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Drinking Dunn: Massive and Messy

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 12, 2007 12:44pm ET

The wax came off and the cork came out of a 1989 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet on Saturday night.

This wine was from what Napa winemakers dubbed “the vintage from hell.” Part of it might have been their fault: They hung a huge crop, and then at about the time the grapes were ready to come off the vine, it rained and stayed damp. That rain led to some rot and it effectively ended the growing season. It went down in the books as an off-vintage. But of course, even in dicey years, excellent wines are often made—and the Dunn Howell Mountain bottling was true to form.

Opening that bottle was a massive and messy chore, the mess being the result of removing the hard wax seal that covers the bottle neck and cork. I’ve never liked wax seals. They almost always shatter when they're removed, leaving tiny bits of red wax everywhere—on my clothes, on the counter, on the floor. On top of that, the cork crumbled into a sawdusty mess when it was popped. Somehow the wine went into the decanter clear, which rarely happens when a cork is destroyed.

Inky in color and deeply concentrated, the wine had the hallmark Dunn Howell Mountain traits. It was still intense and tannic, even gutsy, with a bit more earthiness than you would find in a riper year. I’d had a 2000 Cos-d'Estournel the night before, and the Dunn had weightier tannins, despite being older.

Dunn fans—and even those who aren’t—often debate whether these Cabernets will ever soften and come around, and frankly, I don’t much care. When I drink a Dunn, I want the full Dunn experience, not some elegant, watered-down version. Most of the Dunn Howell Mountain bottlings age very well and they retain their massive, muscular form, which is part of their charm and exactly what I expect once I get through the hard part—getting the wax and cork out of the way.

