Napa Diary Day 16 – Cain on Spring Mountain

Cain is located well up Spring Mountain, to the west of St. Helena, with vineyards ranging from 1,400 to 2,100 ft on sedimentary soils. The Cains bought a 550 acre estate on the mountain in 1980, which had mostly been used as sheep pastures. They planted vineyards and constructed a winery. The Cains were joined by Jim and Nancy Meadlock, who took over when the Cains retired in 1991. (Wines can’t be tasted at the winery but can be tasted in St. Helena.)

Cain’s vineyards are on steep slopes.

Cain was originally planted largely on AxR1 in large blocks for each variety, mostly using individual clones. After Chris Howell arrived as winemaker in 1990 (having previously worked in the Médoc) the vineyards had to be replanted because of problems with phylloxera. “I mixed it up a lot so weren’t susceptible to problems affecting particular varieties or clones,” Chris says. “We want diversity not a single clone. The idea of the clone was that everything would mature together. But it leaves wines that are simple.”

Cain Five is not simple. The first vintage for the flagship wine (named because it includes the five Bordeaux varieties, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec), was 1985. Cabernet Sauvignon is more than half, but the wine gives a strongly structured impression that might lead you to think there is more. The structure dominates the wine when it’s young, to an extent varying with the vintage. Today the 2008 is coming around, the 2012 is more backward, the 2016 is almost ready, and the 2017 is a lighter style because the lots that were picked last were not included because of the fires.

The estate has made two other cuvées. Cain Concept was made from purchased fruit, and states Benchland on the label to indicate that it comes from the valley rather than the mountain. With more lifted aromatics, round black fruits, and chocolaty finish, it’s much more immediately approachable. The difference in style is due solely to sources, as criteria for harvest , and the aging regime, were the same as Cain Five. “We stopped making Concept in 2015,” Chris says. “It might be your favorite wine but it doesn’t reflect our vineyard. There’s no need for us to add to the list of Napa wines.”

The second wine is now based on a different concept. The NV series does not have a vintage label. Each successive release carries an increasing lot number, and is a blend of two successive vintages. It’s lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, with good freshness, and immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Chris says. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. It includes purchased fruit, and is picked for purpose, starting earlier than Cain Five, and is given less sustained maceration. 

Cain leaves no doubt about its origins: the wines are clearly mountain cuvées, with that characteristic sense of tension and reserve. “We picking about three weeks before people who are looking for 100 points (and I still get 14% alcohol),” Chris says. They are very much their own style, and not at all like the caricature of big powerful fruit-bombs from Napa.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

Cain Five 2017 

This vintage offers a lighter impression than usual, perhaps because the lots picked after the fires (which as the last to pick are the most powerful) were not included. Shows a smoother and fresher style than 2016, with a light impression of still quite tight black fruits on the palate, and a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. It lacks the superficial richness that you can see through the structure of other vintages. In some ways, the trend towards fresh fruits is more Bordeaux-like than other vintages; this feels more like a cool-climate wine, although that’s not a reflection of vintage conditions, but rather of the fact that it contains only the lots to be picked first. “It has the high notes, but lacks the base,” says Christopher Howell. 91  Drink 2026-2038

Cain Five 2016
Black fruit nose with some herbal overtones and faint perfume. This vintage offers a more immediate sense of finding its balance straight away than 2008 or 2012. The mountain reserve is there alright, but the fruits are beginning to come through. The reserve here is due to youth. This is a coiled spring waiting to open. 93  Drink 2025-2037

Cain Five 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 50%, %, Merlot 20%, Petit Verdot 8%Cabernet Franc 8%, Malbec 5%)
Stern nose with reserved black fruits. Very backward, more backward than 2008, with tannins flattening the fruit profile. This is the old style of needing a long time to come around. The structure is not aggressive but it is certainly dominant, and is reinforced by the acidity. This is a really brooding wine. 14.4% 90  Drink 2027-2039
Cain Five 2008 (Cabernet Sauvignon 61%, Merlot 15%, Cabernet Franc 13%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 5%)
Expressive black fruit nose with lifted aromatics shows in front, with blackberries and blueberries, and then some more restrained impressions following on the palate. Firm tannins have a touch of bitter chocolate on the finish with a sense of powerful mountain structure. The structure is still (just) dominating the fruits. 92  Drink 2023-2037
 Cain Concept 2012
This comes from purchased fruit, mostly in Rutherford, including some Cabernet from the George III vineyard, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Carneros. Nose shows some faintly developed aromatics with hints of minerality. Round black fruits on the palate follow to a chocolaty texture on the finish. Lifted aromatics soften the impression of structure; tannins are relatively supple. This if benchland (as marked on the label) as opposed to mountain. 90  Drink -2031


This is a blend of 2015 and 2016. Lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, nice freshness, immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Christopher Howell says. It’s more inclined to freshness than power, and like a Bordeaux second wine, is more approachable and does not need so long to age. Not a lot of stuffing, but very pleasant. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. 88  Drink -2025