Home Wine Business Editorial Chris Howell Reflects on 30 Years of Napa Winemaking Through the Lens...

Chris Howell Reflects on 30 Years of Napa Winemaking Through the Lens of Cain Five

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By Laura Ness

A conversation with Chris Howell, winemaker for this iconic brand atop Spring Mountain since 1990, is bound to cover as much ground as a walking tour of the famed vineyard itself. You find yourself examining the dirt and weeds beneath your feet one minute, inhaling the native plants that surround the place and impart their secret influence the next, and then, you’re perched on the highest rock, taking in the 360 view of the world according to Cain. Or, more correctly, the world according to Howell through the lens of Cain. 

Chris HowellCain, the vineyard, is far more important than Cain the wine. When we caught up with Howell and his winemaking team at a Cain Five Retrospective tasting at Cook’s in St. Helena, as part of Premier Napa Valley in February, he was just as eager as we were to taste through the older vintages and see what stories they had to tell. With Howell, everything is a story, and wine makes it all the more interesting. He told me that a French vigneron once told him that winetasting—and spitting—annoyed him. “Wine is made for drinking!” 

Cain dates back to 1980, when Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased 550 acres of the historic McCormick Ranch, located at the top of Spring Mountain. Joining them in their quest to install a mountain vineyard that could produce a blend of the five Bordeaux varieties, were Jim and Nancy Meadlock. The Meadlocks took over the project, which had been known as Cain Cellars, when the Cain’s retired in 1991. It is this vineyard, which began with a planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981, followed by Cabernet Franc in 1984, and then Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot in 1985, that is today the source of the iconic Cain Five blend we’ve come to prize. 

But it wasn’t always that way. When the first vintage of Cain Five, the 1985, was released in 1989, much of the fruit came from other vineyards in the Napa Valley, as the estate vineyard was just ramping up production. Thus, you will see Napa Valley on the earlier labels and 100% Estate on the later ones. 

Over time, the impact of disease, in particular, phylloxera, took its toll on the Cain vineyard, as it did on the whole of Napa. Eventually, all the original vines at Cain were replaced using phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, a lesson learned the hard way, not just by Cain, but by the entire Napa Valley. Howell says that at the behest of consultants, “When we replanted in the 1990s, we concentrated on Cabernet, to a fault.” He references the obsession with ENTAV clones, high-density plantings, French consultants, and French Oak Barrels, in an attempt to chase Bordeaux. 

Chris Howell joined the winery in 1991, as Cain Cellars transitioned to Cain Vineyard & Winery. Raised in Seattle, Washington, he became enamored of wine, and thoughtfully decided he might learn something from folks who’d been practicing their craft a few centuries more than we had here in the US. So, off he went to the Medoc. 

When he returned to the US from France and started working in Napa, he found that the texture of Napa Cabs was not the same as Bordeaux. Winemakers he talked with said, “We must not be doing it right.” No, said Howell. “I know how we did it in France! It’s the grapes that are different here in Napa.” 

This led to the movement to discover phenolic ripeness, getting to ripe tannins. 

“I didn’t actually think I’d learn any secret formula in France,” he says. “Trust me, I didn’t.” But what he did learn was respect for what vines give you, and not to overdo it in the cellar.

As for the Cain team’s vinification approach, it includes hand picking, gentle destemming, native yeast fermentation, thoughtful maceration, and manual pressing. The wine completes malolactic fermentation in the barrel, is blended 

early, is racked barrel-to-barrel, is then egg-white fined, and is bottled without filtration. Says Howell, “We compose the blend following three essential desiderata: Complexity, Balance, and Persistence.” 

And so, we walked through 30 years of Cain, in 5- and 10-year increments, beginning with 1985, the first vintage of Cain Five produced at the winery. Howell first came to Napa in 1985, but did not arrive at Cain until 1991. He notes that in 1985, they chose to put the varieties on the necker, which he found interesting. When he took over, he switched to putting them on the front label, until 2015, when they got moved to the back label. 

1985 Cain Five

Composition: 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot.

Alc: 13.6%

Aromatics: Iron filings, earth, dried cherries

Flavors: Amaro, licorice and dried prosciutto; really smooth tannins

Winemaker notes: Howell didn’t make this wine, but recalls 1985 as being uneventful, after the rains of 1983 and 1984. A year of relative calm.

1995 Cain Five

Composition: 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 9% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.

Alc: 12.5%

Aromatics: Beguiling baked blackberry pie, dark cherry, floral notes, perfume

Flavors: Lively blackberry pie, zippy, cherry chocolate cake, very lively with a long powerful and satisfying finish; great acid and very fine tannins throughout. You can really taste the Merlot.

Winemaker notes: This was a slow ripening year, given to great acid retention. A dense, showy, supple wine. Ripe, but with no hint of overripeness. 

2000 Cain Five

Composition: 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 1% Malbec, 16% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot.

Alc: 13.5%

Aromatics: Fierce iron filings, smoky tobacco, oak toast, underbrush, campfire coffee

Flavors: muddled wild cherry, roasted mushrooms, dark cocoa, smoked meat – still quite tight and very concentrated

Winemaker notes: This was a transitional year, as the estate re-plantings were coming on line. Less than 30% of this wine was estate. Moderate yields, slow ripening and moderate temperatures made age-worthy wines of depth and concentration. The smokiest Cain Five made to date.

