Sometimes a wine is so good, so special, that it stays in your brain for days. Weeks, or even months. And sometimes it can force you to confront what you think you know about wine.

That was the case after I was mesmerized by a bottle of 1994 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet. It wasn’t just that the wine was excellent—it was—but that the wine seemed to come from an entirely new place. If I stretched my memory, perhaps it evoked older Mayacamas wines, but not much else. And it seemed built for only the most gradual, riveting evolution.

Why, then, is the current edition of this wine only $75 a bottle? Why isn’t it a cult wine with a vertiginous price scale accessible only to those who know the secret handshake?

A friend remarked of that ’94 Dunn, “That’s a mountain-fruit wine. Those wines age much better than wines from the valley floor.”

It’s never quite that simple when it comes to wine, but I wondered if he were on to something. There is a large segment of the wine-buying population that wants high-end Napa Cabernet. And who better to ask about this, I thought, than Randy Dunn himself. Turns out that Dunn is not only convinced that mountain fruit is superior; he’s concerned that thousands of wine buyers are getting the kind of advice from major reviewers that will lead them to waste hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

“There’s definitely a difference”

It’s wise not to over-generalize when talking about wine. But Randy Dunn doesn’t mind saying that mountain Cabernets age better than their counterparts from the valley floor. “That’s a fair generalization,” Dunn tells me during a short break on a harvest day. “The wines with the best track record tend to be mountain wines.

On a recent trip to Mayacamas, a mountain property that sits high above the valley floor, I noticed that the berries looked smaller. Dunn says mountain grapes grow to be smaller, tighter. Mountain winemakers say this leads to more intensity, more structure, less of the monolithic richness. But here, Dunn warns that not all mountain Cabernets are the same: “We can get it raisiny up here, too. Many of us just choose not to.”

That means wines with lower alcohol levels and more tannin. According to Dunn, those are the most important ingredients for Napa Cabs that can improve over many years in the bottle. Here’s an excellent piece that details some of what separates mountain fruit from valley floor fruit. (LINK)

But I asked Dunn: Isn’t it possible for valley floor producers to make similar wines? “We were doing that at Caymus in the old days,” he says with a laugh. “Things have changed. That’s all I can say about that.” I press him: Is anyone making ageworthy wine on the valley floor today? “Cathy Corison,” he says. “She’s the only one that comes to mind right now.” Dunn pauses, then shouts to someone in his winery. “Who’s making low-alcohol wines in the valley?” Another pause, then, “Yeah, Corison. That’s about it.”

I don’t necessarily agree with Dunn’s assessment; Araujo and Dominus, for example, are making long-lasting wines of distinction. But I agree that mountain wines are more likely to last a long time—and improve with that time in the bottle. There’s something else bothering Dunn. He says consumers are spending huge amounts of money on wines with gaudy point scores, but many of those wines will be dead by the time they’re uncorked.

“They’re absolutely getting screwed”

Dunn is not a fan of modern Napa cult wines. “They pop up overnight and command top dollar,” Dunn says, “but what do we know about them? People follow the points. I had hoped that things would have changed by now. They haven’t. It’s so obvious that it stinks.”

Then he laughs again: “These reviewers want all Napa wines to taste the same, and you know what? They all do. Good for them.” (Dunn is less caustic when talking about Wine Advocate’s Antonio Galloni, who has recently offered praise for Dunn wines.)

The result of this obsession with high-alcohol, high-scoring wines, Dunn says, is going to be a lot of anger on the part of consumers. He predicts wine buyers will be furious when they open some of these wines in 20 years. “They’re absolutely getting screwed. They buy these wines and they’re told to hang onto them. Most won’t last. That’s a lot of money going to waste.”

His solution is to look for wines with lower alcohol, for starters, but there is another pitfall in that game. Legally, wines that are higher than 14% alcohol by volume can be labeled one degree higher or lower than the actual amount. Some random tests have shown that these wines tend to have more alcohol than the imply indicates. “If you were a gambler,” Dunn says, “and you wanted to bet, you could get rich betting that everything above 14 alcohol is, on average, actually point-nine higher than listed. You’d win. Much, much more often than you’d lose.”

I went back and checked the label of that ’94 Dunn Howell Mountain: 13%.

Another viewpoint

For some perspective I turned to a man with a great cellar, and a man who has done some of the finest writing about California wine for decades: Charlie Olken, publisher of the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.

“There are plenty of examples of hillside wines that age quite well,” Olken agrees. “Ridge is the most obvious example, and it is followed closely by Diamond Creek, Chappellet, Pride and plenty of others.”

But Olken disagrees that the valley floor wineries have passed the point of making ageworthy wines. “Regardless of what Randy says, he is so set in his belief that alcohol is a determinant that I think he misses the point,” Olken says. “The wines of today are not all that much changed. One percent alcohol has not destroyed them.” (Keep in mind that Dunn is arguing that many wines labeled as one percent higher in alcohol are probably closer to two percent higher.)

