of a 265 acre property, though only 32 acres are planted and most is Cabernet Sauvignon. Lastly, we cannot forget the Oakville property where 32 acres surrounding Betty and Paul’s home are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

O’Shaughnessy, like many smaller high-quality wineries with more-or-less distinctive vineyard sites, employs a winemaking philosophy that puts terroir at the forefront. Though the winery and all equipment is quite modern, the winemaker Sean Capiaux seeks to produce classic wines that are naturally fermented and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The resulting wines are elegant, expressive, and age-worthy while demanding respect for a still reasonable price tag.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

79% Cabernet Sauvignon, remaining 21% a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Petit Verdot, and St. Macaire; 15.2% ABV

The 2014 Howell Mountain Cab is an opaque, deep ruby/purple color with rim variation heavy on the purple side. Decanting is a must with this one, as its youth and powerful profile demand air time. The nose offers aromas of classic mountain fruit such as blueberry (very prominent) and blackberry alongside licorice, violet, aged leather, earth, dark chocolate, graphite, and oak. Once in the mouth, the wine showcases notes of blueberry, crushed blackberry, plum, wild black raspberry, red and purple florals, crushed stone, and dried silt. As expected this is full-bodied with high acidity, elegant medium tannins, and a long finish.

Price: $110. I think this is appropriately priced while being a wonderful representation of Howell Mountain. O’Shaughnessy produces some of my favorite Cabernets, I just wish I got to drink them more often. Pair this with steak, lamb, a good burger, or beef short ribs.

What Wine Is Meant to Be

Today’s Story: Red Cap Vineyards

Red Cap Vineyards’ story begins in 1998 with Tom and Desiree Altemus when they purchased a 10.5 acre property on Howell Mountain. Though Tom’s background is originally in finance working for IBM, he grew an appreciation for fine wine during business trips and ultimately quit to pursue a career as a chef in 1991. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Tom worked for famed chefs and restauranteurs including Michel Richard and Bradley Ogden before settling in at Brava Terrace in St. Helena. With the birth of the couple’s first child, Tom left the restaurant industry and the birth of their second child created the need to expand from Napa to Howell Mountain.

Having purchased their property, the Altemus family started planning their vineyards in 2000 with viability studies and archeological, biological, and botanical surveys. Due to seemingly endless regulations, the land was finally cleared and prepped in 2003 and the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon released in 2005 with 50 cases. Having personally visited the property, I can attest that the land is not only beautiful but the vineyard rows are stunning to look at. The vineyards are planted on iron-rich volcanic soil that in person is very red and rocky, while all fruit is grown organically and hand-farmed.

I’d now like to take an opportunity to discuss my visit to Red Cap Vineyards, because as one stop of many in Napa it was my favorite.

I visited Red Cap in September of this year, and my family and I were promptly greeted by Tom at his family’s home. Tom took us around the vineyards and described the soil, fruit, and his wines with such passion that I immediately became more excited to taste with him than I already was. Amongst chit chat, we got to taste grapes off the vine while Tom explained the seed color in relation to how soon he and his team would begin the harvest. After this tour of the property, we went inside to taste the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc and 2014 and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon.

This tasting was the most intimate I have experienced, with my family and I sitting in the Altemus family home at their table. With wine in front of us, Tom brought out fresh homemade bread (made with yeast from the Red Cap fermentation process) alongside butter and sea-salt. The entire experience made my family and I feel as though we’ve been lifelong friends (or even family) with Tom as the conversation ranged across vast topics and we never felt we were there as visitors of a winery. Comically, we went dramatically over our “scheduled” time for the tasting but to me that is what made it so special. Add this all to the fact that Tom and his winemaker Rudy make mindbogglingly good wine and you can find me in heaven.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.6% ABV

Deep ruby (almost purple) in color with moderate staining on the glass. Due to its youth, I let this decant for three hours before drinking it over the following two hours. Once the nose opens up, I get incredibly concentrated aromas of blackberry, blueberry, and red berries alongside licorice, graphite, dried volcanic earth, white pepper, cedar, slight truffle, and green herbs. The palate showcases gorgeous mountain fruit of blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry accompanied by cigar box, baking spice, green underbrush, mint, and earth. This Cab is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, high yet refined tannins, and a long finish dominated by notes of black cherry. Though this is already drinking beautifully with some air, I will wait at least 3-5 years before opening my next bottle and stagger them every couple years from there. 398 cases produced.

Price: $100 ($85 if you’re a club member). I have been very vocal with my friends and family for several years of the screaming value that Red Cap Cabernet is. Compared to some of their neighbors on Howell Mountain, Red Cap produces utterly incredible wines at a lower price-point. Pair this with steak, beef short ribs, lamb chops, or a high-quality burger.

From My Visit:

Note the red soil.
More rocky, red soil.
Tom giving us a tour of the vineyards.
Tom explaining how seed color can indicate harvest timelines.
THE swing.

Howell Mountain Elegance

Today’s Story: Viader

Viader was founded in 1986 by Delia Viader (first commercial release in 1989) and is located on the slopes of Howell Mountain 1,300 feet above the Napa Valley floor. Delia was born in Argentina and came to the United States as a post-graduate student, and she holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from Sorbonne University in Paris and studied Business in the US at MIT. While Delia served as the founding winemaker of Viader, her son Alan later picked up the torch and acts as winemaker today. Alan started working in the vineyards at the age of 9 and pursued his passion for grape growing after high school by attending a program in Sonoma and attaining a Viticulture Management degree. In 2002 Alan became the vineyard manager at Viader and in 2006 the lead winemaker.

As winemaker, Alan is said to be more hands-on and an experimentalist. For instance, he tries a range of organic, biodynamic, and sustainable practices in farming the vineyards and producing wine, seeking to strike a balance to produce the highest quality wines possible. Additionally, Alan experiments in the cellars with different blends, yeasts, fermentations, and barrel options.

Viader produces relatively small quantities of wine across four bottlings. Their signature, the Viader Red Blend, is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and was 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc in the 1989 inaugural release. They also have the Viader Black Label (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot), Viader V (Cabernets Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), and DARE (Cabernet Franc).

Fun fact: For over a decade, Viader produced wines at Rombauer Vineyards prior to construction of their own winery. Back then, Rombauer functioned as a custom crush winery for many now-prominent Napa Valley vintners.

Today’s Wine: 2007 Viader Red Blend

71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc; 14.8% ABV

This wine is medium to deep ruby in color and almost completely opaque. I filtered and decanted this due to some fine sediment in the bottle, and the decanting helped a bit of the alcohol blow off the nose while bringing out some of the wine’s complexities. On the nose I get aromas of jammy blackberry, anise, cigar box, dark chocolate, vanilla, and oak. I can also notice the alcohol on the nose. Once in the mouth, the wine showcases flavors of chewy blackberry and blueberry, cola, cardamom, iron, dried earth, finely crushed rock, and green herbs. Overall a very silky wine, this is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity and medium (+) tannins into a long finish with notes of sappy blackberry and plum. Still some time left for bottle aging, though I don’t see this getting any better from here.

Price: $100. I think there are better values out there at this price-point, whereas I could see this being more reasonably priced around the $70-75 mark. Pair this with beef in steak or burger form.