Déjà vu all over again

Why must Howell Mountain wines be so uniformly good? Granted, this consistent quality bodes well for Sostevinobile and our future patrons, but leaves little leeway for Your West Coast Oenophile to eke out a column that offers a modicum of variation as I endeavor to assay last Monday’s Wines of Distinction Tasting in San Francisco. Granted, I approached this tasting with an established bias, having sampled the majority of these same wines only a few months before, at the Howell Mountain benefit in St. Helena; still, this reevaluation only confirms my belief that this AVA offers a climate and terroir so ideal to viticulture, even Alistair Muller could not help but make a great wine from grapes grown here.
Few, if any, of my readers will readily recognize this oblique reference, which, of course, allows me to digress—the hallmark of this blog—with an anecdote from my earliest days in the wine industry. Back then, Laura and I had befriended neighbors to whom we referred off-handedly as Fred and Ethel. A more bumbling duo could not be conceived. All along we had assumed that she was the more inept of the pair until that weekend when she was “compelled” to attend a company retreat in Honolulu, leaving him to fend for himself. Resourceful nonetheless, he tripped down the road and brought home a package of Ready-to-Eat Ribs, the four easy steps for preparation recounted here verbatim:

1) Preheat oven to 375°.

2) Place ribs in oven. Cook for 10 minutes.

3) Take ribs from oven and remove tin foil wrapping.

4) Cook for 10 more minutes.

Alistair was absolutely flummoxed. After struggling for nearly an hour, he traipsed down the hall to see whether I could decipher the immense complexities of these instructions. “Am I supposed to cook this on the stove?” he queried.
I responded with utter incredulity. “Do you see the word ‘stove’ anywhere there?”
“But it says ‘take ribs from oven, then cook 10 more minutes.’”
“So then I put it on the stove…”
“No!” I replied, my agitation mounting. Nonetheless, this conversation continued in this elliptical fashion for the next fifteen minutes, without penetration. “But why does it say ‘take ribs from oven and remove wrapping’?” he asked in complete candor.
Exasperated, I exploded. “It’s for idiots like you who would try to take off the tin foil while the ribs were still in the oven and burn the shit out of their fingers!”
“Are you sure???”
I don’t know whether Alistair ever had dinner that night. These days, I periodically check out the obituaries from the South Bay. Just to make sure he hasn’t accidentally electrocuted himself. With the TV remote. Still, I remain firmly convinced that, even with his lack of basic acumen, even he could churn out a memorable Cabernet from a sloping vineyard on Howell Mountain.
Before I delve into my review of the wines actually poured at last Monday’s gathering, I must commen
d the organizers for how they staged this tasting. Twenty-nine wineries aligned the perimeter of the Bently Reserve lobby—just enough to make visiting each table leisurely within the time allotted. Attendance was moderate, which permitted me to engage each of the wineries in a detailed conversation, even though I had met most earlier this summer at Howell Mountain’s benefit in St. Helena. If only all the events I must cover could be as manageable!

For no reason other than it allowed me a certain ease with taking notes, I decided to sample each winery in alphabetical order. Nonetheless, my review of the Howell Hountain tasting need not follow the same motif.Were I to continue with classic television allusions, as mentioned above, I would likely cite that Bedrock duo, Fred & Wilma, as my segue into Arkenstone, a name that could easily double as the state from where President William Jefferstone Flinton hails. All jest aside,this organically-farmed winery once again began the afternoon with their rather demure 2006 Arkenstone Sauvignon Blanc, somewhat of a rarity for this AVA, and followed with their still-memorable Cabernet blend, the 2006 Obsidian.

