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Walnut Creek Magazine

Napa Valley's Unconventional Cain

Jul 24, 2018 05:33PM ● By Fran Miller


The narrow road leading to the top of Spring Mountain curves through redwood forests, ranch land, and gullies before peaking atop an outlook with Sonoma County to the west, and Napa Valley to the east. On a clear day, the Pacific Ocean is visible from the tasting room at Cain Vineyard and Winery, located at the uppermost region of this lauded AVA, known for its wine-making mavericks whose end products defy Napa Valley norms. 

             Christopher Howell surveys his Spring Mountain vineyards

Cain’s winemaker, or ‘wine grower’ as his business card states, is no exception to Spring Mountain’s non-conformist ways. In fact, Christopher Howell sets the bar for vinicultural eccentricities. Asked how those in the Valley view him, he readily offers the term ‘outlier,’ a designation of which he’s proud – and one that also defines his highly prized and coveted wines, which he admits are not for everyone.  

Howell crafts but three wines at Cain: Cain Five, a blend of five classic varietals reflective of the Cain Vineyard, Cain Concept, the core of which is Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa’s classic benchland, and Cain Cuvée, crafted from both mountain and valley vineyards as well as varied harvests, and for which the NV13 label elicited these tasting notes from wine blogger Steve McConnell: “Anti-homogenous. Gritty, crushed-bug, and dirty baby diaper do a wet-hay dance on lush fruit with a velvet haze of mold and sharp olive oil cracklins.”

An interesting description to say the least. As Howell says, Cain is not for everyone. In fact, tours and wine tastings at Cain are not exactly encouraged, and are limited to those who know the wines well. “We don’t want anyone to be disappointed,” explains Howell, who comes across as part mad scientist, part philosopher. “We only produce red, and only the three labels. And while it makes perfect sense that not all wines should be for all people, the problem for wine tourists is, if they don't know what they're looking for, how to begin?”

Howell suggests that the best way to learn about wine is to go back home. “The best way to get started is not to begin by hitting 'wine country' and then bouncing around like the ball in a pinball machine, where each of the buzzers and bumpers is a winery tasting room or 'experience.'  That could be entertaining, fun, and even exciting but one is likely to leave more confused than ever. If one really wants to learn about the wines one enjoys, it would be far better to explore wines in familiar restaurants with a thoughtful sommelier and a focused by-the-glass program, and also to bring selected bottles home from a dedicated wine merchant who can both learn and then guide their customer's taste. Then, on that magic trip to wine country, they'll know what they're looking for.”

At first glance, wine-growing might seem impossible on Cain’s steeply terraced, highly faceted site atop Spring Mountain. Cradled in a bowl on the ridgeline of the Mayacamas mountain range, the vines grow at varied elevations. Yet, despite differences in exposure and wind patterns, the thin, fragile, and low nutrient soils yield wines with common personality traits, such as wild herb and citrus notes. “There is definitely a family resemblance to most of the wines at Cain,” says Howell, who since becoming Cain’s head wine-grower in 1990, has resisted the temptation to participate in the 100-point scale game. “If Antonio Galloni asked me to send him a bottle, I wouldn’t do it,” says Howell of the respected wine critic. “But if he requested an invitation to sit down and taste at the winery, I’d consider it. You simply cannot really know a wine unless you experience firsthand its provenance. And at Cain, that provenance is unique to our wines. You can’t understand one without the other.” 

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