Dunn Vineyards dates from 1979 when Randy and Lori Dunn purchased their original 14-acre property high on Howell Mountain. The old home on site was actually used as one of the Stagecoach stops between Pope Valley and the Napa Valley. Dunn’s first commercial vintage was in 1981 making them one of the oldest continuously producing wineries on Howell Mountain. This is a small family owned winery and they are not setup for general visits & tastings. You won’t find them on any tourist maps; it is a private wine estate.
If you have enjoyed their wine before and are a serious wine enthusiast and collector you may request a visit but note that they are not open to the public. Over the years that we have been working on this project, we have met a number of Howell Mountain vintners who have been influenced by owner Randy Dunn – i.e. he has helped them with their initial wine-making and or provided advice on a variety of vineyard and wine-making matters. Randy was originally studying Entomology (a branch of Zoology focusing on insects) at UC Davis when he made some home wine with with a professor. Hooked by this initial wine bug, Randy switched his major to Enology. He took his first job in Napa Valley working for Caymus Winery.
Howell Mountain was Napa’s first sub appellation – gaining it’s status in 1983 (same year as Carneros). Randy was was one of the founding vintners who laid the groundwork for creating the Howell Mountain AVA along with vintners’ Bill Smith, Mike Beatty and Bob Lamborn.
Randy and Lori’s children are actively involved – their son Mike (who has his own label Retro Cellars) and daughter Kristina are working within the winery.
Dunn Vineyards sits in a very rural location surrounded by native vegetation. Randy and Lori actually purchased 63 acres of additional nearby land and then quickly donated it to the Napa Land trust so it will never be developed. This is the refreshing type of philosophy they have in regards to keeping a natural balance between the native vegetation and their vineyards. We recently had a chance to walk the vineyards; these are all small hillside vineyards at about 1800 feet and do not dominate the landscape as there are always parts of the natural forest nearby.
As they outgrew their storage facilities they built a cave for barrel storage in 1989. Since the early 1980’s they have always specialized in two types of single varietal wines, a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are not blended – they are 100% varietal. As of the time of this review, their total production is about 5000 cases annually.
We recently had the opportunity to try the 2004 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. It is crimson ruby in color with an elegant nose showing dark chocolate and even nuances of raspberry as the bouquet opens. There is a lot of fruit in this wine especially up front with black currant and plum flavors. The tannins are dusty and structured – there are rich layers of flavor in the wine, good acidity and good structure. While full of flavor now, this wine needs some time to cellar and it will continue to evolve and show new complexities.
The 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon shows notes of red cherry, baking spices and hints of mocha on the bouquet. After 13 years this wine still shows bright lively aromatics and smells younger than it actually is. The wine is becoming balanced with tannins that perhaps have softened over time – and are now fairly well integrated into the structure of the wine (linger pleasantly for some time). On the palate notes of red cherry and cranberry show with a nice acidity.
The 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon shows good character on the nose with layers of aroma – a dusty nuance and slight pepper component.
On the palate the wine is mouth watering juicy – great acidity with broad shouldered (somewhat chalky) long lasting tannins that perhaps aren’t as robust as some other young Dunn wines we have tried.
Note the unusual design and placement of the labels – they are set on the bottles at an angle and spiral around the bottle. This design has not changed since the founding of the winery. In addition their Howell Mountain Cabernet is always coated with wax, which definitely makes it stand out while their Napa Cabernet has a foil seal.
Their Napa Cabernet Sauvignon tends to have softer tannins whereas their Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is a bigger wine with larger tannins and more fruit. Both wines are built to age for a long time and will only become more complex if you are able to cellar these – but can certainly be consumed now.
Dunn keeps the alcohol percentage in his wines lower than most area vintners, typically in the high 13 range which is done by several processes including De-alcoholization if need be, a process that can be conducted by reverse osmosis. Each vintage is different of course and some years they are able to pick early enough that no manipulation is needed to keep the final alcohol reading below 14%.
Randy’s focus is on terroir driven wines; his philosophy is that you need to be able to taste where the wines are from. When you have wines high in alcohol you lose the distinguishing characteristics that allow you to distinguish the “home terroir”. In addition, his wines are not trophy wines meant to catch the high scores or wines that will put you under the table due to the alcohol as they are made to be enjoyed with food. As Randy told us, they are not “cocktail wines”!
He has developed a style of wine that is often enjoyed by collectors – these are wines that are meant to be aged. We have enjoyed some of his wines 10-15 years old and they are still very much full of life – the tannins have smoothed out during this aging but are still structurally very noticeable. Even after a decade+ of aging, some of these wines probably can go another decade+ before peaking.
Dunn has a very popular mailing list that is currently full – however you can contact them to be placed on the wait list. For more information about their wines, visit: www.dunnvineyards.com