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Howell Mountain wine rises

The view from Howell Mountain over looking Napa Valley.
Photo by Jason Tinacci |

Oh, to live on Howell Mountain.

OK, so the Neil Young lyric was actually about a mythical Sugar Mountain, but life on Howell Mountain, especially for the grapes and their growers, can be exceedingly sweet.

Howell Mountain is a designated wine region on the northeast side of the Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountains. In the 1880s, vintners Jean Adolph Brun and Jean V. Chaix began to make wine from vineyards on Howell Mountain. Prohibition slowed the wine heritage of the region, but over the last four decades there has been a renaissance. Howell Mountain is now renowned for growing and producing many of the finest Bordeaux varietal wines in America.

At a recent Taste of Vail wine seminar, O’ Shaughnessy winemaker Sean Capiaux and winery representatives Dan Stotesbery of Ladera and Stephen Gonda of La Jota poured wines from their Howell Mountain estates.

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A PLACE IN THE SUN

If you’ve ever taken off from San Francisco headed east on a fog-covered morning and looked north, that mountaintop you spotted rising from above the fog bank was Howell Mountain. It’s the main reason why the grapes on Howell Mountain produce concentrated and flavorful fruit.

The vineyards on Howell Mountain rest above that fog line most mornings. While the vines on the Napa Valley floor wait for the moisture to burn off, the grapes on the mountain are already being bathed in sunshine.

As a result, the grapes produce balanced sugars and acidity. Howell Mountain rises from 1,400 to 2,000 feet, and the nighttime temperatures can be 5 to 10 degrees higher than those in the valley. Conversely, during the day, temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees cooler.

Sunlight, temperatures, rain and unique soils provide Howell Mountain with a special terroir, the French word used to describe the characteristics of a particular place.

Those soils can be broken into two types. The first, called “tufa,” consists of decomposed volcanic ash. The second is dense, compressed red clay. The lack of nutrients in both means the vines must reach deep into the earth to get nourishment and moisture. These struggles result in smaller clusters of grapes with smaller berries, heavily concentrated in flavors and sugars.

It is not just the vines that are stressed. Because of the steep and rocky nature of mountain vineyard sites, the majority of work on the vines must be done by hand. This in turn lowers the yield of grapes on each plot, so only the best clusters are harvested for production.

THE WINES

Power and balance. That was the takeaway from the nine wines the three experts poured at the Taste of Vail seminar. The earth spice, leather and chocolate signified the wines as being from the mountain, and each was balanced.

Stephen Gonda from La Jota said that when he thought of wines from Howell Mountain he thought of Muhammad Ali. Yes, they pack a punch, but there is artistry to the power and the strength. In the words of the great boxer, they “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

Yes, life is sweet on Howell Mountain.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.


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