Long before the 1976 Judgment of Paris put Napa Valley’s vinous treasure on the wine world map, bottles from Howell Mountain were taking home medals at international contests. In 1889, a wine made by Jean Adolph Brun and Jean V. Chaix, pioneers in what is now the high-altitude AVA in the northeast of the valley took home a bronze medal from the Paris World Competition. Ten years later, two other early hillside settlers, W.S. Keyes and Frederick Hess, were awarded gold and bronze medals, respectively, for their Howell Mountain wines. It took almost another hundred years for official government recognition; in 1983 Howell Mountain was named the first AVA within the greater confines of the Napa Valley AVA.
What sets this small American Viticultural Area near Saint Helena apart from many other wine regions is that its perimeter is delineated not just by geographic borders but by altitude: All vineyards must be a minimum of 1,400 feet above sea level. And while many wines from Napa and neighboring Sonoma benefit from cooling Pacific fog that rolls in each morning, Howell Mountain’s vines sit above the fog line, offering full sunlight throughout the day. Mountain conditions create berries with thick skin, offering a higher peel to juice ratio and stronger tannins. At the same time, cooler temperatures at higher altitudes aid in retaining acidity; this balanced tannin and acidity create wines that are made to last. That said, picking at perfect ripeness and a judicious use of oak means that while these will age beautifully for years, no one would fault you for opening a bottle now. Back in the day, Howell Mountain wine was likely to be Zinfandel, but today its vineyards are mainly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties for blending. Among the region’s 66 member vineyards and wineries you will find familiar faces with national distribution and small volume cult wines that take a little work to acquire. Here’s a selection of Cabs to get you started.
Bravante 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Bravante uses 100 percent estate farmed grapes to make this elegant wine. The estate has two separate vineyards including the 20-acre Stone Ridge Vineyard that surrounds the winery and the Black Oak Vineyard about one mile away with each vineyard contributing distinct characteristics to the finished wine. This wine is ink colored with aromas of crushed violet, ripe black fruits and a whiff of pencil lead and it has flavors of blackberry, black plum and cassis with a strong backbone of minerality. The tannins are plush yet sturdy and the finish goes on and on.
Cakebread Cellars 2018 Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Grapes for this single vineyard stunner are grown at altitudes up to 1,900 feet in iron rich volcanic soils. The resulting wine is composed of 98 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 percent Cabernet Franc and aged in 60 percent new French oak barrels for 22 months prior to bottling. It has an intoxicating bouquet featuring aromas of black cherry, Mission fig and black plum and on the palate, it offers flavors of cassis, blackberry and cedar wood. It has well-structured and generous tannins with a juicy fruit filled finish. Drink now through 2030.
Cade Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
A blend of 87 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with small percentages of Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot, grapes for this impressive Cab come from 5 different vineyards on Howell Mountain. The long and leisurely 2018 harvest started on September 26 and ended on November 9. The wine underwent malolactic fermentation in the barrel soon after primary fermentation and received 19 months of French oak ageing. It is ink colored with aromas of black raspberry, cranberry, holiday baking spices and dark chocolate. It is full bodied with a silky, plush texture and firm tannic backbone. Drink now through 2032.
Howell at the Moon 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Winery owner Marc Cohen retired from medical practice in New York City in 1999 and purchased an apple and walnut orchard that would become his future vineyard the next year. The name Howell at the Moon is a friendly play on words to honor his beloved Jack Russell terrier, Tysie. His 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon is inky purple to the eye with aromas of crushed violet, pencil lead, blackberry and cassis. It has flavors of black plum, black currant and graphite with a strong vein of minerality. Drink now or over the next 10 years.
Robert Craig Winery 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Grapes for this remarkable blend of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Merlot and 2 percent Petit Verdot come from two vineyards: Craig Winery Estate Vineyard and Candlestick Ridge Estate Vineyard, the northernmost vineyard in the AVA. The wine has mineral aromas of wet river rock and graphite and fruit aromas of cassis, blueberry and black plum with juicy ripe fruit flavors, a firm tannic structure and balanced acidity. In 2017 the winemaker recommended laying the bottle down for a few years; a half-decade on it is drinking perfectly. Drink 2023 to 2033.
Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards 2018 Dust & Glory Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
The name Dust & Glory is to honor founder Flora Komes who often used this phrase borrowed from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This delightful wine is purple ink colored when poured from the bottle with very concentrated aromas of blueberry, cassis and dark chocolate. It has flavors of black plum, blackberry and a touch of bramble. The tannins are plush yet firm and the lingering finish has notes of cedar, smoke and mocha. Enjoy now until 2029.
OShaughnessy Estate Winery 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Winemaker and president Sean Capiaux prefers to let the estate’s terroir and soil characteristics shine through, so he makes wines that are naturally fermented and not fined or filtered before bottling. The 2018 is generous and concentrated in the bouquet and in the mouth. It has aromas and flavors of black currant, blueberry, crushed violet, tobacco leaf and pencil lead. It has pleasantly grippy tannins and balanced acidity. The fruit filled finish goes on for days.
Dunn Vineyards 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Randy and Lori Dunn purchased a 14-acre farm in 1978, which at that time had only five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Today it has grown to include 42 acres of Cab vines that the extended family of three generations still finds perfectly manageable. In the glass, the 2018 is ink colored with aromas of dried lavender, blueberry and black cassis. It has rich flavors of black and blue fruits complimented by notes of spice, pencil lead and saddle leather. The tannins are plush and rounded with balanced acidity that lingers into the long finish.
Pestoni Family Estate Winery 2018 Howell Mountain Napa Valley
The Pestoni family’s 160-acre estate sits at altitudes of 1,600 to 2,100 feet above sea level. The soils are volcanic and quite rocky, adding to the sturdy backbone of minerality found in this enticing wine. Once poured, your nose is greeted with aromas of black plums, Chinese five spice powder and dried Mediterranean herbs. It is soft on entry with flavors of cassis, blackberry and vanilla. The tannins are smooth at first but a bit grippy in the post palate, giving this wine the flexibility to drink now or lay down for a few years. Drink now through 2033.