To reach some of the world’s finest vineyards, you have to climb a mountain. Consider, suggests senior editor James Molesworth, the up-slope grands crus of Burgundy, the steep grades of Germany’s Mosel Valley and the Rhône’s Côte-Rôtie. The wines of the Napa Valley floor have given California’s premier appellation its reputation for ripe, lush Cabernets, but there is another Napa, above the fog line.
“Mountain Cabernets are densely concentrated, packed with rugged tannins, unlike the plush feel of the valley floor,” Molesworth said. “They are very much Cabernet, but a decidedly different expression, and one that I love.” The New York Wine Experience brought the mountains to Manhattan for a tasting of four top high-elevation Napa Cabernets.
The tasting got off to an emotional start, with Diamond Creek Vineyards’ Phil Ross recalling the recent passing of his mother, Napa wine pioneer and Diamond Creek co-founder Boots Brounstein. “She had planned to be here. I think she was at every [Wine Experience] since 1982.” Ross said. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said how much my mom meant to them, inspired them … thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
The Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill 2014 (92 points, $225) comes from an 8-acre vineyard at about 600 feet elevation. “One of the characteristics of Diamond Mountain fruit is the blackberry, a lot of chocolate and cassis,” Ross said.
Mayacamas’ vineyards reach 2,400 feet on Mount Veeder. “We pick pretty early for brighter acid and lower alcohol,” said winemaker Braiden Albrecht. “We’ve transitioned to organic and biodynamic viticulture, which I think is really important for where we are, at the top of the watershed. Mountain vineyards share a responsibility to stewardship [of the land], because everything we do trickles downstream.”
Turning to the 2004 Mayacamas Mount Veeder, Albrecht, who joined the winery in 2013, chuckled. “I think I was a junior in high school … so I did not make this wine. But it’s one of those wines we look back to for inspiration—it’s one of the top performers of the 2000s. It’s a little bit darker-fruited, with acidity and tannins, and a lot of savory notes.”
“The challenge of mountain vineyards is how to build flavor with these tannins,” said Lokoya winemaker Chris Carpenter, who shared the Lokoya Spring Mountain District 2013, from a 24-acre vineyard at 1,800 feet elevation. “Spring Mountain tends to get a really sweet, fine tannin expression. [This wine] has a florality and red fruit character that I just love. … And yeah, mountains are better than the valley floor!”
Last up was Howell Mountain winemaker Randy Dunn, who has been making distinct Cabernets from his now 40 acres of vines at 1,800 feet elevation since 1979. “He is a Napa maverick and a legend through and through,” said Molesworth.
“It’s often been said that I’m old-style,” Dunn said. “To me, that’s a compliment: That means high-extraction, ageworthy and food-friendly [wines].” Sharing magnums of his 2005 Dunn Howell Mountain, Dunn said, “What makes the difference up in the mountains is the sparse soil and the sunlight. Low yields are the rule. Small grapes make better wines.” Molesworth admired the wine’s development, noting its grip, energetic fruit and intensity. “After 14 years, this is what we’ve got,” Dunn said, “and I suspect that it’ll improve for another 14 years.” Talk about a high note.