(Originally published in the online literary magazine, CappyG)
Mountains define a valley. I had been to Napa valley many times; I even proposed marriage there; but I never ventured far from the valley floor. And eventually, for me, the valley had become an unpleasant, crowded, tourist Mecca: gridlock traffic, expensive tasting fees, and buses—more cheese than wine. So for years I had been venturing further up into Sonoma and Mendocino, searching for that old wine-country feel.
Recently, a friend set up a visit to O’Shaugnessy Vineyards, a new winery on Howell Mountain. I had never been to Howell Mountain, nor had I tried any wines from that appellation. O’Shaugnessy is just releasing their first vintage, and I heard it was great and the facility amazing. What I did not expect was to find the wine country I had been looking for for so many years.
It started to drizzle as I hit the Silverado Trail. By the time I got to O’Shaugnessy, it was pouring rain with fog so thick I could barely see the surrounding vineyards.
I wandered around the cold, sparkling, empty winery. Music blared from multiple overhead speakers. Eventually, I followed the single throbbing hose running from a large tank, disappearing out the door and into the caves. At the end of the hose I found Sean Capiaux, filling barrels.
After introductions, and talk of our mutual friend’s more interesting high school activities, Sean pulled out a WINE THIEF and offered some barrel tastings. He pulled out samples of O’Shaugnessy Cabernet Sauvignon from a few different appellations.
I quickly realized I was being initiated into the mountain grape cult. They were all fantastic, huge flavors of fruit and tannin, strong acids and pleasantly sharp minerals. Balanced well, easy to drink right now, but with time, could combine impressively. My favorite was the Howell Mountain, but not by much. The other appellations had the same strength and vigor, but lacked a nuanced nose and flavor unique to Howell Mountain TERROIR.
I had come to taste Cabernet, but Sean then pulled some of his own label: Capiaux Cellars Pinot Noir. Pinot is my favorite varietal, delicate, rich, complex, and notoriously difficult to make. A fragile grape. These were not mountain grapes, Pinots prefer a cooler more even climate, so I won’t go into detail here, but if you like Pinot, and ever get a chance to try Sean’s, you will not be disappointed.
We returned to the winery and talked a little about its construction. Sean designed it so that he could run it himself, alone, and it was cool. Elegant, modern, efficient and beautiful with massive sheets of glass, exposed wooden beams, Mexican stone walls, and exotic wood furniture including a bubinga table.
Angwin is a small town that supports the Seventh Day Adventist, Pacific Union College. Since Adventists own most of the land, new wineries had a tough time getting permission to buy the land, plant vineyards, build wineries and offer tasting.
The rain outside was coming down even harder as I left, thanking Sean for the education, tastings, and recommendations of other wineries to visit in the area.
I made two more stops that day, but won’t go into great detail on the visits. Ladera Vineyards is just down the road from “OSH,” both near the town of ANGWIN.
Ladera is one of he oldest winery structures in Napa, and its rich history is better told on their WEB SITE or on a tour than by me. The wine was wonderful, as was the tour and tasting. It is a beautiful place to visit, even in the pouring rain. I did enjoy the wine, but it was not as good as the O’Shaugnessy and considerably more expensive.
I also stopped in at Robert Craig’s tasting room in the city of Napa. Again, that same strength and unique flavor that I fear will become as addicting as Peet’s coffee has for me. Rachel, the tasting room manager, was a lot of fun and very informative. Although the tasting room is separate from the actual winery, they do offer barrel tastings. Craig is known for “Affinity,” a proprietary Bordeaux style Cabernet-based blend, “renowned for its elegant structure, dark berry flavors and smooth tannins.” I also loved their Chardonnay and Syrah.
The following day I went back up the mountain to visit NEAL FAMILY WINERY, but found they were not offering tasting or sales of their Howell Mountain cabs. Although disappointed, I did very much enjoy their 2002 Carneros Chardonnay and 2002 Rutherford Zinfandel.
As is often the case, reputation drives price. The appellation’s reputation is driven by the high quality of the wines, wine makers, the limited production and a bit of cultish following. The reputation of Howell Mountain translates to an average per-bottle price of $43.60 (http://aic.ucdavis.edu/pub/briefs/brief18.pdf). And demand for these wines will only increase, as there is no room for expansion in these regions. Expect the prices to go up accordingly.
Even if you can’t afford the wine, get out of the valley, drive the winding roads through the forest, visit the wineries, taste the wine, and enjoy a quieter, more civilized wine tasting experience.
Next month: the other side of the valley, Spring Mountain Road…
Take a right at the mailboxes just before the county line, there are no signs with the name, just follow the funky little signs with the address… there will be little teeny sign that says ‘winery.’