Cain is More Than Able: A Morning with Chris Howell

I have mentioned here before that I do not spend a lot of time in Napa. While there are certain exceptions, for me it seems as though there simply are fewer stories to be told in the Valley. How many “retired wealthy investment banker buys winery” stories or “corporate behemoth acquires additional property” does one really want to read?

Thus, I had essentially given up on Napa as there seems to be far more compelling histories to recount in Sonoma and beyond. In fact, by far for the vast majority of my visits (outside of Napa) I am greeted by either the owner, the winemaker, or both (often embodied in the same person). Napa? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful wines produced by larger, even corporate wineries, but as I have stated countless times, it is the wine that attracts me, but it is the people (and their backgrounds) that I find enthralling.

On my trip to California this past Spring, a few friends convinced me to visit a couple of  Napa wineries, certain that I would find their stories compelling.

And I did.

The first of the two visits was with Chris Howell, the longtime winemaker at Napa Valley stalwart, Cain Vineyard and Winery. I had certainly heard of Cain but I had never tried any of the wines, so I was by no means well-versed in the winery or the wines themselves, thus a visit made a lot of sense.


The winery boasts an address in St. Helena, but it is another 20 minutes up a twisting mountain road from the center of town (only 15 minutes if you do not miss the turn off onto Langtry Road). Despite my navigational inadequacies, I arrived on time at the winery, which was founded in 1980 by Jerry and Joyce Cain. Within moments, I was greeted by Chris Howell, perhaps the name most associated with the brand, who became winemaker  in 1990 (shortly before the retirement of the Cains, who then passed the torch along to their business partners, Jim and Nancy Meadlock).

A swift handshake and we jumped into Chris’ circa 1998 Ford Explorer, he began to recount his journey to Cain. Only a few sentences in it was clear that this was not a rehearsed conversation: Chris chose his words carefully, beyond being merely introspective, it was clear that his approach to wine making was closer to a philosophy of life. (I later learned that he studied philosophy at the University of Chicago as an undergrad.)

The Cain Vineyard is truly stunning.

The Cain Vineyard is truly stunning.

As we  headed even further up the mountain we were distancing ourselves from the valley floor in several respects; it was clear we were really not in Napa anymore. At least the way I had been defining it.

Early in his career as a winemaker, he travelled to France, filled with volumes of textbook information on how to make flawless wines, but the winemakers there (including Pierre Blondin of Mouton-Rothschild) stressed that really great wines have tension, an element that alters one sense of beauty.

Although I did have a schedule to keep, I would have scrapped it all to keep driving around the vineyard listening to Chris.

Although I did have a schedule to keep, I would have scrapped it all to keep driving around the vineyard listening to Chris.

The French also stressed that he needed to focus on the vineyard, which Chris says it took him at least ten years to fully comprehend. The concept of “terroir” is perhaps one of the most discussed and stressed terms in wine today, but when he returned from France, virtually no one in California actually knew what it meant. Most of the discussion was centered around climate, but Chris approached his positions Cain with the more holistic approach to the vineyards—an approach that was still very far off from being widely accepted in California.

Chris Howell in the vineyard.

Chris Howell in the vineyard.

Once we got back to the winery, the conversation naturally changed focus to the wines themselves.

img_6969NV11 Cain Cuvée: Retail $36.  A blend of two vintages (2011 [76%] and 2010 [24%]) and four varieties (46% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc , and 6% Petit Verdot). While people in Napa were making wines riper and riper to meet the style and please the critic, Cain started the Cain Cuvée over twenty years ago to be a light and refreshing wine—not overly ripe and oaky. With the idea that wine should accompany food (and not be tasted for 11 seconds at 10 in the morning), this wine is alive with fresh red berry fruit and earth. Brilliant acidity and perfumed aromas with plenty of pepper. Outstanding. 90-92 Points. 

Next we delved into a few vintages of the legendary Cain Five—a blend of all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot). At a time when most wines seem to focus on a single variety, the art of the blend is at the heart of the Cain Five.

2011 Cain Five: Retail $125. 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec. Red raspberry and white pepper dominate the nose. Wonderfully balanced with a lean mouthfeel even though 2011 was a particularly cold year in Napa. A quintessential old year austere wine. Wonderful. Outstanding. 91-93 Points. 


Next, Chris pulled out a couple of older vintages to demonstrate vintage variation.

2006 Cain Five: Retail $125. 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 13% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec. A full percentage alcohol higher than the ’11, as it was a much more typical warm vintage in Napa. A much spicier nose and palate, with more secondary elements of tobacco and even clove. Particularly well-rounded and yummy (if you want to get technical). Outstanding. 92-94 Points.

We then made our way to the lab, and Chris left to grab a few more bottles.

In another life, I could have been a chemist, I think.

In another life, I could have been a chemist, I think.

img_69712002 Cain Five: Retail $100 (release price). From an even warmer vintage (one of the warmest in recent history), the wine has a decidedly thicker and richer nose, but still with the common threads of raspberry and pepper. Whoa. On the palate much more viscous with several layers of complexity. A finish that lingered for minutes. If this is what older Cain Five is, hold onto it folks. Outstanding+. 94-96 Points. 

We then tasted one more bottle, an older vintage of Cain’s third wine, the Cain Concept. The approach is precisely the same as with the Cain Five, but the fruit is sourced from the famous Napa Benchlands, as Chris wanted to see what the wine would be like if started with the same fruit as everyone else. While the current release is from 2011, Chris pulled a slightly older version once he learned of my penchant for older wines.

2008 Cain Concept: Retail $75? 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot. Fruit all from the valley floor.  This is bigger with a lot more muscle, and perhaps not as tightly focused. Not my style, but this is still Yummy and closer to a “traditional” Napa style. Outstanding. 90-92 Points. 

Posted in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Wine | 2 Comments