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Randy Dunn's Howell Mountain Legacy

The treasured Napa contrarian is (mostly) handing the reins to the next generation, with a third waiting in the wings
The Dunn family has been farming their mountain-top vineyard for nearly 40 years.
Photo by: Courtesy of Dunn Vineyards
The Dunn family has been farming their mountain-top vineyard for nearly 40 years.

Posted: Aug 29, 2018 10:50am ET

Senior editor James Molesworth will become Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon at the end of this year. He recently made a trip to Napa Valley and is posting dispatches from some of the region's top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.

I've always liked the Dunn style, both the wine and the winemaker. The wines are loaded with very, very dark fruit backed by a gutsy mountain edge. And owner Randy Dunn has always been an outspoken and true-to-himself kind of person. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that his stepson Mike, 52, would follow that path with an equally straightforward approach to wine and life.

Mike joined the winery in 1999, and he's taken on increasing responsibilities over the years. Today Randy decides when to pick; Mike handles the rest.

Dunn Vineyards had humble beginnings, when Randy left his winemaking job at Caymus down in the valley to head up to the backcountry of Angwin, atop Howell Mountain. In 1978, he bought a 14-acre property for $40,000 that included 4.5 acres of vines. From the get-go, Dunn's Howell Mountain Cabernet was distinctive, muscular in its profile and sometimes even a little ornery. But it aged well.

"Randy bucked the trend back then by picking riper up here than usual," says Mike as we discuss Randy's penchant for lower-alcohol wines. Dunn's wines are sometimes watered back or de-alcoholized to achieve 13.9 percent.

"I don't have a problem with low alc," says Mike. "But can you get ripe Cabernet picking under 14 percent? That's a challenging pick window. You can't pick underripe and add fruit. So we pick a little overripe and bring it down," he says matter of factly.

"But we don't pick on numbers," he says. "We pick on taste. So there are lots that could be 24 or 25 Brix, and then maybe some at 26.5. I'll water back or acid-adjust the 26.5, but we don't do that with all the lots."

The Dunns just bought an additional 7 acres of land, making their property a now contiguous horseshoe shape, with 40 acres currently under vine. The Howell Mountain bottling is all estate fruit, while the Napa bottling is essentially a declassified Howell Mountain, containing some Howell Mountain fruit and occasionally some purchased fruit, for a wine meant to be a bit more approachable in its youth (the Napa bottling doesn't always contain purchased fruit either, such as in 2009, '10 and '11).

Mike has kept some things the same. After picking and crushing, the grapes are fermented in stainless steel tank, inoculated for malolactic and moved to barrel to complete that process. They are racked every six months over the course of their 32-month élevage, with the lots kept separate until they're blended just a few months before bottling.

But he's also tweaked and improved things as well. The Dunns weren't using sterile filtration in the late '90s, and a brettanomyces bloom occurred in the winery in  1997 and '98, leaving its unmistakable accent on the wines. But since '01 the wines have been sterile filtered, and all the barrels were changed out in '02. The current trio of vintages is proof positive of how delineated and dynamic the wines are today without sacrificing the gutsy mountain fruit profile they've always sported.

After tasting through the '13, '14 and '15 wines, we head back outside. Mike’s son Alex, 24, is working in the tool shed, welding a new front gate for the property, complete with the fancy scripted Dunn logo.

"He likes to work," says Mike with an air of parental pride.

The Dunn tradition continues.

WineSpectator.com members: Read James Molesworth's tasting notes on several recent vintages of Dunn Vineyards Cabernets.

Follow James Molesworth on Instagram at @jmolesworth1, and on Twitter at @jmolesworth1.

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