Note: The article excerpted below was originally published in Robb Report and can be found here.
“The 9 Best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons From the Storied Howell Mountain Appellation”
by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen
Long before the 1976 Judgment of Paris put Napa Valley’s vinous treasure on the wine world map, bottles from Howell Mountain were taking home medals at international contests. In 1889, a wine made by Jean Adolph Brun and Jean V. Chaix, pioneers in what is now the high-altitude AVA in the northeast of the valley took home a bronze medal from the Paris World Competition. Ten years later, two other early hillside settlers, W.S. Keyes and Frederick Hess, were awarded gold and bronze medals, respectively, for their Howell Mountain wines. It took almost another hundred years for official government recognition; in 1983 Howell Mountain was named the first AVA within the greater confines of the Napa Valley AVA.
What sets this small American Viticultural Area near Saint Helena apart from many other wine regions is that its perimeter is delineated not just by geographic borders but by altitude: All vineyards must be a minimum of 1,400 feet above sea level. And while many wines from Napa and neighboring Sonoma benefit from cooling Pacific fog that rolls in each morning, Howell Mountain’s vines sit above the fog line, offering full sunlight throughout the day. Mountain conditions create berries with thick skin, offering a higher peel to juice ratio and stronger tannins. At the same time, cooler temperatures at higher altitudes aid in retaining acidity; this balanced tannin and acidity create wines that are made to last. That said, picking at perfect ripeness and a judicious use of oak means that while these will age beautifully for years, no one would fault you for opening a bottle now. Back in the day, Howell Mountain wine was likely to be Zinfandel, but today its vineyards are mainly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties for blending. Among the region’s 66 member vineyards and wineries you will find familiar faces with national distribution and small volume cult wines that take a little work to acquire. Here’s a selection of Cabs to get you started…
The name Dust & Glory is to honor founder Flora Komes who often used this phrase borrowed from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This delightful wine is purple ink colored when poured from the bottle with very concentrated aromas of blueberry, cassis and dark chocolate. It has flavors of black plum, blackberry and a touch of bramble. The tannins are plush yet firm and the lingering finish has notes of cedar, smoke and mocha. Enjoy now until 2029.
This is the second vintage of our Dust & Glory Cabernet Sauvignon from the Howell Mountain AVA, the first new Single Vineyard Cabernet to be added to our portfolio in over two decades. We always admired the wines of Howell Mountain, an appellation that sits to the east of St. Helena in the Vaca Mountain range. But we also learned that growing fruit on Howell Mountain comes with its challenges; the grapes are typically late-ripening and the tannins can be overwhelming. But as John and Nat Komes explored and experimented, they identified a wine from one of the highest elevation sites in the AVA that met their criteria, a beautifully expressive mountain Cabernet, distinct from our other Single Vineyards but no less prized.
Beloved in California where they have the honor of being the state bird, quails are known to travel in groups, with adults, both male and female, caring for their young. With his characteristic head plume and cranberry-studded wreath, our festive quail is anticipating the holidays. This illustration is inspired by Flora Springs’ matriarch and muse, Flora Komes, whose love for all living things, both great and small, was legendary.
Our Holiday Bottles
Created especially for our wine club members, our Holiday Bottles are a way of thanking members for their loyalty and providing them with uniquely elegant bottles ideal for festive holiday celebrations and thoughtful gifts. The brainchild of General Manager Nat Komes, whose grandmother, Flora, imbued him with a love for the holidays, each wine is meticulously etched and painted by hand, with capsules and back labels applied one by one. As the only Napa Valley winery to offer new holiday designs each year, we pour ourselves into this annual project, ensuring that each bottle is absolute perfection inside and out.
Our 2019 Holiday Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from two outstanding, sustainably-farmed vineyards: the Komes Vineyard in Rutherford and our Windfall Vineyard in Oakville. Flavors of black cherry, red plum and kirsch are at the core of this plush and generous Cabernet, accompanied by notes of licorice, sweet basil, and a hint of menthol. A lovely oak component introduces notes of toasted marshmallow and vanilla to the palate, along with attractive hints of cedar and brown spice. This is a full-bodied wine with a soft mouthfeel and smooth tannins that lengthen the warm and satisfying finish. A perfect way to celebrate family during the holiday season. Learn more about this wine.
Flora Springs 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Holy Smoke Vineyard Oakville Napa Valley
Dark red. Shows an expansive nose of black currant with deeper notes of loam soil and chocolate shavings that are mirrored on a deeply flavored, mouth filling palate. The texture is silky with a firm structure, juicy acidity, and an overall sense of refinement. The oak is seamlessly integrated with just a hint of toast. And the finish is persistent with moderate tannins. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a single block planted to Clone 4 and matured 18 months in 80% French and 20% American oak.
