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Chris Howell & Cain Vineyard: Making Wines That Matter Part II

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Chris Howell, the talented General Manager and Winemaker of Cain Vineyard in Spring Mountain, shares his views on wine, grape growing, winemaking, Napa Valley, Spring Valley and more... in a two part interview.

Here is the second part.

What kind of reaction have you received on your decision to take the vintage year off the label of Cain Cuvee?

The main point about blending of vintages is the potential to build complexity and to create balance, something that I think we achieve in the Cain Cuvée. In 1998, we decided to try blending two vintages - the light, fresh and perfumey '98 with the round generous '97. This was our first "NV8" Cain Cuvée. Of course, our customers were uncertain, but the result was delicious, and we never looked back.

Today, our customers are very comfortable with the "NV" Cain Cuvée series (each bottling is distinguished by a number), but I'm not sure they realize just how interesting the idea can be. If you think that at Cain we have been blending varieties since the first Cain Five in 1985, why wouldn't we want to give ourselves the freedom to blend vintages also?

What trends in the wine trade upsets you?

"Upset" might sound a bit strong, but maybe it is appropriate. I am upset, disappointed, and concerned that many people in many sectors of the wine trade buy and sell wine as if it were spirits; ie. it's all part of the "alcohol beverage" trade. They think about, and treat wine as a "product" and a "brand." And indeed, most wine is just that. Even more surprising, many winemakers think of their work in just the same way - that is, they have a brand, and they are creating a product, which is more about their process, or a formula, than it is about the grapes. Also telling, is that way in which wine is handled, as if it were dry goods, when in fact, wine is a perishable substance, subject to damage by heat, cold, and rough handling.

The magic of wine is that which connects us to craft of the winegrower and to Nature. A lot of wine is sold on this basis; cynically, not much wine delivers on that promise. But those wines that reflect the vineyard, the cellar, and the hands, minds, hearts and palates behind them, those wines have stories to tell. They intrigue us, they mystify us, they tantalize us. Ultimately, it is these wines - I'll call them "Artisanal Wines" - that are the most satisfying, and indeed, the whole reason for our fascination with wine. They may come from a small, relatively unknown vigneron like Pierre Overnoy in Arbois, or from a world renowned domaine like Romanée-Conti. But they can never be grown in large quantities, can never be a standardized "product," and can never become a "brand."

We need to find ways to tell the stories of these artisanal wines - and there are thousands of them - to help wine lovers to distinguish these truly hand-grown wines from the labels and brands which have flooded the market.

What do you see for the future of Napa Valley?

As a winegrowing region, the Napa Valley is maturing. We're beginning to see a differentiation of terroir, and the use of appropriate varieties and growing techniques in each. There is still much evolution ahead of us, but I think that the path is clear. The risk is that, through the pressure of ambition and money, these differences are effaced in the cellar through the quest to make "better" wines that, increasingly, tend to resemble one another.

The fact that the Napa Valley, as we know it, exists at all, we owe to our more than 45 year old Ag Preserve. In monetary terms, this land would be far more valuable for building sites, but in the long run vineyards are a higher and better use. We should see the vineyards of the Napa Valley as worthy of preservation in themselves and we need to remain vigilant to protect them from short-term commercial and political pressures. But there is more: we need to continue to monitor the effects of climate change, we also need to address the challenges of monoculture and mono-economy that accompany all heritage winegrowing regions, that is, we need to continue to care for the true sustainability of our Napa Valley.