Category Archives: Chocolate Cinnamon Wine

Does Howell Mountain warrant its own mondegreen?

A mondegreen is a misconstrued song lyric. Probably the best-known example is from Jimi HendrixPurple Haze, with “’scuse me while I kiss the sky” invariably being interpreted as “’scuse me while I kiss this guy.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that (to quote Jerry Seinfeld).

Hendrix aside, the indisputable King of the Mondegreens has to be John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Is there a person alive who can even come close to deciphering the words to Down on the Corner? Or Up Around the Bend? You can look up the lyrics to these songs on the Internet; it will absolutely amaze you what he’s actually singing!

Creedence could be joyous. Creedence could be political. Creedence could be incredibly poignant. Their most heart-wrenching song (with surprisingly well-enunciating vocals to match), Lodi, still remains incredibly evocative every time I listen to it. For several decades, it stood as the only thing most people knew about this quiet, Sacramento Delta town.

Those of us involved in the wine business in the early 1980s had another impression of Lodi. From the days when a wine could be labeled as a varietal if it contained 51% of a specified grape, Lodi thrived as a cheap source of bulk fillers, most notably Tokay (no correlation to Hungary’s etherial Tokaji) and, secondarily, Thompson seedless. There were a handful of wineries that were outside the incestuous, quasi-industrial—a frequent joke, back then, was that these facilities might be requisitioned as emergency refineries when the next oil crisis hit—troika of Gallo, Franzia and Bronco that ruled the Central Valley; these predominantly cooperative collectives, assembled from a vast swath of local growers, produced some of the most ungodly wine known to mankind. One outfit, known back then as Eastside Cooperative Winery, had an inventory of 212 wines (types, not necessarily varietals) that they offered. The one I still cannot forget was Chocolate Cinnamon Wine.

Eastside’s sole virtue, apart from their moderately successful Royal Host Brandy, was that they made their Lodi neighbors, Guild Wineries, seem almost competent. Or maybe not. In those days, Guild had one brand of note, Cresta Blanca, and another, Cribari, that I’m told had once been respectable but had been turned into a pallid version of Carlo Rossi. Their crushing and fermentation took place in Fresno, then they would ship the bulk wine up Highway 99 to Lodi, where it was cellared and bottled. This convoluted process baffled Your West Coast Oenophile, to put it mildly.
“Why are you exposing your wine to Central Valley heat in this manner?” I asked with well-warranted incredulity. Their response offered little clarification. “We think people perceive Fresno as a negative. We wanted the prestige of ‘Bottled in Lodi’ on our label!” Of course, people back then thought Ronald Reagan had no idea what was going on with Iran-Contra, either!
Back in the early 1980s, these aforementioned wineries and other nearby ventures had upwards of 500,000 cases of wine stacked in their warehouses (I saw 50,000 cases alone of Eastside’s inimitable Chocolate Cinnamon concoction). Then someone at Brown-Forman came up with the brilliant concept of wine coolers, a blend of indescribable wine with a base of fruit juice and high fructose corn syrup. Millions of gallons of hitherto unsalable wine were dumped into these 6-packs, and an entire sector of the wine industry was rescued from impending oblivion.
It was virtually impossible to screw up the wine cooler solution. Unless you were Guild. Brown-Forman had California Coolers, with their memorable ad campaign. Gallo, in its inimitable fashion, let Brown-Forman blaze a path, then swamped them, in typical Gallo fashion, with Bartles & Jaymes. Guild, on the other hand, came up with Quinn’s Quail Coolers, and one of history’s most misguided ad campaigns: Soar with the Quail. Fine, I suppose, except for the incidental consideration that the quail merely jogs and never gets off the ground for any appreciable period of time.

In similar fashion, I would like to think that it’s virtually impossible to screw up wine grown on Howell Mountain. If the Taste of Howell Mountain, which I attend last weekend, is any indication, my premise is well-founded. With not even a remote semblance of Guild to be found among the 40 wineries donating their fare to this charitable fundraiser, there was nary a flawed wine to be found. Great if you’re an inveterate imbiber; not so great if you’re an aspiring blogger. How does one differentiate (at least in print) among a plethora of stellar Cabernets and Zinfandels (with a smidgen of Syrah and other varietals) grown in this landmark AVA? 