Flora Springs 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Wild Boar Vineyard Napa Valley
The Wild Boar Cab is a supple wine with good intensity of fruit. It begins with savory, earthy aromas married to cassis fruit. The attack is soft and refined, leading to a palate of dark fruit with hints of chocolate and loam. Surprisingly accessible with round tannins and a long flavorful finish. Of all the Flora Springs single vineyard Cabernets, this is the one we would choose to drink now. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged 18 months in 30% French and 70% American oak.
Flora Springs 2018 Dust & Glory Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley
Dark red. On the nose, gorgeous up front aromas of blackberry, cassis, and tobacco leaf. Silky smooth attack followed by a beautifully refined mouth feel and concentrated, layered flavors of dark cherry, dark berries and savory dried herbs. A youthful wine, it has a distinct stoney, chalky mineral character. Finishes with a long flavorful finish with soft round tannins. Surprisingly evolved for a mountain wine, but then 2018 was an exceptional vintage. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from one of the highest vineyard sites on the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain; matured 22 months in 94% French and 6% American oak.
Flora Springs 2019 Rutherford Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley
On the nose, the Rutherford Hillside shows earthy, dark fruit complemented by smoky oak and cooking spice. It’s soft and silky on entry with a beautifully balanced and pure, refined character. Black currant and black raspberry show on the firmly structured and densely flavored palate, but despite its youth this wine is accessible now. Finishes long with dark fruit, cocoa dust, and earthy notes. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a small block of vines on the northwestern edge of the Rutherford appellation aged 18 months in 90% French and 10% American oak. The Rutherford Hillside Cab has been produced as a single vineyard wine since 1994.
Flora Springs Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons
Truly elegant and powerful wines, that reflect the place from which they originate. Shop our current releases or contact us at (800) 913-1118 to inquire about other vintages.
Flora Springs Soliloquy is named for our proprietary Sauvignon Blanc clone, an outstanding and singular clone which is entirely unique to Flora Springs. Planted in our Crossroads Vineyard in the Oakville AVA, the clone was certified in the late 1980s by UC Davis as distinct from more common Sauvignon Blanc clones in Napa Valley. The clone nearly went extinct when our vines became diseased and had to be pulled. It took eight long years – three in a lab, two in a nursery and three in the ground – but our family was able to protect and preserve this precious clone. After that, General Manager Nat Komes took Soliloquy on as a personal project, conducting numerous blending trials over a three-year period to re-create the Soliloquy wine he and his family remember so fondly. Today, Soliloquy represents our quest to create the finest white wine we have ever made, a worthy companion to our proprietary red wine, Trilogy.Learn more about this wine.
Our 2019 Trilogy marks the 35th vintage of our flagship red wine, a bottling that dates back to 1984 when our family decided to make the finest wine possible by selecting fruit from the highest quality blocks from our estate vineyards in Napa Valley. Back then it was one of Napa Valley’s first proprietary red wines, and we named it for the three Bordeaux varietals which made up the blend. Ever since, Trilogy has consistently earned more than 90 points from wine critics and is admired by fans both for its approachability and ability to age. Learn more about this wine.
Flora Springs Soliloquy is named for our proprietary Sauvignon Blanc clone, an outstanding and singular clone which is entirely unique to Flora Springs. Planted in our Crossroads Vineyard in the Oakville AVA, the clone was certified in the late 1980s by UC Davis as distinct from more common Sauvignon Blanc clones in Napa Valley. The clone nearly went extinct when our vines became diseased and had to be pulled. It took eight long years – three in a lab, two in a nursery and three in the ground – but our family was able to protect and preserve this precious clone. After that, General Manager Nat Komes took Soliloquy on as a personal project, conducting numerous blending trials over a three-year period to re-create the Soliloquy wine he and his family remember so fondly. Today, Soliloquy represents our quest to create the finest white wine we have ever made, a worthy companion to our proprietary red wine, Trilogy.
Our Sauvignon Blanc-based 2020 Soliloquy is a complex, multi-layered blend of white varietals offering evocative notes of pomelo, lime blossom, apple, hazelnut and stone fruit. Sauvignon Blanc anchors the wine with bold flavor, zesty acidity and serious weight, while the Chardonnay rounds out the blend with a creamy leesy quality. The Malvasia brings alluring citrus and floral notes. Soliloquy is an impressive, crowd pleasing wine, ideal for Saturday night dinner parties with friends. Learn more about this wine.
