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


Napa Diary Day 6: Stony Hill – from Chardonnay to Cabernet

It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective  was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.

The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.

The winery was originally built as a house for the McRea’s in 1952.

Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.

The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.

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

Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical

Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5%   91 Drink -2030

Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5%    92 Drink -2030

Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0%    92 Drink -2025

Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass.    89 Drink -2023

Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux.    93 Drink -2031 2010

Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033