In Cain I Trust

When writing about wine, everything digital is your best friend–right after a spittoon. A lightweight laptop, or in a pinch, the mobile, armed with either Google Keep for quick notes or Excel for longer tastings is simply a must. And the beauty of digital these days is that all your scribblings get whisked away to our almighty overlord, The Cloud, ready for extrapolation (and correcting scads of typos) at a later date.

There are however times when digital isn’t appropriate and things go analog, with a penchant to then be misplaced… Such was the case at a dinner in Napa Valley at the now-closed Terra in Saint Helena. The host was Chris Howell of Cain and he brought along four vintages of their “Five” to taste with the meal.

During this week in Napa I’d been tasting piles of wines that were somehow bent to taste the same, vintage in, vintage out. By no means is Napa only wines such as these but they stand out as I truly don’t care for this “making of wine” and I’d rather not know what they do in the cellar to accomplish this. Thankfully, as a most wonderful respite from liquid tannin with a scoop of acidification, there were the Cain wines in front of me. From 1996 to 2004 to 2006 and lastly 2013, everything was different. You could taste the vintage in the bottle and well, hallelujah.

Cain has a lovely high-altitude estate in the Spring Mountain District AVA. Ranging from 450-675m in altitude, it’s in a different orbit from the vineyards you see encircling the wineries of the en-bussed hordes. Their vineyard almost looks like something in Priorat with steep slopes, poor soils, and a great deal of banking to get their Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc to cling to it.

If you’ve noticed that these five varieties are those that are the core grapes of Bordeaux, well done because they are and it’s not an accident. It’s also where the name of Cain’s flagship wine, “Five” derives from and they do use all of them in the blend at varying proportions but with Cabernet Sauvignon as the lead. Their process to arrive to this point took years and they actually had to replant the entire vineyard in 1996 one block at a time as the mutated strain of Phylloxera that hit Napa in the last 1980s eventually arrived to their rocky perch.

Cain isn’t the only winery in Spring Mountain. Another I profiled not too long ago was Stony Hill who, much like Cain are doing very much their own thing. But what about the others up there, who produce wines that are, much like other “formulaic” Napa wines with an overabundance of oak and extraction that smothers what I feel to be one of the best grapegrowing zones in the entire Napa Valley? I tasted a selection of these at a Spring Mountain District event while I was there and just couldn’t understand what the thinking was because the propensity for great fruit was there, it’s just that the wine went out for a smoke at some point and never came back.

Beyond having an excellent site with attentive viticulture, what sets one cellar apart from another is the winemaker and so we come to Chris Howell. I think it’s easier to describe Chris by describing the outward appearance of most guys making wine in Napa Valley. There’s usually a baseball cap. Always a 4×4 pickup. Sunglasses are worn while driving and put up on said baseball cap when indoors giving a talk on winemaking. Beers are usually had at the end of the day. Mustaches with a wispy hint of mullet, optional.

Chris is essentially the polar opposite of this. I honestly don’t know how he survives in Napa but there is a tiny handful of like-minded winemakers such as him which is to say, generally European in orientation. I don’t mean this in a derisive way but Chris looks at winemaking in a holistic sense, “the garden is the vineyard” as he puts it. He seems fascinated by every little thing he encounters and it’s in the minutia where the differences are made as there is tremendous detail and complexity to the wines of Cain that he creates.

The irony in this is that this style is essentially for the winemaker to get the hell out of the way and let what’s in the vineyard come into the bottle with a gentle nudge where needed. It’s a simple concept in Old World regions and it’s one that’s thankfully taking hold in many New World regions where excellent terroir is otherwise being buttered over in the cellar.

For someone who started working in wine in Napa Valley just as the mid-1990s wines were coming to market, Cain is one of those wineries that takes me back to this beautiful moment in Napa and I always recommend to people during tastings when they want to know what I like in valley. There aren’t many like them but thankfully those that exist have their fans and excel in making wine despite which why the stylistic winds may be blowing around them.


Cain - Five 2004
Plum, mushroom, dark cherry, saddle, licorice, light hit of rose petals. Good integration in the body, crisp, dark fruits and full acidic lift. Good finish despite a drop in the mid palate.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot · 14.5% · 125USD
93+ 3 Stars

Cain - Five 2013
Big, powdery plum, dark cherry, bay leaf, smoky notes. Big, punchy fruits in the mouth with full tannins. Wild and wonderfully complex despite the initial sense of bigness. Just starting to show what sits underneath all the fruit and in need of lengthy time to age.
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot · 15% · 125USD
93+95 3 Stars

Cain - Five 1996
Plum with light prune, dried mushroom, lightly crisp raspberry. Still persistent fruit on the palate but definitely starting to fade. Can really taste the heat of the vintage.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot · 14.5% · 125USD
91- 2 Stars

Cain - Five 2006
Tight with densely-cooked fruit, herbal, very peppery, smoky reductive notes. Full fruit on the palate but still quite closed and needs a good deal more time to open. Logical given the wet harvest.
46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 13% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec · 14.1% · 100USD
90+92 2 Stars