More than a century before Napa Valley became an official American Viticultural Area in 1981, the St. Helena Star wrote: “If any grape growing region in California deserves to be called a well-defined district, it is Howell Mountain.”
For those of us who are used to Napa Valley’s easy traverses up Highway 29 or Silverado Trail, it’s difficult to imagine that in the 1870’s, hearty European immigrants were establishing homesteads 1,800 feet and above in the mountains high above Saint Helena, ascending on dirt roads and facing harsh winters. But pioneers like Jean Adolphe Brun, a native of Bordeaux, believed the poor volcanic soils and mountain climate would be ideal for growing vines. He and his partner Jean Chaix planted 20 acres of Bordeaux varieties on the vineyard they named Nouveau Medoc, making wine that would win the first of many awards in the 19th century granted to Howell Mountain producers such as W.S. Keyes, Charles Krug and Frederick Hess.
Howell Mountain rises up to 2,400 feet with the base elevation for the formal appellation being 1,400 feet, the fog line. This ensures a climate with more luminosity vs. the valley floor – which is shrouded in fog most mornings during the growing season – but with about 10 degrees cooler temperatures due to the high elevations. As the cooler air slips at night, the evenings are relatively warmer than the valley floor, allowing the grapes to develop flavor without advanced sugar accumulation. At the same time, the poor volcanic soils – white tufas and red clays – provide enough stress to the vines to produce small berries of great concentration.
Howell Mountain’s climate and soils are particularly suited to red grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. These age-worthy wines are fresh and fruit-driven, with rich tannins and minerality. Howell Mountain is the home to some of Napa Valley’s most revered producers such as Dunn Vineyards, as well as to some of its newest, CADE Winery owned by SF Mayor Gavin Newsom with its Gold LEED-designed winery. Great winemakers on the mountain include Heidi Barrett (Lamborn Family Vineyards), Robert Foley and Thomas Rivers Brown – winemaker at Black Sears and Outpost Winery and recently Food and Wine Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year.
In addition to cabernet sauvignon wines, Howell Mountain is also known for its distinctive zinfandel wines that are among the most intriguingly spicy zins I have tasted.
Due to the location, most producers require an appointment for visits or have separate tasting rooms on the Valley floor. Check the Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers Association website for links to producers’ websites.