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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Robert Craig's Howell Mountain Vineyard

RC: (con'd) But we weren't just focusing on the vineyard locations; it was also about the wine styles.   When I first started in the business in 1978, mountain wines almost had to have a consumer warning on them, about all the things that could happen if they dared try to drink the wines within twenty years!  {chuckling}  Because with mountain wines back then, there was a lot of really beautiful concentration and depth of flavor, but on the other hand you also had these massive tannins.  I guess the objective we've always had was to bring those components together, to keep the things you do want — all the power and concentration — but to work with the tannins so they're riper, rounder, more balanced, and really integrate with the rest of the wine.  That was our stylistic objective from day one.

NM:  These days, we don't here quite as much talk about mountain or hillside wines being so aggressive with their tannins.  I wonder if that's because the local wine industry has learned so much in the last few years about vineyard management and winemaking to make these wines more approachable earlier on.

RC:  I think that's true.  And I also think that wineries realized that [waiting for tannins to soften over time] is not how wine is consumed, for the most part.  People in this country don't have huge cellars where they can age wines that might otherwise be unapproachable early on.  Of course, there are still producers making wines in a style that requires some aging before you can drink them, and I think those wines do have their place.  But for my own interest, I really like to be able to experience wine over a period of time, one that I can drink when it's young — even though it might not be fully integrated and its tannins might be more prevalent — and then at later intervals of aging.  It's fun to see a wine progress over time.

NM:  You've got a great representation of Napa Valley's elevations, with the three mountain sites — Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain — and the one valley foothills site, Affinity.

"The objective we've always had was to bring those components together, to keep the things you do want — all the power and concentration — but to work with the tannins so they're riper, rounder, more balanced, and really integrate with the rest of the wine."

RC:  It's interesting how that's evolved over time.  But what it emphasizes is the sheer diversity just alone in the Napa Valley.  I was at a viticulture seminar a couple of years ago, and there was a soil scientist presenting who told the group that there are 46 different soil types in the valley.  I mean, we're talking about an area only 30 miles long and 10-15 miles wide, and it has more soil types than all of France!  Which is why we can have so many wines here that have a real sense of place.  The common element with these three of our wines is that they're all mountain wines.  But let's go back to what makes a mountain wine what it is.  It's a fairly simple thing: in the mountains, you have steep slopes, so when it rains, the water washes off the mountain and not much of it stays in the soil.  Even with the drip irrigation as we have in all of the vineyards, over the growing season the vines never get as much water as they really want.  So, without the roots taking up much water, there's real concentration in the juice of the berries, and that's what gives us concentration in the wines.  That's one common element across all the mountain wines.  Another common element, because of that water restriction, is that the grapes end up being very small, like blueberries.  So, the ratio of skin-and-seeds to pulp-and-juice is very high.

NM:  Those are striking qualities — all in common among the mountain appellations represented in your portfolio.  But how would you compare them and describe their differences?

Proprietor Bob Craig & Winemaker Stephen Tebb

RC:  Comparing the Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain, I think the primary difference is in the soil.  Mount Veeder is actually an ancient ocean bottom that was pushed up, and so it's decomposed sandstone with a subsoil of petrified shell — it's an amazing thing to see.  Also, being on the west side of the valley, Mount Veeder has more of an eastern exposure to the sun.  But on Howell Mountain we've got volcanic, mineral-rich soils, with an overall western exposure.  So, in many ways, the two are very different, and that definitely comes out in the wines.



 

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