Glenn S Lucash
March 12, 2007 4:47pm ET
James...I have three bottles of '88 Dunn Howell Mountain. How long do you suggest to decant before drinking?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 12, 2007 4:54pm ET
Glenn, an hour should be about right. Look for lots of sediment...Once decanted, give it a try and that should tell you whether it needs more air. Good luck with the wax.
Glenn S Lucash
March 12, 2007 5:52pm ET
Thanks James. I'll try it tonight with dinner. Should I use a strainer when I pour the wine from the bottle to the decanter? I also just looked at the red wax and it looks kind of formidable.
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  March 12, 2007 7:57pm ET
I must not seem to be botherd much by tannins because I like Dunn Howell Mtns even at age 6 or 10. I had the 1993 (another so-so year) back in 2001 at age 8 and thought it was actually quite elegant. Never had the 89 though. The sign of a great wine is how they do in average and weak years, don't you think?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 12, 2007 8:02pm ET
Roy, I'm not bothered much by tannins, either and you're right. One sign of a winemaker's skill and the strength of the vineyard is how they perform in more challenging years.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 12, 2007 8:05pm ET
Glenn, if it's not too late, Randy Dunn suggests you heat the wax and melt it so it softens. I've never found this very easy (once we opened a bunch of bottles in his kitchen and had quite a mess) and hate to twist the bottle and shake up the sediment. If you have a strainer, that should help, too.
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  March 12, 2007 9:40pm ET
I bought this '89 some time ago because of the namesake. It is in my 55 degree cooled being rotated every 3 months. I only have 1. I was waiting until I get to the final table at World Series of Poker or when I get to Medicare age (6 years) to open it. Any advice? BTY, the capsule is cracked.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 12, 2007 9:47pm ET
Steve, I always recommend opening wine, rather than waiting. If you really like this wine (and you should) your odds are better of getting another bottle before Medicare kicks in. Waiting for a perfect moment (like the WSOP) sounds like it might be a long shot?...If you're not in a hurry, crack the capsule off now so you won't have to the night you want to drink it.
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  March 12, 2007 11:25pm ET
Good Lord, James. Do you ever leave the office??? Go home! It's almost 7pm!=)
Jack Bulkin
March 13, 2007 12:07am ET
James, I am a big fan of Dunn Howell Mountain and drink them frequently. I have a vertical back to the mid eighties. I recently read your lackluster impression of the 96 California Cabs including Dunn's and thought tha I should open one from my case to see if I agree. The wine is still too massive ( can you say road tar? ) to enjoy. There is pleny of fruit and I believe those monsters probably need another decade. I think that you may have encountered improperly stored bottles at the time of your review. By the way, Randy told me three years ago that he thought that the 88 and 89 were ready. Mine are now long gone. I'm glad that you still found joy in yours. I always do.
Glenn S Lucash
March 13, 2007 8:38am ET
You were right on James. After 15 minutes of de-waxing the bottle, I let it sit in the decanter for 90 minutes. True to form, it was powerful, with lots of meat and muscle. We drank it slowly and it softened somewhat as the night went on.Steve, I'll be hitting Medicare the same time you will. I'll meet you at a Social Security office in Trenton (halfway between you and me) and I'll bring along one of the other two '88 Howell Mountains I still have and we can have a pizza to celebrate. Also have the regular '95 and '96 and the Howell Mountain '99 and '01.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  March 13, 2007 11:07am ET
James, I am doing a '96 and before Napa Cab tasting this Sunday at my restaurant, and a customer said he was going to bring in his '84 Dunn. What are your opinions on how long I decant this for him so it has a good showing?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 13, 2007 11:55am ET
Bryan, short decant, but make sure to get rid of the sediment. Last note on that wine was in 2004 (in our database), an 87 rating, veering to dry tannins on the finish. Where's your restaurant? Blind tasting? Share the results?
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  March 13, 2007 6:01pm ET
James, the way it works is everyone who comes brings a bottle of 1996 and before Napa Cabernet. I will take all the wines in the back wrap them and have them set up on a table for all who came to taste. I am at Nino's Italian Restaurant in Baton Rouge, and I thought this would be fun for all the collectors. The wines will be judged and whoever wins the blind tasting will recieve a dinner for 2 from us...I am opening a 1991 Seavey (Parker gave it a 97 when he tasted it last; I am hoping it aged well), and as a ringer I have a 1990 Isole e Olena Cabernet that James gave a 98 to...the last bottle I had was easily 98-100 any way you look at it. Either way I think it is going to be a lot of fun. If you just so happen to be in Baton Rouge, call me at the restaurant and I would love to include you. I will put the results in your latest blog, whatever it might be.
Todd Dewitt
Cincinnati, OH —  March 13, 2007 6:39pm ET
James, thanks for your notes on Dunn Howell Mtn. I have a case of 1993 that I'm saving for my daughters "special occasion(s)". I hope she has lots of them! I also have two 1987--one with wax and one without. I called Randy once and he couldn't remember if they bottled any 1987 without wax. Worries me some, but cannot wait to taste regardless. Dunn Howell Mtn are long living . . . any thoughts on the longevity of the 1987 and 1993?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 13, 2007 6:45pm ET
Todd, the case of 1993 should be fine. I've had mixed results with the 1987 HM. Couple of times it was great; other times I think the bottles were off for some reason. BTW, you can look up these reviews on our site under wine search. Some of the wines come up in retrospective tastings or verticals and have newer notes. Randy forgot to wax one bottle of HM? That could be a collector's item...
Ned Thorn
March 13, 2007 7:30pm ET
James, to get into a wax capsule just get a kitchen towel damp, fold it in half and then in half again. Put it in a microwave for about a minute and then put it on top of the capsule for about two or three minutes. Your corkscrew will go right through the wax and pull out cleanly and also leave a clean line around the lip.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 13, 2007 7:35pm ET
Thanx, Ned. Where have you been all these years...did you share this with Randy?
Ron Ellis
March 14, 2007 11:27am ET
I opened a bottle of 1987 Dunn Howell Mt recently, and had the same mess with wax and cork. I filtered it through chessecloth in the strainer into a decantur, then let it breathe about 3 hours. The four of us drank it with a rich meat ravioli dish. It was awesome, and the smoothed tannins and light fruit flavors balanced out the light spices in the dish. We were wishing we had another bottle, but settled for a bottle of 1990 Jordon Cab (pretty darn nice also).
Michael Greenwald
Wynnewood, PA —  March 14, 2007 11:57am ET
James, I drank my one bottle of 88 Dunn Howell Mountain a few years ago. After what you aptly call the mess--does that wax capsule serve any useful purpose anyway or is it just there for show?--including a crumbling cork, a strainer, and a decanted bottle containing some small slivers of cork, the wine was good, not great, and just worth the effort. I still have a bottle of the 89 Napa Valley. I understand the Napa Valleys aren't generally as well regarded as the Howell Mountains, and I believe you didn't rate this one all that highly either. Do you think it's likely to be worth the effort or will it turn out to be done rather than Dunn?
Anthony C Comito
Hillsborough, NJ —  March 16, 2007 4:02pm ET
It's interesting how many replies there are to this post. It seems that people who like the Randy Dunn wines really like them and it would be a mistake to dismiss the Napa Valley wines. In some vintages, 1985, 1987, and 1990 come to mine the wines are absolutely wonderful and very long lived. I had some of the 1990 six months go and it was outstanding. Full of fruit and secondary aromatics the wine outperformed several "cult" wines at the same event. I still have a few of the 1987's around and this seem like as good a weekend as any to pull the cork out of one of them.
Roger Every
March 22, 2007 11:11am ET
When do you think is the earliest point to open a 2001?
Janna Wemmer
Seattle —  August 2, 2007 2:08pm ET
I was just gifted two bottles of 2003 Dunn Cabernet, the second being from Howell Mountain (with wax). James: what's your opinion on each, and when's the best time to enjoy both? Finally, why is the release price in the tasting notes listed as "$NA?" Thanks!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 2, 2007 2:18pm ET
Janna and Roger, for both of you, if you've never had a Dunn, I'd drink them now. That way you'll catch the wine at its purest and you'll know if you like the style (and can buy more), rather than wait. I'd decant both the 2003 and 2001 for a couple of hours and even leave a little overnight. Dunn's wines are massive and concentrated and tannic. As for the $NA, that note was from a barrel tasting before the wine was released.
Charles F Hollis
charleston, sc —  October 26, 2007 9:37am ET
James I'm giving a Dunn Howell Mtn six btl vert 87-92 to charity auction. How do I price? Tnx, CFH
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 26, 2007 5:27pm ET
Charles, since it's a charity event, $700 to $1,000 is fair. You could also contact the winery, or search the net if you want to see what the individual bottles are worth.

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