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Wading Through the Muddied Waters of Terroir with Randy Dunn

Howell Mountain ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

Alan Goldfarb Wades Through the Muddied Waters of Terroir with Randy Dunn

Long-time Howell Mountain vintner Randy Dunn has seen a lot of vintages in his years of making Napa Valley wines, but he’s less clear today on the distinctions between the various appellations than he was 20 years ago.

by Alan Goldfarb
August 17, 2006

Randy Dunn was up on Howell Mountain before it was Howell Mountain. That is, back when only Dunn and a few others realized the potential of this lofty environ (2,000 feet above sea level) as a great grape growing region. Even though Dunn, the owner and winemaker at his eponymous Dunn Vineyards, has been growing grapes in these eastern hills above St. Helena since 1979, he says he still doesn’t know what differentiates a Howell Mountain wine from a Diamond Mountain wine.

That’s because Dunn, one of the most forthright vintners you’ll ever encounter, thinks that the panoply of technologies available to winemakers and vineyardists has muddied the waters. It’s mucked up any hope of terroir expression in wines grown in this country.

Dunn, who was the winemaker at Caymus from 1979 to ‘85, bought 14 acres the year he started at Charlie Wagner’s Rutherford winery. At the time, only Bill Smith and his La Jota Vineyard were producing wines on Howell Mountain. There were only a few others such as Mike Beatty, Frank Stout and Bob March (who would later sell his property to Duckhorn) and Summit Lake Vineyard, who were even growing grapes here.

Dunn produces two Cabernet Sauvignons most from his 35-acres of vineyard and from a vineyard he leases, all on Howell Mountain. They sell for $70 and $65 a bottle, and both are built to age.

The outspoken Dunn, in this interview with Appellation America’s Napa Valley Regional Correspondent, Alan Goldfarb, rails against high-alcohol wines that are in vogue; and acknowledges that his finished wines come in at under 14 percent because he dealcoholizes his wines via reverse osmosis. In addition to talking about his own wines and vineyards, Dunn spoke about the AVA’s distinctive climate. Along with La Jota’s Smith, Dunn was instrumental in getting Howell Mountain to be named the Napa Valley’s first sub-region.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): What was it about Howell Mountain that made you settle there?

Randy Dunn (RD): This is a beautiful spot and it had vines on it. They were producing airline-pilot kind of wines (the property was owned by a pilot), and it was mismanaged... I didn’t associate it (the property) with making great wines. It was just a beautiful spot, and I said I want to live here.

But I did think it would produce good grapes.

AG: What made you think it could produce good grapes?

RD: It was up in the hills and the soils weren’t rich like down on the valley floor and I knew that the climate was different. I had a hunch it was probably good grape-growing country.

My background was in making Cabernet, but most of the growers coming in here thought it was Zinfandel country. I said, “You guys are crazy.” I’m not going to say it’s not great Zin-growing ground but I felt it wouldn’t pencil me as being a small-time Zin producer. But it did pencil me as being a small-time Cab producer.

AG: What was your rationale to plant Cabernet instead of Zinfandel?

RD: The price of Cab was as about twice as much as Zin.

AG: Apparently it’s worked out for you.

RD: I would never look back. I would say the Zin producers probably pulled out more acres than they planted to Cabernet.

AG: Did you ever envision Howell Mountain becoming Howell Mountain?

RD: No, I didn’t envision a lot of things. In those days we were working hard, trying to build up stuff without a long-range plan, and I wasn’t a money manager. It was more work than I thought.

AG: You were involved with Howell Mountain’s becoming recognized as an AVA. Why did you plan the appellation along an elevation criterion?

RD: (When petitioning for a new AVA) you have to address how you define the boundaries. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We thought: fog comes into the rest of the valley, but we’re above the fog line. So we set it (the low-point) at 1,400 feet.

AG: What does that do, being above the fog line?

RD: You’ll hear different stories, but nobody really knows. Because of the elevation, bud break is later, and the vines have a different developmental curve compared to the valley floor. And because we’re above the fog line, we don’t cool down as much at night. People think you’ve got to have temperature swings for coloring, but that’s in the Central Valley . The crop level there gave that notion credibility. But here, we get a third of that yield or less. That alone tells you something. You’ll hear people blow smoke about that.

AG: How does it all manifest itself in the bottle?

RD: Damned if I know. I make wine pretty much as I did from the beginning at Caymus -- with a little different equipment, of course. Up here, I bought newer equipment so I wouldn’t have to work on it all the time.

The real secret is getting good fruit, bringing it in and not screwing it up. If you make wines like I do -- long-lived wines -- you don’t do a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s pretty straightforward kind of stuff.

I don’t believe in high-alcohol wines, period. It’s the dumbest thing that the wine industry ever did. But, you get better press the higher the alcohol.

AG: Early on, you became the darling of some of that same wine press and now you’re deriding them.

RD: I know, but frankly the press are not tasting like they used to, at all, period. They’re looking for the wines that hit them in the face the hardest. That’s the wow wines.

AG: How did that trend begin?

RD: I think it was gradual, starting maybe about eight years ago.

AG: So, how have wines been affected?

RD: Realistically, wine consumption has gone down because the wines are not as good as they could be.

AG: But all the statistics I’ve read suggest wine consumption has risen.

RD: Overall it’s gone up, but if you go on a per household basis -- for instance, in my household -- red wine consumption has gone down because of these high-alcohol wines.

AG: You make only red wine. At what Brix (sugar) levels do you pick? What is the alcohol of your wines?

RD: I’m picking at 24 percent (Brix). I have gotten some high-alcohol wines, but I’ve dealt with them. I brought them down below 14 percent to 13.9.

AG: So, you dealcoholize?

RD: Yes and I’m glad I’ve done it.

AG: How about Howell Mountain in general? Can you differentiate a Howell Mountain Cab from Diamond Mountain or Spring Mountain Cabernet?

RD: What we might get over here is a slight pepperiness. The good ones (wines) get a pepperiness; others get raisins. And they don’t tend to get the Rutherford herbaceousness. Not herbal, but herbaceous. That’s a good thing, but people think herbaceous is bad because they mix it up with herbalness. The fruity component is just a little different, too.

I used to buy grapes from (grower Andy) Beckstoffer and he was interested in the differences among vineyards. We would have tastings, but I couldn’t tell if they were from Calistoga, Rutherford or anywhere else. Terroir went so far out the window because of how winemakers deal with their fruit. Some are sorting out the jacks (small stems), and some are throwing everything in, like I do. Only a Frenchman can differentiate various regions.

AG: Don’t you think, in time, people will look for other kinds of wines instead of the high-alcoholic, over-extracted wines?

RD: They’re going to get tired of these hot wines, and if they’re cellaring these wines, they’re going to be disappointed.

AG: They’re not cellaring them. They want instant gratification.

RD: I agree. If that’s the case, the guys who are making these wines are laughing all the way to the bank. If people cellar them though, it’s going to turn around and bite them (the vintners).

AG: Are we ever going to get to understanding and differentiating terroir in this country?

RD: Probably not in my lifetime. There’s so much that goes on in winemaking. There are so many new techniques like oak chips, micro-oxygenation. The days of putting our hands around that (terroir) are probably gone.

Working down at Caymus, I knew what

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