Basta! If I continue in this vein, this entry may never end. And so I will forego any attempts to link Dr. Marc Cohen’s Howell at the Moon with the comic genius of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as immortal Ralph and Alice Kramden, leaving their excellent 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet to stand on its own merits. Like Howell at the Moon, Blue Hall is run by a run by Andrew Zolopa, a physician from Stanford. His reprise of his 2005 Camiana was as memorable as the first time I tasted it—a special bottling of 100% estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon that contributes a portion of its sales to benefit HIV-infected children in Africa.
Idealism of a different sort came from CADE, a sustainably-focused winery applying for LEED Gold Certification. A division of the PlumpJack enterprises, CADE’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon reinforced Sostevinobile’s tenet that sound environmental practices and skilled œnology are wholly synergistic (one can only hope that a portion of their profits is not donated to Newsom for Governor, however). With no competing agenda, Neal Family Vineyards poured sequential releases of their Certified organically-grown Cabs, the 2004 Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon being one of the afternoon’s true standout.
One of the more pleasant aspects of this afternoon was not being inundated with an endless selection of wines; most participants brought 2-4 of their vintages, with many offering but a single wine. Still, it was hardly a burden to taste all of Outpost’s six hand-cultivated, organically farmed wines. Standouts in this group were the 2006 Howell Mountain True Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel; as an aside, I could not help but think their 2007 Howell Mountain Grenache would have made the perfect accompaniment to the cherry-glazed Duck Leg I described in my previous posting. Duckhorn Vineyards (note the deft segue) poured an interesting quartet of wines, dating back to their previous ownership. Their more recent pair, the Cabernet/Merlot blend 2005 Howell Mountain Red Wine and the Zinfandel-dominant 2006 Howell Mountain Postmark were clearly their more impressive offerings.
Six other wineries elected only to pour one Cabernet Sauvignon; for each, staking their repute on a single wine proved fortuitous. I very much enjoyed the 2005 Reserve Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Spence, as I did the inaugural 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Roberts + Rogers, despite the absence of owner Bob Matousek. Despite its more recent vintage, the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet from Red Cap seemed quite drinkable at this stage, while the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Riva di Ponente Vineyard underscored why Cimarossa has become so highly prized among wine cognoscenti. Another mouthful to pronounce came from Napa stalwart Cakebread Cellars, with their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Dancing Bear Ranch; another longtime veteran, Piña Napa Valley, dazzled with their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Buckeye Vineyard.
Interestingly, two wineries were willing to stake their claim based on a wine other than Cabernet. I had previously tasted the 2004 Howell Moun
tain Merlot
from W.S. Keyes, but was pleased to revisit it. New to me, however, was Retro Cellars, with their 2006 Old Vine Howell Mountain Petite Sirah, a reserved, almost muted expression of this normally outspoken varietal. Retro’s owners, Randy and Lori Dunn, also presented their eponymous Dunn Vineyards label, showcasing their 2004 Howell Mountain Cabernet while delighting a few privileged attendees with their 1998 bottling of the same, a classic example of this vintage as it mellows through its second decade.
Where there is Cabernet Sauvignon, there is often Cabernet Franc. Clearly excelling with the latter varietal was La Jota, with its wondrous 2004 Cabernet Franc; their 2004 23rd Anniversary Release Cabernet Sauvignon was certainly no slouch, either. White Cottage Ranch brought both Cabs, along with a Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon. Admittedly, the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc seemed a tad young, whereas the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon held greater promise. The rejuvenated Atlas Peak offered a tantalizing preview of its 2008 Cabernet Franc, with another barrel sample, their 2008 Merlot, alongside; their soon-to-be released 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet showed that it will be a worthy successor to their much-honored 2004 vintage.
I mentioned to Cornerstone Cellars owner Craig Camp I thought his 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon begged to be tasted in 2013—and beyond. Even the 1999 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon he poured held future promise. Cornerstone also makes another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that assembles grapes from three corners of Napa: Howell Mountain, the western edge of Oakville, next to the Mayacamas Mountains, and the Southeast corner of the Napa Valley, but Camp did not serve this “blend.” In contrast, the amiable Joan and Bill Smith, owners of W. H. Smith, blend the classic Bordeaux mix (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec) from their Piedra Hill Vineyard into both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Bronze Label and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Purple Label. Ironically, another couple, Notre Vin’s May-Brit and Denis Malbec, do not bottle or even grow Malbec, reserving their Hughes Vineyard solely for Cabernet Sauvignon, from which they made their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé and their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
Besides Cabernet, the other hallmark of Howell Mountain is its Zinfandel. Wineries that showcased both included D-Cubed, with a truly outstanding 2006 Howell Mountain Zinfandel and an admirable 2005 Bravante Cabernet Sauvignon and Robert Craig, whose 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon shone quite brightly beside both his noteworthy 2006 and 2007 Zinfandels. At Lamborn Family Vineyards, the ubiquitous Heidi Barrett worked her usual magic with both the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the pre-released 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel. Summit Lake also brought two Zins to accompany their 2006 Emily Kestrel Howell Mountain Cabernet; of the three wines, I can only say that the 2002 Clair Riley’s Pirate Reserve Zinfandel struck me as memorable.
I was, admittedly, underwhelmed by the Sauvignon Blanc Ladera Vineyards poured, but the outstanding 2005 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon readily dispelled any doubts about this winery’s efforts. On par with this wine was la crème de la crème of Cimarossa, Tor Kenward’s 2005 Howell Mountain Cimarossa Cabernet Sauvignon (the 2006 bottling was still too premature to tell if it will rival the magnitude of its preceding vintage). And, of course, the true joy tastings like this is discovering that rare gem you might not have the opportunity to experience elsewhere, like Diamond Terrace’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain—a scant 190-case offering from owners Hal and Maureen Taylor’s Eagle Summit Vineyard. That they also slipped in a taste from their more prolific (235 cases!) 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District was a perfect coda to the afternoon.
In going over my previous column on the wines of Howell Mountain, I realize this entry may be a bit, to paraphrase that famous icon of 1950s baseball and telev
ision, Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” Pour me a generous glass of Howell Mountain Cab, and I can live with that criticism.

1 thought on “Déjà vu all over again

  1. Fahad

    I drink wine once in a while, and I usually end up using any remdanier for cooking, too. This dish certainly looks interesting! I can’t say I’ve ever had grapes with chicken in anything other than a chicken-salad type thing. Looks delish, though!


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