Olken offers some valuable historical insight. “Fruit bomb” might have been Robert Parker’s neologism back in the 1980s, but French winemakers were accusing California of overly ripe, drink-now wines back in the 70s. Olken explains, “When California wines did so well in the 1976 Paris tasting, the French and their fans tried to dismiss the results as California (having) early drinkability, and thus they argued that the French wines would be better, more complex in two decades.” This hasn’t necessarily unfolded as predicted. “A number of re-tastings have been conducted by various groups as the wines aged, but with inconsistent results as to which wines aged better…There was never any reason to doubt the performance of the flatland California wines in those tastings.”

Dunn isn’t surprised that his views aren’t widely accepted. “People think I’m a fanatic,” he says. “An extremist. But the proof is in the wines.” Of that 1994 Howell Mountain that I so enjoyed, Dunn tells me, “It’s coming around. It’s pretty good. They’re just now getting there, the wines from the 90s.” It would be remarkably egotistical hyperbole if it weren’t true, based on recent tastings.

 Changing the meaning of “cult wine”

If Dunn is right, and countless high-end Cabernets from the floor of Napa Valley are going to be fat, soupy messes in a decade, then the question becomes: Will winemakers change their habits? Dunn feels that instead of the valley floor following the mountain’s lead in recent years, more mountain producers have decided to make high-alcohol wines. He’s quick to name names, which might upset his neighbors, but Dunn values honesty before tact. He points to Ladera and Lamborn in particular.

With just a whiff of optimism, Dunn says, “Maybe last year will shake it up.”

2011 brought a very challenging vintage for Napa winemakers, and Dunn points out, “They couldn’t get the wines as ripe as they want. Fewer people were cranking them up. Maybe they’ll learn something.” Like what, I ask? “Maybe they’ll learn that lower-alcohol wines are better wines.”

But then Dunn laughs and adds, “They’ll probably just learn that reviewers give low scores to wines like that. And they’ll go right back to what they were doing.”

He might be right. It won’t be long before we can decide whether Dunn is correct in his assessment of high-end Cabernet or if he’s just a cranky winemaker up on the mountain. Schrader wines have just crossed a decade; Scarecrow, a white-hot wine, is just a few years old. There are countless others that fetch triple-digit prices but have yet to pass the toddler phase.

One thing is certain: It will be far less expensive to build a vertical of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernets, and—with a little patience—the results are likely to be captivating. That’s the kind of wine that should build a cult following, even without the garish prices.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/evan.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Evan Dawson is a news anchor / reporter at the ABC News affiliate in Rochester, NY. He has reported on public policy and politics for more than 10 years. He is the Managing Editor of the New York Cork Report, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

  • Mike

    Hey Evan, just wanted to clarify for you the alcohol labeling laws for wine. What you stated; “Legally, wines that are higher than 14% alcohol by volume can be labeled one degree higher or lower than the actual amount.” is incorrect. The law is simply that the label alcohol needs to be within 1% of the actual alcohol, regardless of what side of 14% that it falls. The 14% gets mentioned so often because that’s the limit between tax class 1 and tax class 2. I think the actual point is 14.02%? Anyway, anything under is tax class 1, and thus the winery has to pay less tax per case. So if a wine is labeled under 14%, you can bet your paycheck it is no higher than 13.9%. Getting caught paying less tax by the TTB is a bad move. :) So yeah, if a wine is labeled 14.2% for example, it can legally be 15.2%. Despite what most wine writers would like you to believe, wineries actually try really hard to give you an accurate alcohol on the label. It gets difficult because most final blending occurs after labels get ordered due to the tremendously long delay in label deliveries. So winemakers do ‘mock blends’ using winery inventory software to get the best estimate of what the final blend is going to be. At least that’s been my experience in over 15 years in wineries. Hope this helps.

    • http://www.palatepress.com Evan Dawson

      Mike – Very good, thanks for the info.

  • http://www.bearcavecellars Barry Kinman

    Is anyone else tired of Randy Dunn’s nonsense that he is the only guy in Napa, heck California, that is making decent wine? “Everyone is wrong but Randy” should be the title to every article he gets.

    • http://www.palatepress.com Evan Dawson

      He would have no credibility of his wines weren’t so good. But they are. Some of his comments are viewpoints taken to extremes, but his points are often well made.

  • http://www.crosbiecompanie.com Ryan Crosbie

    The commentary is spot on regarding Napa cults, particularly mountain cabs. For consumers, the difficulty comes when they want to drink young 2007 Dunn, but they should be drinking prime 1994 Dunn.
    The winery then must play a valuable part in educating consumers about their wines abilities. Randy has done a great job of this, but a lot of quality age-worthy wines are get slaughtered young. Some may call it ‘infanticide’, and it can be prevented.

