If you wake up under the brilliant, blue Howell Mountain sky on a bright summer morning, you’ll look down on a valley filled with plumes of what looks like light-gray cotton candy – a thick layer of morning fog. “Just above the fog” seems to be the motto of the AVA, and the fog line, at about 1400 feet above sea level, marks the beginning of the appellation. This is a region with a long-standing reputation for reds, in particular, and it finally received official recognition as an AVA in 1983, making it the first sub-appellation to be identified within the Napa Valley AVA.
Howell Mountain has a rich wine history, in fact there were more producing vines (mainly Zinfandel) in the region in the late 1800s than there are now. Many vintners planted there, originally, to escape the phylloxera problem on the valley floor, and soon learned that their Howell Mountain plantings produced wines of outstanding quality. The prestigious Paris World Competition of 1889 put the region on the map when one of the wines won a bronze medal and, later, other wines of the region went on to win gold and bronze medals. The local newspaper predicted that Howell Mountain “would be to California what Medoc is to France.” Unfortunately, these wineries were destined to become “ghost wineries” and were abandoned during prohibition. Today, the phrase “Howell Mountain Cabernet” brings to mind a wine of tremendous flavor concentration and firm structure – a wine for the cellar.
Howell Mountain is located northeast of the town of St. Helena, between the Napa Valley floor, to the west, and Pope Valley, to the east. There are 14,000 acres within the Howell Mountain AVA, although fewer than 600 acres are currently planted, a tiny fraction of the 44,671 acres planted to vines in all of Napa Valley.
Historian Charles Sullivan called Howell Mountain “A giant volcanic knob that weathered into a huge plateau looking down on the Napa Valley.” An aerial view of Howell Mountain reveals only a few steep slopes (one of which is the home of our vineyard on Howell Mountain), despite the name. As Sullivan says, it’s more of a plateau covered with evergreens and a few vineyards carved out.
This “knob” was pushed up from below by colliding tectonic plates and is covered with volcanic deposit, including a great deal of tufa, which is decomposed volcanic ash, and the famous red, iron-rich clay that dominates the eastern slopes of Napa Valley (the Vaca range). These thin, rocky soils promote excellent drainage and provide very little in the way of nutrients, naturally limiting vine vigor. In spite of higher rainfall totals than experienced on the valley floor, the stressed vines produce small clusters and berries, due to the poor water-holding capacity of the soil. The small berry size increases the skin-to-juice ratio, resulting in intensely flavored and colored wines of very firm structure.
Growing at between 1400 and 2200 feet above sea level, the vines are shielded from heat stress by daytime temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than on the valley floor during the growing season, keeping the refreshing acidity high. At night, above the fog line, it never gets quite as cool as the valley floor, so the vines wake up with the sun and begin photosynthesis early the next day to assure full maturity at harvest.
How was this fog line identified? According to Mike Beatty, a longtime Howell Mountain grower/producer, “A group of Howell Mountain wine folks met at Beatty Ranch one dark and rainy night, spread out a topographic relief map, and anchored it with bottles of Howell Mountain Zinfandel, of course!” The elevation reduces the risk of spring frost damage and the lack of fog and westerly winds help keep the mildew problems, which keep growers busy all over the valley floor, manageable.
Zinfandel was king in Howell Mountain, and virtually every wine producing region in California, prior to prohibition. It continues to be important in the region but the majority of vineyards are now planted to Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
At Goosecross Cellars, we are fortunate to make two very different Cabernet Sauvignon wines, each very attractive in its own way. One is from our estate vineyard, and it demonstrates all the fruit-forward opulence and relatively soft tannins that we expect from the mid-valley floor. The other is, of course, from Howell Mountain, and is very deep, dark and concentrated, with very firm tannins – a wine that clearly and proudly represents its place of origin.