Regional Spotlight: Howell Mountain
by Chuck Hayward
Just east of downtown Napa, the small area of Coombsville was recently designated as Napa Valley’s 16th subregional AVA. Each of Napa’s subregions is distinct, showcasing a unique climate and combination of soils, perfectly reflected in the wines. At the same time, Napa’s patchwork of AVAs provides a window into the valley’s diversity, belying the misconception that the region is homogenous.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Napa Valley’s first subregional AVAs. The first to be designated entirely within Napa Valley was Howell Mountain. With its unique attributes, it it’s no surprise that the mountain was the first to be distinguished from other appellations. Altitude is what makes Howell Mountain so distinctive – grapes must be grown above 1400 feet in elevation to be eligible for its AVA status. This altitude lies above the morning fog layer that covers the valley floor, allowing for more sunshine during the day. This also allows for cooler average temperatures, often up to ten degrees lower than down the slopes, which preserves vital acidity.
The soils of Howell Mountain also contribute to the region’s idiosyncratic wine styles. Most of the dirt here is of volcanic origin and very low in nutrients. Tufa soils (decomposed white volcanic ash) and iron-laced clay loams combine with rocks and stones to allow for good drainage, important here because the mountain gets twice as much rainfall as on the valley floor. All of these qualities act to reduce vigor in the vineyards, creating small bunches and even smaller berries.
The AVA is very small, there are only 600 acres planted among the 14,000 in the appellation. Cabernet sauvignon is the grape that is most closely linked to Howell Mountain and the region’s climate and soils help to create a unique style of the variety.Howell Mountain has a viticultural history as rich and varied as the more well-known growing areas on the valley floor. Less than 10-15 years after wineries first popped up along the stretch of land between Yountville and Rutherford, new vineyards were planted up in the eastern hills of the Vaca Ranges. By the 1870s, a number of growers received considerable acclaim for the fruit grown on “The Hill”, the name that locals first ascribed to the mountain. As more vines were planted, producers in the valley soon began to source fruit from Howell Mountain to blend with grapes on the valley floor. Small wineries were soon constructed on the hill, most of which fell into disrepair after prohibition. Many of these “ghost wineries” have been rejuvenated; Ladera and La Jota are housed in recently renovated structures.
Zinfandel is the other grape that has brought attention to the mountain with a legacy stretching back to the last few decades of the 19th century. Small amounts of merlot and petite sirah make up the rest of the viticulture on Howell Mountain along with the odd sauvignon blanc or chardonnay.
The Howell Mountain Vintners & Growers Association recently sponsored a tasting in San Francisco, which afforded JJ Buckley’s staff a chance to look at a broad swath of wines from a wide range of vintages. Cabernet sauvignon turned out to be the focus of the tasting and we had a chance to take a close look at a number of releases from 2009 and 2010 along with a few older wines here and there.
What was most remarkable was finding the distinct minerality that came through on the palate and bouquet. A pronounced iron component could be detected on the nose, wrapped by black currant fruit aromas. The finishes on these wines also showcased the mineral components, as they mingled with fine grained tannins. Whether young or with a few years of bottle age, the cabs from the mountain offered quite the contrast to the more plush textures found in cabernets from down the hill. It’s no wonder that Howell Mountain has distinguished itself as one of Napa’s most unique subregions.The tasting turned out to be a revelation, as the terroir of Howell Mountain was clearly evident in each wine. The vintages spoke clearly as well, with the 2009s offering up ripe and juicy fruit while the 2010s showed the elegance and precision that is proving the hallmark of this harvest.
JJ Buckley’s Top Five Howell Mountain Cab Picks
1st Place: 2009 Dunn “Howell Mountain”
2nd Place: 2008 Charles Krug “Cold Springs“
Tied for 3rd:
2009 Arkenstone “Obsidian”