When Mike & Randy Dunn asks you to come to St Helena for a vertical of Dunn Howell Mountain, you don’t check your schedule. You don’t ask your mom. You don’t ask your girlfriend if she wants to go, you ask her if she’s riding along with you. I don’t think I travelled the farthest–and don’t care. It was a brilliant excuse to go to Napa Valley.
1984 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Flat and round, textured into almost nothingness, little fruit, a bit past its prime, showing acid and alcohol among mostly tertiary bouquet.
1985 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Still fruity–though dense and headed pruney, balanced and intense, gobs of lovely earth and nuance. Still tannic and drinking perfectly–though prime.
Remember, these two wines have PERFECT winery provenance. You still see Dunns of this age here and about, but I would be highly sceptical of purchasing them ANYWHERE other than from source or–at WORST–second-owner.
Staying in Napa-proper the night before, I perused the list of Dunns even more impressive than tomorrow’s flight on 1313 Main’s exhaustive list. Al was going to be at the tasting tomorrow also, and his list clearly showed why. I narrowed it down to a couple, and finally decided to prime myself by visiting a 2000 Togni, which jumped out as a bargain on the list–they’re ALWAYS there–and I knew I would get a bit of a refresher-course into hands-off Napa Cabernet winemaking. It was tired, but I enjoyed every last drop of it. And I knew the ‘clean-ness’ and lower alcohol of the wine would leave me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the Dunn-adventure at Greystone tomorrow.
1989 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Nutty and round, gobs of leather and licorice, mint and spice and brett from a vintage seen by most as a “thinner” year. But here mountain fruit shines, being one of my favorites of the older group.
1990 HOWELL MOUNTAIN More almond-butter roundness, but coupled with a structure and dense concentrated fruit not going ANYWHERE. A fabulous wine.
Now see, HERE, Napa-wonk will jump up and say “Dunn? “Hands-off’?!? Because we have a bit of a conundrum here with this producer. On one hand we have a classical lineage of bottles going back 4 decades with nary a label-change, boastingly low-impact and old-world in style. And on the other side we have Randy’s openness to RO and watering-back. How can the two exist together? You CAN’T call Dunn *hands off* when he is de-alcoholizing and adjusting. Well, maybe–like myself–this winemaker feels hi-alcohol is the single greatest bane to quality wine, ageability and balance there is and, on the other hand, he’s a believer in “ripeness being key” (as is chanted by EVERY producer over 14.5 on the planet) and has decided–invasive or not–he’s going to make the best wine he can with the tools available. And with ripe fruit.
1995 NAPA VALLEY Barely 20 years old and just beginning to come into focus. Rich and decadent, tertiary exploding, fennel and anise rich and full, tannins still green and wracking, but perfect balance.
1998 HOWELL MOUNTAIN See, now I thought this wine beautiful. This is where Mike decided to get serious about a barrel-programme and minimize *cellar* and *barnyard*. Full of fruit and good tannin, this marked for me the end of the classic Bordelaise profile or fierce old-school Napa in the bottles. And while there is a reason for me grouping the vintages like I have, from here on a significant change was noted.
So he dials back the alcohol a bit through extraction. And waters-back a bit to balance things out. What’s the alternative? Picking unripe? This was just one of the two elephants in the room at this tasting of select industry folks and critics. This was the obvious one. The other looming shadow was everyone’s concern where this brand was going as the hand-off from Randy to Mike is happening. This is no easy discussion, with egos and lineage and reviews and fans all over the world at stake. Nor is it a straight-forward one, with global warming and technology and consumer-taste and vineyard management pulling everything in a direction towards “Clean, fruit-forward wines”. The days of *vegetal* and *barnyard* being positive descriptors are OVER–as I can attest–as I, EVEN I, with my following of winemakers and industry folks and somms and snobs, get raised eyebrows when I engage such terms–terms everyone was perfectly comfortable with and even encouraged 20 years ago–like the wine has some sort of fault, like it hasn’t lived up to the “clean, fruit-driven wines” standard all are judged by.
1999 HOWELL MOUNTAIN The first wall of change. Tinny and metallic. Funk running a dog-park direction, rubbery and tropical. My least favorite of the day.
2002 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Massive cherry chocolate prune, almost sweet and smooth tannins. An awesome stand-alone drinker at prime.
2003 HOWELL MOUNTAIN See now, I’ve always loved this vintage. Crisp spice, black pepper, dense dark cedar box with jarring tannin.
And what about everyone’s tolerance to brett, as one critic brought up? For some people the tiniest amount shuts them down into deeming the wine worthless and for others it is a driving force in enjoyment–adding another dimension of texture to the glass. Personally, I am the captain of the Brett-mobile, and bring on all your old-world funkiness. There’s another word you can’t use anymore: funk. Every time I use in on the blog, some jerk in the middle rows who’s WSET2 and bought his first bottle of wine in 2009 raises his hand.
2011 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Here another shift in style is noted. I LOVE the 2011 vintage, though this one didn’t wow me as much as I wanted it to. It’s huge, yes… concentrated and lush, tightly wrapped in tannin. A bit of barnyard, and a tropical sort of decadence to the fruit which will ease early drinking.
2012 HOWELL MOUNTAIN Another very modern wine, this one almost showed more like what I was EXPECTING from the 11. Closed in and tight, big lush fruit running thick while darting in and out of a POWERHOUSE of structure. Probably a hi-scoring wine and most likely noted to “cellar for 20 years” but few of today’s wine-drinking demographic at this price-point will.
SOOOOOO many questions for these two. Sorting came up. What about MOG? Even without optical sorters and a dozen hands on a table you KNOW that has changed in 30 years. What about steam cleaning and ozone instead of relying on KMBS and lots of water? What about the fact we are picking two weeks in September instead of over most of October and even November? What about vine density? What about barrels? How has the programme shifted? What about corks? And wax? What about the critics? Where’s Parker on these? What about social media? What about the blogosphere? What about Instagram? What about millennials? All were discussed. But really it all drove at WHAT ABOUT ALCOHOL? IS IT GOING TO CHANGE UNDER MIKE DUNN’S WATCH? Randy has a hardcore ceiling at 13-9. Mike is “a bit more flexible.” “Not holding myself that strictly.” “My upper limit is a touch higher.”
Oh well, the wine industry has indoctrinated and packaged tens of thousands of (now legitimized) somms into all using the same words and all descriptors come from the same workbook in order to sell wine to the lowest common denominator and eschew the perception of snobbiness. Well, screw you. I happen to like snobby. And not snobby as in aloof and pinkies-out, snobby as in has a palate and knows quality and understands wine is a living substance with life and sex and dirt and sweat and the homogenous Napa brands have all but bred and blended the life out of wine in their quest for dessert-concentration and sweet lavish mouthfeel. Randy Dunn has stubbornly and stalwartly preserved the REAL Napa Valley in a bottle and Mike plans to continue.
“The right alcohol level in a wine is to finish a bottle with your wife at dinner and want another glass.”