The tasting felicitously began with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc from host Charles Krug, the sole non-Howell presence at this benefit. I must concede that even I have frequently overlooked this excellent winery, which has unfairly suffered the perception of being “the other Mondavi” as well as being “the other Krug.” Since the mid-1990s, Charles Krug has meticulously endeavored to reestablish both its wines and its branding, and now oversees what I believe is the largest holding of organically-farmed acreage in the entire county. Moreover, with the sales of Robert Mondavi and Louis M. Martini to external, maleficent conglomerates, it remains the last of the independently-owned grand estate that dotted Highway 29 in the 1970s.
Outside on the lawn, tables were spread out generously around central islands for catering and silent auction bids to afford easy access to the assorted wineries offering a sampling of their recent vintages. Participants ranged from boutique operations like Blue Hall and Summit Lake to industry stalwarts like Cakebread, Duckhorn, Beringer and St. Clement. The highly-coveted
Cimarossa vineyard was ably represented by both Tor Kenward and its own eponymous label. Arkenstone, who also poured a Sauvignon Blanc to help mitigate the 85° heat, might have vied for the best nomenclature, but the unequivocal winner here had to have been Howell at the Moon.
Personally, I have long been a fan of Atalon, and was equally pleased to see the familiar presence of D-Cubed, Ladera, Outpost, Bravante, Diamond Terrace and even Atlas Peak (though I still bemoan the uprooting of their Sangiovese vines). A trio of Roberts (Robert Craig, Robert Foley, Roberts + Rogers) have also been long on the Sostevinobile roster. Others, like Cornerstone, Neal Family Vineyards, Fleury, Dunn Vineyards , Black Sears, Haber, CADE and another “Caps Lock” venture, SPENCE, provided welcome newcomers for our incipient venture. Semi-reticent (in their choice of nomenclature, not œnology) W.H. Smith and W.S. Keyes were fortuitous finds, while the rare chance to taste La Jota and Lamborn Family Vineyards was an unexpected pleasure.
I started off the day enjoying the gracious hospitality of Zelock Chow, proprietor of Howell Mountain Vineyards, and was happy to retaste his wines in the afternoon. Despite my usual gregarious nature at these events (I find people in the wine business so much more engaging than my familiars in the advertising world—and don’t even get me started on the Silicon Valley folks who think Friday night Happy Hour happens at Fry’s), I managed to complete my entire dace card, so to speak, and rounded out the Silent Auction segment with White Cottage Ranch, Piña Cellars, O’Shaughnessy, Rutherford Grove, Highlands Winery, Villa Hermosa, and Red Cap.
Another first for me, at this event, was the mobile wood-burning oven that was carted in to make individually-fired pizzas. Of course, the very next day, Pizzeria Delfina brought in a version twice this size to accommodate their booth at Golden Glass in San Francisco. Still, I’m convinced that if I land up closing out my twilight years in a Winnebago Vectra, I will be hitching one of these marvels to my trailer post.
Feeling fully sated and moderately lubricated, I joined the rest of the 400+ attendees inside for the live segment of the afternoon, presided over, quite genially, by auctioneer Greg Quiroga. Bidders both local and from afar had turned out to raise much-needed funding for Angwin’s Howell Mountain Elementary School, and by the end of the day, had contributed over $32,000 to the cause. While the auction proceeded, volunteers from the school and community offered liberal pourings of sparkling wine, and, for those who still desired, full glasses of the various wines we had sampled outside. The room had a bit of a cathedral-like aura to it, but the proceedings were anything but solemn. As School Board Director Wendy Battistini, a most gracious hostess, proudly proclaimed “Howell Mountain wines rock!”
I managed to linger for about another hour or so, mingling among some of the local winery workers and decompressing from a long day at work (you think covering eight tastings in one month is easy?). Before returning to home to the Ginkgo Girl, I stopped off at Taylor’s Automatic Refreshers in downtown St. Helena and kept the CHP at bay with one of their ever-delightful veggie burgers. The warm summer air at 9PM was a stark contrast to the weather that awaited me back in San Francisco.
I will return to the next Howell Mountain tasting at the Bently Reserve later this summer and assess these wonderful wines with much greater detail. For now, I’m too lazy to complete my research and find out from Uncorked Events why Howell Mountain hasn’t been included in their Napa Valley with Altitude tastings. The orphaned hill among its brethren mounts? The black sheep of the Napa Clan? Perhaps, in compensation, I should compose a Howell Mountain anthem. Perhaps I might even have to sing and record it myself with my distinctive atonal delivery. In that event, step aside, John Fogerty—the Howell Mountain mondegreens will abound like no others!