    • http://www.palatepress.com Evan Dawson

      Ryan – Good points. I enjoyed the visit to Mayacamas, where they always have a current release (that is typically six years old or so) along with older wines on offer for exactly the reason you describe.

  • http://napawineguy.com NapaWineGuy

    Cheers, Quality and Price in Napa wines are often high on both sides, but having them inverted with Flavor out shining Price. You know you found a Gem. So get on the mailing list before everybody finds out about it – Great Article !!!

  • Pingback: Who’s getting screwed? « Artisan Family of Wines()

  • Sin City

    The legal limit is at 14%, not below. So a wine labeled 14 cannot be any higher, and can be as low as 12.5. The leeway in the lower tax class is 1.5. That is why many French wines have permanently printed 11 to 14, or 12.5. It covers the full range up to tax limit. But in the higher tax class, 14.01 or .02, the leeway is 1, but it is unlikely that the actual is under, since the tax would be lower. So yes, a wine labeled 14.2 can be as hi as 15.2, more likely they are a few tenths higher but not the full 1 because the penalty if you get tested and are out of range, is a stiff penalty.

    And Dunn is not saying the wines taste bad now. Nobody would say they taste bad when released in the market. He is saying that they won’t change the way that lower alc. higher acid & tannin will change. I have only been in this world a few years, but I get disappointed when I go the Rutherford Dust tasting and they are all very similar. Espec. compared to the vineyard and village differences in Burgundy. Even for $50 price range wines, Burgundies taste different in different villages etc. I doubt that you could really tell location in a tasting of $50 to $100 Napa from Oakville vs. Calistoga. Delicious, yes. Different among? Who is kidding. Mayacamas Cab? Stands out like crazy against the valley floor Cabs. And if you have the opportunity to taste 20 or 30 yr old Inglenook Cask, Freemark Bosche, BV Latour, Franciscan Reserve Justin Meyer era, or similar, they resemble Bordeaux of similar age. The silky texture is what amazes me.

    Or, for another avenue to see village differences, go to the Mosel v Rheingau. Schartzhofberg v Vollrads. Donnhoff or Diehl v Loosen. Erbacher Marcobrunn v any Mosel.
    And they cost less than Bond SE etc.

    Tata,

  • Rich

    I appreciate your comments and Mr. Dunn’s opinions – however! Believe there are several over reaching assumptions here. First, that too much alcohol will not age a wine – really? I think it has more to do with the acidity, structure, fermentation, ageing, etc. And, while the alcohol level and brix at harvest will contribute to all of these factors, it just isn’t so that high alcohol will make the wine non-ageable. Second, check into some of the greatest Bordeaux vintages, they aren’t the low alcohol, balanced creatures everyone seems to think – and while they don’t tip the scales at the 15% level of some Napa Cabs, certainly the alcohol is higher than the traditional 12.5-13%…

    Last, why judge the wine completely on the alcohol – to rule out an entire class of wines based on the alcohol level seems counter intuitive – isn’t wine supposed to be enjoyed? Rule out the wine based on the flavor, not the alcohol level. I have tasted insipid wines at all alcohol levels and incredible wines at all alcohol levels – I don’t immediately rule a wine out because it is “x %” alcohol.

    • Morten Hallgren

      It is clearly not only about the alcohol level. However, it all comes back to the decisions taken by the winemaker. If you do not pick the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at a “normal” ripeness level, but choose the over-ripe style ( surely so common now, that “normal” has become under-ripe), your acidity will drop, the fruity character will shift from fresh fruit to jammy/cooked fruit. The alcohol level therefore, while not the only parameter, clearly indicates that the winemaker( or equally likely, the owner) has deliberately chosen this style.
      I have to disagree with your quoted alcohol levels in Bordeaux wines. I just drank several bottles of delicious 1966s at 11.5 %. Even the 1982s stayed under 13 %. It is only recently, that prominent wineries in Bordeaux has made the inexplicable decision to imitate their New-World counterparts. How ironic is this? It leaves me longing for delicious wines like the 1966 Krug or the 1986 Dunn.

  • http://www.cgcw.com Charlie Olken

    Evan–Thanks for the kind words.

    And, per your generosity, I will post my entire commentary to you on my website at http://www.cgcw.com on Tuesday morning.

    Let me add a couple of points here.

    Randy Dunn has offered no definition of long-aging except to say that hillside wines will age longer than valley floor wines. He may be correct, but the bigger and better question is how long is long enough to make the point moot?

    I ask because if we take twenty years as a marker of sorts for successful long-aging and do not hold out for forty, then Mr. Dunn vastly overstates the case. You have mentioned a couple of wines in Araujo and Dominus, in addition to Corison. The list does not end there, and many of the valley floor wines that age well are also over 14% in alcohol. Consider Spottswoode, Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wn Clr, Mondavi Reserve, Lewis, Hobbs ToKalon (or almost anything else from ToKalon), Quintessa, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Phelps Insignia. And that list is just the beginning.

    It is, as wa