2020 Napa Valley Vintage
The 2020 Napa Valley growing season began with a warm, dry winter, with no appreciable rain until the end of March. A mild spring season gave the vines a healthy start, and summer brought very cool mornings and warm days. What looked like an ideal harvest turned into one of Napa Valley’s most challenging due to wildfires in the region. At Flora Springs, we were not able to harvest the majority of our red grapes, but we were able to safely harvest pristine, delicious grapes for our Soliloquy white wine in early September. As a family and team, we have pledged to over deliver on wine quality for more than forty years, even during challenging vintages. Our 2020 Soliloquy is a testament to this dedication.
“…decadent and lush, this is really a hedonistic Cabernet Sauvignon, really terroir driven as well, good acid and absolutely brilliant finish. I want to pair this with grilled meat – of any sort…I just want to keep savoring this wine…”
There may have been a few raindrops but they sure didn’t dampen the spirits of the folks attending our 2016 Trilogy Release Party on February 2nd!
Setting the upbeat tone were the ramp rippin’ skateboarders from OC Ramps, jumping, flipping and generally shredding to the crowd of pumped up onlookers. The lion dancers, decked out in rain-defying, bright yellow costumes, shimmied, shook and celebrated the Chinese New Year (and our new Year of the Pig Cabernet) with their traditional dance of good fortune.
Doing a little shimmying of his own was Nat Komes, Flora Springs’ third generation general manager, host extraordinaire, wearer of the Trilogy fez and mastermind behind the annual Trilogy Release Party. “One of the best parts of planning this party is deciding what special surprises we’ll offer our guests. It’s always about how can we make this event something people will remember forever…what will really set it apart?”
Nat and the extended Flora Springs family outdid themselves with stilt walkers, living statues, a cheese carver, a glass artist and a live performance by the up and coming rock and alt-country David Luning Band. The party was anchored by numerous wine stations pouring the new 2016 Trilogy and an amazing selection of Flora Springs wines – including library and current releases as well as our highly limited Flora’s Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon.
And as always, Flora Springs brought together top local restaurants to present delicious and inventive dishes, our way of sharing the celebration of our world class wine, Trilogy, with the community. We heard a lot of great comments from our guests throughout the party, but the one that’ll keep us motivated as we plan for next year’s release? “Best Trilogy Party Ever!”
See the OC Ramps team in action:
Save the date – February 1, 2020 – for the 2017 Trilogy Release Party. Learn more and mark your calendar!
Note: The following article was originally written by Kim Marcus and published in the Wine Spectator on November 30, 2018 and can be found here.
Peaks & Valleys California Merlot is at its best in Napa, where vineyards at diverse elevations deliver distinctive styles
Though Merlot is grown throughout California, Napa Valley is by far the variety’s powerhouse appellation. Yet the region’s wines are not all cut from the same cloth. There’s a marked contrast in style between wines grown on the valley floor and those sourced from mountain sites. The driving force in both types is texture, but the valley wines tend to be fleshy and richer, while higher altitudes provide more structure and purity of flavor. The two top bottlings in this report-one from a high-elevation site and one from valley vineyards—help bring those styles into focus, and their differences can be instructive when it comes to making buying decisions with this versatile grape.
In the past year, I’ve tasted 135 Merlots and Merlot-based blends, with an impressive 43 scoring an outstanding 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. (A free alphabetical guide to all wines tasted for this report is available.) The flagship mountain bottling is the La Jota Howell Mountain 2015 (93 points, $85), which offers intense and pure red fruit flavors. La Jota is in the stable of the Jackson Family group of wineries, as is another outstanding mountain Merlot, the Mt. Brave Mount Veeder 2015 (91 $80), with robust and well-knit dried berry and black fruit flavors. The wines are firmly tannic and fresh-tasting, hallmarks of the higher altitudes where they were grown—both at about 1,800 feet, though on opposite sides of the valley.
Skilled Jackson Family veteran Chris Carpenter made both La Jota and Mt. Brave. “There’s a structure to mountain Merlot that is incredibly compelling. And a lot of how I think about Bordeaux varieties in the mountains is tannin development,” he says. “How are the tannins in sync with the sugars, phenols, acid and other compounds? Ultimately, I’d like to have them all in their respective sweet spots, but they all act independently of each other.”
Tannins are usually bigger in mountain-grown grapes, which are typically smaller in size than valley fruit and have a higher skin-to-pulp ratio (skins are tannin-rich). The small berry size is mostly due to the poorer soils and cooler conditions found in the mountains. “The vines are struggling here more than on the valley floor, because there’s very little clay in the soils that retains water and [the soils] are low in nutrients,” Carpenter adds. “Tannins are protective and are there to allow the fruit to ripen.”
