If you like rich and complex full-bodied flavors, then it’s hard to resist the magnificent wines made with fruit grown on Howell Mountain. Towering above the fog line in the Vaca Mountain Range east of St. Helena in Napa County, the rich history of winegrowing in the region dates back to 1870s. But following Prohibition, the old abandoned vineyards were hidden under scrub oak, manzanita, mesquite, and digger pines until the early 1970s, when the historic La Jota Vineyard Co. was restored by entrepreneur Bill Smith.
Despite having less than 1,000 acres of planted vineyards, the AVA is now home to nearly fifty wineries. While many of the proprietors call the isolated region home, others simply own vineyards and crush the grapes on the valley floor. In essence, what brought all these curious individuals to the area is a passion for making red wines with distinct mountain flavors.
There are two main soil types in the region. The first is the Aikens series, an iron-rich volcanic soil with a red hue. The second is the rarer “tufa,” a light chalky-colored soil consisting of decomposed volcanic ash. But the biggest impact on the appellation is based on climate. At elevations ranging from 1,400 to 2,400 feet, the region is 10 degrees cooler than the valley floor during the day and 10 degrees warmer at night. Therefore, the clusters ripen slowly which results in small berries with thick skins and a higher skin to juice ratio; high acidity; and extremely concentrated flavors.
Consequently, Howell Mountain is quickly growing in popularity. For starters, its unique soils and elevation above the fog are natural attributes that make the region distinctive. Secondly, its remote hillside location acts as a buffer from the mass tourism commonly seen in the valley. And finally, it’s a region that provides you with flavorful wines that are worth the price.
Whites: Minimal. This is mainly red wine country.
Reds: Zinfandel was one of the first varieties planted on the mountain. Due to the balanced climate conditions, the fruit on the vines tends to ripen late and mature slowly to develop smaller berries and tighter clusters than those found on the valley floor. But today, the newer plantings are mainly Bordeaux varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot.
Zinfandel typically features vibrant acidity and concentrated flavors of brambly fruit, dark cherry, huckleberry, blackberry, chocolate, white pepper, and wild herbs. On the other hand, the Howell Mountain Cabernets have distinct aromas of black fruits, fresh mountain herbs, graphite, mineral, wet stone, and spice. Bordeaux blends offer deep, rich and extracted flavors of ripe blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry, cassis, roasted black walnut, firm structure, velvety texture and soft tannins.
With Zinfandel, think gourmet pizzas, barbecued tri-tip, spicy spare ribs, and duck with cherry sauce. The Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends are much bigger and go better with heartier foods, including blue cheeses, wild mushrooms, roasted pig, filet of beef, and rack of lamb.