Perched above the fog line, east of Saint Helena, 1400 feet above sea level, vineyards climbing the Vaca Mountain Range, inside the Napa Valley AVA, is what we know as the Howell Mountain AVA. Whew that was tough, but narrowing down a specific region such as this is what us oenophiles describe as the term terroir. Terroir is a site-specific area that imparts definable characteristics in the wine due to its soil content, sun exposure, wind, hill slope, everything that contributes to influencing those wonderful little indigo lovelies on the vine.
Like majestic Mount St. Helena, Howell Mountain is the result of volcanic activity, although it was not a volcano itself. Rather, the mountain was formed by tectonic activity that pushed it up from below. It is, however, covered by vast quantities of pale tuff, which is white volcanic ash that has been compressed over time. Red and brown volcanic loam and iron-rich red clay complete the soil profile.
These soils are nutrient-poor, thus stressing the vines to produce intense wine from small clusters of berries. The soils are completely different from the rich, alluvial soils of the Napa Valley (floor), where crop thinning and canopy management are necessary to control vigorous growth. With the thin, rocky, well-drained top soils, vigor is naturally limited producing smaller more intense grapes.
The reasons for the distinctive flavors are mostly climatic. During the day, Howell Mountain is cooler than most of Napa Valley, but it’s warmer at night. And it’s above the fog line — in fact, that’s where the AVA officially starts.
The poor soils, abundance of rock, and the dry, temperate climate found in the Howell Mountain AVA combine to create vines that are stressed, producing smaller clusters and berries and lower yields than their valley floor counterparts. Fortunately, however, this hostile environment results in concentrated and intensely flavorful berries. They exhibit a nose and taste profile that is unique to the AVA. This profile is expressed in the wine by robust earthiness, minerality and an intensity of fruit that is not found anywhere else in the valley. The wines tend to have depth and balance. This is the payoff for the difficult and tedious work that goes into the planting and cultivation of these vineyards, especially if farmed organically. The reward is found in the glass.
Wines that I suggest looking for that display the amazing classic Howell Mountain terroir are Dunn Vineyards, Blue Hall Vineyards, Black Sears Estates, and Robert Craig to name a few of my favorites; but of all my years tasting through these wines I haven’t come across many that have not displayed the typical Howell Mountain flavor and structure which shows how dominant the terroir really is up there. Happy terroir tasting!