To help wrangle those tannins, Carpenter employs a variety of techniques. He is careful to optimally sequence the harvest down to the individual row or plot, which is complicated by the many vineyard exposures, including the shadows cast by tall mountain forests. That’s more of an issue on Mount Brave, where the slopes are steep compared to the relatively level terrain found at the top of Howell Mountain. In the cellar, Carpenter encourages modest exposure to the softening effects of oxygen through aerative pump-overs along with gentle racking into barrels.
The top representative from the valley floor this year is the Venge Oakville Oakville Estate Vineyard 2015 (93, $70), big and rich, with luscious dark fruit flavors. Grab this one while you can, because its vines were pulled for replanting after the vintage. It was made by Kirk Venge, of the family-owned estate in Calistoga, who is now hoping replicate its quality in future vintages with fruit from the nearby Kenefick Ranch vineyard, among other sources.
“I love the approachability of Merlot. The flavor profile has a softer body to it. It’s fun to see its personality and, compared to Cabernet, it shows the terroir better,” Venge says. “We’ve always stuck by Merlot and never abandoned it, even with Sideways,” he adds, referring to the 2004 hit movie in which Merlot was disparaged and that many believe led to the sizeable drop in demand for the wines in the ensuing years. “It’s wonderful in a blend and great by itself, but it is hard to grow because it is prone to poor fruit set and overcropping. It can give you some attitude.”
Venge points outs that he considers Kenefick, which features a very gentle slope at the base of the Palisades cliffs just south of the town of Calistoga, to be more a benchland site than a pure valley vineyard. It also one of the warmest areas in Napa, and Venge is careful with canopy management to protect against the strong rays of the sun. The soils here are gravelly and well-drained, traits the site shares with the vineyard that produced last year’s top-scoring Merlot, the Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley 2014, which also took Wine of the Year honors.
“We do ripen earlier here but it’s a good location. It gets sun, that’s for sure, but a little later [in the day] because of the Palisades and the narrowness of the valley here,” Venge explains. A tasting of the yet-to-be-released 2016 Kenefick Ranch Merlot revealed richness to the sanguine and spice box flavors. Venge added 5 percent Petit Verdot to the cuvée to build structure and boost depth of flavor; Carpenter added 3 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Tannat to his 2016 La Jota for the same reason.
In the list of recommended wines that accompanies this report, you will find additional examples of both mountain and valley styles. From the mountains, besides La Jota and Mt. Brave, top wines were made by Luna, Pride and Beringer. Due to their powerful structures, most would benefit from short-term cellaring and should be good matches for roasted meats and other savory dishes. The leading Merlots of the valley style include those from Flora Springs, Darioush, Stewart and St. Francis (in Sonoma). These are fine for sipping on their own or paired with pasta or grilled steak.
On the values front, you have to be choosy. High-yielding Merlot can taste thin and herbal, and it requires committed winemaking to make high quality affordable versions. Planting it in the right terrain is key as well—with rich soils, the grapes can overproduce and turn weedy; in poorer soils, the tannins can turn tough.
“Like Cabernet does on thinner soils, Merlot can become a raisin even more quickly due to the size of the berry. Or at least head in that direction. Therefore I look for more glacial soils, loam soils, and if they have some clay, even better,” says Nick Goldschmidt, whose Goldschmidt Dry Creek Valley Chelsea Goldschmidt Salmon’s Leap 2015 (90, $20) is one the top values in this report. Other key factors for Goldschmidt include selecting rootstocks in the vineyard that can produce ripe fruit in California’s bone-dry summers without dehydrating. In the cellar, keeping quality high means long fermentations to extract as much flavor as possible.
An exceptionally priced wine for the quality is the Flora Springs Merlot Napa Valley 2014 (92, $30), with silky tannins behind the spicy red fruit flavors. Outside of Napa and Sonoma, the choices are more limited, though it’s worth the search to experience the varying expressions of this versatile grape. Paso Robles is a reliable alternative, with the likes of the San Simeon Estate Reserve 2014 (90, $22), a big and rich red with loamy accents to the dark fruit flavors, and the Maddalena 2014 (88, $18), with red fruit flavors and minerally overtones.
“The most expensive wine in the world is a Merlot [Petrús in Pomerol] and we should have a Merlot that garners that kind of respect,” though not at such a high price, says Jackson Family’s Carpenter. “We have the terroir for it.”
Ambitions still run high in California for Merlot, both on the mountains and in the valleys. And with the best versions generally rich in dark fruit flavors and appealing spice and savory herbal notes, and a bit softer and more open-textured overall than Cabernet, Merlot remains an enticing big red from the Golden State.
Senior editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Merlot.