2005 Cain Five

Composition: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Malbec, 16% Cabernet Franc and 14% Petit Verdot.

Alc: 14.8%

Aromatics: very earthy, savory and weedy, like being in the vineyard; touch of Frankincense

Flavors: fleshy with lots of spice, blueberry, sage and a beautiful texture

Winemaker notes: This wine was 85% estate or from neighboring vineyards. This year saw long hangtime, enabling the inclusion of 14% Petit Verdot for color and balance, and preserving firmness of tannins and freshness of aromatics.

2015 Cain Five

Composition: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 1% Malbec, 11% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.

Aromatics: dark cherry, chocolate, graphite, fresh basil, and tarragon

Flavors: bright and fresh, brimming with sage and blueberry, sandy tannins and a statuesque, divinely grand structure with wonderful mouthfeel 

Winemaker notes: This wine is 100% estate. 2015 was a stingy year, due to an early Spring and bloom, followed by gloom at flowering, causing spotty fruit set. Less than a ton per acre was harvested from the property, the lowest yield since 1990. Tiny berries could yield an inky tannic wine, or something dense and sweet. This is generous, dense and focused, expressing the herbal and savory notes of this mountain vineyard.

A takeaway from revisiting these wines in light of their evolution? “I don’t think that we’ll ever ‘figure out’ how to make Cain Five. Each vintage is a process of discovery,” says Howell. 

Rewinding a bit, we asked Howell about other “Bordeaux style” wines that were in production when he came to Cain. “I was very conscious of Opus One and Robert Mondavi Reserve, Dominus, Phelps Insignia, and Ridge Monte Bello. Also, Jordan. One other wine I paid attention to was Carmenet, from Moon Mountain Road, above Glen Ellen. Also, Spottswoode, Tony Soter’s Etude, then, a bit later, Araujo Eisele. Also, Corison. Also Rubicon.”

“Still, none of any of these (except perhaps Monte Bello) had much influence on our understanding of the Cain Vineyard. Most of these were about wine-making (or blending) while we were trying to focus on a vineyard, so Dominus, Carmenet, and Monte Bello would have been the most relevant.”

While he knew the wines of the Medoc well, he did not consider them to be references for us in the New World. He also, had a role at Peter Michael, so Les Pavots was certainly on his mind. Admittedly he notes, “We couldn’t avoid Harlan, then, later, Colgin and Bryant. And, if these were ‘trend setters,’ it would have been a trend that at Cain, we didn’t follow.”

We talked about how the wine landscape has changed over time, and how Napa wines seem to largely swing along the same arc together. There were the restrained, low alcohol wines of the 1980s, followed by the bigger is better and nothing succeeds like excess 1990s, followed by the how high can we go 2000s. Then there was the swing back towards more modest alcohols.

And then, Mother Nature kicked California in the head with a cool wet 2011, forcing winemakers to make wine from grapes that couldn’t get all the way to jam. The drought followed, forcing further stylistic changes, and now, in western states, fire danger, and unprecedented long hangtimes, are necessitating still further adjustments. It all points to the impact of climate on the vineyard, and to the true lack of influence humans have over nature, other than to disrupt it.

“We have an expression in this country—winemaker. It maps to brewer. Both are driven by the idea of ‘what I want to make.’ That you assemble ingredients and create an end result. This may be true of beer. But when it comes to wine, it is the vineyard that is the maker of the wine, not us. The vineyard is essential.”

Howell is not a big fan of making wine according to a formula guaranteed to get a good Parker score. “I worry about winemakers trying to make wines to a formula, because everything then tastes the same. Which to me is the opposite of what wine is supposed to be. It’s like people. Making wine according to a formula is a lot like what happens to teenage girls in high school. The pressure to conform is so great, you lose your own personality. If all wines taste the same, what’s the point?”

This is not to say that there shouldn’t or couldn’t be regional similarities, a coherence, as it were. But please preserve the individuality of each vineyard. 

As for Cain Five itself? Says Howell, “I think that the obsession with ‘5’ in a blend is really missing the point, even if our own wine is so-named. Difficult to believe, but if the vineyard has a strong signal, the varietal composition becomes secondary.”

Which is a nice segue to the fact that the Cain team chose to put up a 2018 Malbec barrel sample for the Premier Napa Valley wine auction (Lot #31). Why Malbec, we wondered? “Assistant Winemaker, François Bugué, selected this wine,” explains Howell. “It was the most expressive, impressive wine we had in the cellar for this vintage. It typifies what our cellar smells like at fermentation. It literally smells like the Cain vineyard to us. We wanted others to experience it.” 

This wine was screaming fresh, exotically floral, practically shimmering with electric red sparks of fresh strawberry candy. It hit your tongue like high acid pop rocks and the grapefruit rind and touch of blood orange soda made it tingle with the kind of vibrato energy that reminds you wine is alive. Or, at least it can be. Ought to be.

While the Cain Malbec lot didn’t do so well at the auction in terms of fundraising, a wine like that, so outside the spectrum of Napa Cabernet conformity (big mouthfeel, dark black fruit buoyed by a wealth of expensive tannin), would not fare swimmingly in the secondary retail market, where customers are looking for the typical, and not the atypical. 

Still the Cain team was notably proud to share the Malbec at the tasting, as it does something they find easy to do daily: be yourself, with no apologies.

As Howell says, “The value of wine lies in its diversity, not in uniformity. If you seek to make everything the same, you’ve ruined it.”

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