Tasting Cain, part II

Part II:  Winemaker Chris Howell, Cain Winery, and the Taboo Subject of Brett

Cain Winery sits 1800 feet above St. Helena on the valley floor, way up on Spring Mountain Road. A sign with an arrow and the words Cain Winery, marks the longest single-lane, curvy, road/driveway imaginable.  The winery is so far out there, that after two miles down this twisting, blind-cornerd driveway, the there is a county sign that reads, road ends. Yet you still are not there yet.  Go farther; you will find Cain. There is an intense sense of quiet and isolation on the estate, and one can only imagine that has had some profound influence on the unique philosophies that guide the Winemaker and GM, Chris Howell in his quest for the true expression of this piece of land.

St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery - Rutherford, ...
Rutherford, Napa Valley (Photo credit: –Mark–)

I have found a commonality to the wines from this section of the mountain.  Two of Cain’s most immediate neighbors, Guilliams and Keenan, have very similar profile of making classically styled Napa wine, and all have unusually fine, silky tannins.  I cannot say with certainty that these fine tannins are the result of terroir speaking, but I tend to believe that they are. While I talked to Chris, (read part 1) we tasted the three wines being made at Cain. The winery’s flagship, Cain Five, is made entirely from estate fruit. The Cain Cuvee, which is part estate fruit, and part valley fruit, shared distinct commonality. The Cain Concept, is made from puchased Napa Valley fruit, was decidedly different in character and structure, although the winemaking is the same.

“both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet”

Midway through the tasting, I introduced my feeling that the wines had improved from those Chris had made in the late eighties. Soon after I told him I thought they were cleaner and more enjoyable, and he admitted there had been a lot of brett in the winery, Chris decided to show me an older example of Cain Five. He produced a bottle of Cain Five from 1999 vintage, perhaps to show that the change has been minimal, or maybe he wanted to put the matter to rest. I don’t know, but I was excited to try it. This wine certainly had more brett than the 2007 we were tasting, but not nearly as much as I seemed to remember in the wines, and the nose was remarkable. It was captivating.

The vineyard has been replanted section by section since 1995, so the 1999 Cain Five will have been made from fruit off the old, phylloxera- infested  plantings, whereas the 2007 would be mostly from the new, high-density plantings that are now trained low to the ground to speed physiological ripening, and utilizes vertical shoot trellising. Additionally, pruning methods have been improved. All of these things affect fruit quality. That said, both Cain Fives were truly beautiful wines, showing so much depth, impeccable balance, and both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet.

Chris was very generous, and allowed us to take all the wines to dinner that night, at Bar Terre in St Helena, where we tried the wines with multiple courses, often with superb results. versatility with food is something I don’t expect from California Cabernet-based wines, due to their typical extremes in terms of weight and concentration, so the fact that Cain Five could, certainly surprised me.

I have rated these wines, something I rarely do, and usually don’t feel don’t feel is appropriate. In this case, because California Cabernet has a fairly uniform style, and I feel scores have more relevance, and may convey the quality I feel these wines possess.

Cain Cuvee NV8 

This Merlot based (48%), dual-vintage blend, is drawn primarily from the lush, but brooding 2008 vintage, with the addition of the brighter wine from 2007. The Cain Cuvee is an impressively svelte wine, designed to drink young.  Blended from a combination fruit from the estate, and purchased benchland fruit, it carries with it more fresh fruit character than Cain’s higher end bottlings, yet maintains the wineries  trademark of class and perfect balance.  Bordeaux-like is the goal, and Winemaker Chris Howell has great success here, giving the wine understated poise, yet detailed, persistent fruit. The nose, with its fresh cranberry and blackberry fruit, has an almost raw, carbonic element to it, when compared to the other wines, although I doubt this was the case. Chris’ practice of picking a bit early, is particularly evident with this wine, with its yin and yang of deeper, ripe notes, and slightly under-ripe fruit, and a hint of briar and dusty road.   Lean and long, this has just enough sinew to bind it all together, with its smooth tannins. This is a wine, that will age effortlessly for 15 to 20 years, due to its impeccable balance. It is the very end of the vintage, and there should be some on retailers shelves, but the distributor, Henry wine group is shipping the NV9.  91 points

2008 Cain Concept, “The Benchlands”

Cain “Concept”, which the winery has subtitled as ‘The Benchlands” because it is maded from all purchased fruit from the valley. The fruit for the “Concept” sourced from several top-flight vineyards, including Beckstoffer Georges III and To-Kalon.  If any wine is intended to be a Cabernet, this is it.  A soft, broad nose of berries, dust, perfume, blueberries, fresh herbs, and California olives. Typical Cain, with rich soft fruit, some classic, old school,(but not assertive) California Bell Pepper, earthy, berry fruit, dusty tannins, touch of peppercorn, and a creamy texture.. Really lovely, so perfectly balanced. Andre Tchelistcheff would be proud.  This wine will improve with a few years in the cellar.  92 points.

2007 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

All estate fruit, primarily of Cabernet from near the top of Spring Mountain at 1400 ft. Blackberry fruit, coupled with brown sugar, cream, toast, cocoa nibs, and fennel, but this is so integrated, that it’s difficult to separate the aromas. The mouth is more so this way, with mocha and the burnt sugar of toffee taking a more of the center stage. Texture is of black velvet, with a dusky, notes of wet earth, and musk to it, with complex notes from the brett wrapping up the impressive package. Balance is again paramount, with Chris’ fine tannins coming into play. The vineyard was replanted close to the ground, giving better ripeness to the tannins. An easy twenty year wine, but this shows exceptionally well now, and may or may not, improve with age. 95 points

1999 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

The aroma was so intoxicating, with its undefined floral, herbal, woodsy, and fruit aromas, it almost required no tasting. The palate is very broad and rich, with the earthy loam coming to the forefront, which was somewhat exacerbated by the wine’s cool temperature. The wine wass sweet, and herbal tones in the mouth, with the tannins gripping a bit more after it had been open a while. As it aired, the loam, herbs, and mocha, and spices have overcome much of the blackberry and raspberry fruit.  The earthy-musty quality of brett is  more evident in this bottling, along with some green notes, molasses, allspice, and clove began to stand outeven more  over time, some of which can be contributed to the aged quality which is expected of a 13-year-old wine.  The wine is immensely complex, and quite fabulous, particularly with the braised lamb (at Terra in St. Helena). With a black cod, notes of cranberry fruit tended to stand out (an even older Cain Five would have been even better with this dish). This wine is capable of  aging another fifteen years, easily. 95 points

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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