A Man With a Plan: Christopher Howell and the Cain Story
June 14, 2018
Some winemakers produce wine as a commodity. Then there are those who are more akin to alchemists, working with soil, sun and vines to create magic; wines that have heart, soul and actual lives. Christopher Howell of Spring Mountain's Cain Vineyard defines the latter category.
Howell has been the winemaker and general manager of Cain Vineyard & Winery since 1991. The winery produces 20,000 or so cases annually of cabernet-based Bordeaux blends, all of which are remarkable and remarkably interesting.
Cain Five, the flagship, is a blend of the traditional Bordeaux varietals: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot, grown exclusively on Cain Vineyard high atop Spring Mountain overlooking the town of St. Helena. Though it is less expensive and more available than some other Napa wines that are touted as "cult wines," each vintage gets kudos and high scores from collectors and critics alike. This is one of the special wines from Napa Valley that everyone who loves cabernet should have on their bucket list, if not in their cellar.
The Cain Concept and Cain Cuvée, the other two wines in the family, each represent different approaches. The Cain Concept, sub-titled "The Benchland," is made from fruit grown in some of the most esteemed vineyards in the Rutherford and Atlas Peak appellations, including Morisoli Borges, Hudson, Garvey, Beckstoffer's George III, and Stagecoach.
The NV13 Cuvée is a blend of both mountain and valley floor fruit, capitalizing on the value of variations in grapes grown at different elevations. As a rule, mountain-grown cabernet can possess a bit more power, acidity and tannin, while fruit grown in the hot sun on the valley floor may show a bit more ripeness. Put them together and they can create a marriage of geography that enhances both.
But perhaps most interesting is that Howell not only blends different grapes from different locations in the Cuvée, he also blends different vintages together. Much like a non-vintage Champagne has juice from different years and different vintages, the Cain Cuvée uses grapes from two different harvests. For close to 20 years, Howell has used the process of blending two vintages with an eye toward forming a more interesting wine that reflects and contrasts the strengths of two unique times and places.
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Anyone who has spent time with the exacting, abundantly passionate and occasionally quirky Howell knows his focus is on the process of partnering with nature to make wines that reflect both place and time. It is an ethos that can be seen in the sweaty rim of the floppy hat he wears during his extended workdays in the Cain Vineyards.
Over the past year, I had a pair of opportunities to spend time with Howell and learn how he views the process of winemaking. In September, just a week before the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma (that fortuitously spared Cain's vineyards), I wound my way up Spring Mountain to the site of the winery and vineyard. It was a glorious early harvest morning and Chris took me on a bumpy ride into the vineyards, where he would meet with his team. "How is harvest going?" I asked. That was my final question, as he spoke for most of the next hour about a variety of subjects ranging from terroir to teamwork.
The gist of his message was that he considers his role to be little more than that of a facilitator. That the vines make the wine, the vineyard manager and the staff do all of the work and that what comes out in the end is part of a natural process that he has little to do with.
"Less is more," "don't try to over-correct," and "keep it simple" were the oft-repeated mantras of Howell's lesson. He spoke of how the organically grown farmed grapes let you know when they are ready for harvest, how the winery does not need an optical sorter because an occasional stem or leaves are natural parts of the vines and how Cain does not inoculate with yeast. Basically the message was that staying out of the way was the method to make wine, or more precisely, to let a wine make it self.
Though totally genuine in his musing, I must beg to differ with Howell's seeming self-deprecation. To have, first, the philosophy and the courage to allow the process to work on its own requires a confidence that few mortals have in nature. Second, to build a culture that sustains that kind of philosophy requires tremendous leadership.
Christopher Howell may downplay his role as an alchemist, but the wines of Cain speak to the truth.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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