Take a Trip Up the Mountain in Napa
Howell Mountain was one of the first Napa Valley microclimates to be designated an AVA. AVA stands for American Viticultural Area and it is a designated wine grape growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features and boundaries. The total area encompasses 14,000 acres but only 600 acres are planted with vines. Howell Mountain is particularity known for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon although there are several other varietals grown there including Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel. Howell Mountain wines can be described as big fruit-forward wines that can age well. Many have white pepper characteristics to them in addition to black fruit. In other words, they have robustness to them with elegance.
Vintners began planting vines in the area in the 1880’s. Jean Adolph Brun and Jean Chaix were two of the first to plant vines and have success selling their wines. In 1889 the pair made history when they won a bronze medal at the Paris World Competition. Eventually they sold their operation to others and it was closed during Prohibition. After lying dormant for decades, it has been completely renovated and it is currently home to Ladera Vineyards.
The weather on Howell Mountain is generally sunny and cool compared to the valley floor. Most vineyards are planted between 1,400 and 2,200 feet above sea level. The elevation is usually above the fog line where cool fog and winds from the San Pablo Bay that can affect valley floor vineyards. Because of the altitude, evening temperatures are generally warmer and daytime temperatures cooler which levels out spikes of heat that tend to be more exaggerated at lower elevations. The area tends to get about twice as much rainfall as the valley below (although all of Napa has been in a drought for several years); the soil tends to be dry. This is due to rocky porous soil conditions which allows for adequate drainage and less accumulation. Bud break tends to be later than average compared to the valley floor and warmer summer nights produce grapes with a great balance between acidity and sugar. This all means the wine has great complexity and diversity in your glass.
Drinking Howell Mountain wines can be an experience but getting to the appellation can be almost as exciting. Napa Valley has two main roads running north and south that span the entire length of the valley. There is Highway 29 on the west and Silverado Train on the east. When heading north on Silverado Trail towards St. Helena, you come to a flashing stoplight at Deer Park Road. Turn right heading east and go about 3 miles to White Cottage Road (which is also a name of a winery). That intersection, which is roughly about 1,400 feet in elevation, is where the official appellation begins. Continuing to travel up that road will take you to greater elevations and more wineries and vineyards to visit.
If you are planning to visit some wineries on Howell Mountain, just like you would on the valley floor, you need to allow for time between visits. The appellation is very spread out and there tends to be a lot of twists and turns on the roads and it may take you longer than you think to get from one winery to another. As always, consider making only 2 or 3 appointments in a day. Remember you drove all the way up there and you will have to drive all the way down since there is no lodging in the appellation. And as mentioned above, most wineries welcome visitors only by appointment because they are so small compared to many other wineries on the valley floor.
As you can see from the map below, there are several dozen wineries to consider, although not all of them are open to the public. Calling ahead is always the best course of action to try and make an appointment. One winery that has a tasting room in addition to tours and tastings is Bravante Vineyards which is located at 300 Stone Ridge Road in Angwin (707-965-2552). General tasting is $30 a person with a reserve tasting that will set you back $50. The winery is known for their Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot-based blends in addition to their Sauvignon Blanc. Another winery to consider is Outpost. Outpost is situated a little higher up then Bravante at 2,200 feet above Napa Valley. Outpost produces Cabernet, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Grenache from their organically farmed 28 acre estate vineyard.
One of the most popular and sough-after winemakers in the valley Thomas Rivers Brown heads up the wine making team. Outpost is located at 2075 Summit Lake Drive in Angwin (707-965-1718) and is open by appointment seven days a week. The tasting fee is $40. If you want to add a little twist to your tour and tasting then you need to visit Cimarossa (which means “red hill top”). In addition to their phenomenal single-vineyard Cabernets and olive oil, the tour includes a trip around the rugged terrain of the four vineyards on an ATV and then a tasting in an old hunting cabin with breath-taking views. The winery is located at 1185 Friesen Road in Angwin (707-307-3130). Tours and tastings are strictly by appointment only and run around $30 a person. The tours and tasting are not cheap but the experience is priceless. Whether you enjoy Howell Mountain wines or not, one thing is for sure, no matter where you visit, the views will be spectacular!