Retro Cellars is owned by the husband wife team of Mike and Kara Dunn. Perhaps you recognize the last name – Mike’s father Randy is a winemaking and vineyard pioneer on Howell Mountain. Mike is currently cellar master at Dunn Vineyards and makes the Retro wines here. Both Mike and Kara have been involved in the wine industry for many years. Kara works with several wineries in regards to their sales and marketing including running this part of the business for Retro Cellars. She is the daughter of notable Napa vintner Robert Pecota. Mike grew up in the cellar, is the winemaker and also helps manages the vineyards. This is truly a family run affair and even their son had a hand in the business; he designed the artwork for their label.
Mike is a man of many talents – he used to run a bicycle shop selling both road and mountain bikes and still remains involved in the biking industry. He also is a member of a local Rock band called The Last Resort.
This is a unique opportunity to try wine from a very small producer whose focus is on Petite Sirah (but also produces several other red wines each year). Refreshingly for a Napa Valley based producer, Retro Cellars does not produce a Cabernet Sauvignon.
For many years the grapes for their Petite Sirah came from the Park Muscatine vineyard on Dunn’s own property on Howell Mountain. However, in 2016 this old block of Petite was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. This 3+ acre vineyard was planted well over 60 years ago and the yields were extremely low – as in 1/2 ton to a ton per acre. Normally vintners would have pulled these vines out sooner, but Retro was able to prolong some of the vines by carefully nurturing new suckers to grow and eventually produce when the main part of the vine has died. In addition, they replanted new vines as necessary. The vineyard is located at an elevation of about 1800 feet.
Before the vines were pulled out, we had a chance to walk the vineyard and could clearly see why the yields were so low. Some of the vines hardly had any fruit set – some vines had just a few clusters. The vines had no trellising, the spacing was quite wide as was favorable during the years when it was originally planted. The soils are reddish and very rocky; this is good terroir for growing these types of grapes. For many years the fruit from this vineyard was sold to notable Napa wineries such as Stags’ Leap Winery, La Jota and Elyse Winery. Fortunately Mike was able to convince his father to let him use the grapes and Retro released their first commercial vintage in 2003.
Looking for additional fruit and to increase production, in 2005 Mike planted another acre nearby in the Lake Vineyard (a block of vines appropriately titled Los Abuelos) – using bud wood from the parent vineyard. Interestingly about 15% of the budwood was not Petite Sirah – rather it was the red varietal Peloursin (the often little mentioned varietal that was used as a cross with Syrah to produce Petite Sirah). Other then perhaps in some old mixed black vineyards still somehow in existence in the Napa Valley – this is the only vineyard and producer we have come across that is growing and bottling a varietal labeled Peloursin wine.
And Mike also sources Petite Sirah from a vineyard in Pope Valley (located to the east of Howell Mountain).
We tried the 2004 Retro Cellars Petite Sirah – you know this wine is going to have some structure just by looking at it. It is dramatically dark; then be wowed by the bouquet. Rich aromas of dark chocolate mingle with blackberry and hints of smoke. The palate is juicy, spicy and dense with tons of fruit. There are notes of leather, graphite, tobacco and nice blackberry nuances on the mid palate. The tannins are gripping and chalky with a finish that lingers for quite some time. This wine is a meant to be paired with a big juicy steak.
The 2005 Retro Cellars Petite Sirah which at the time of our tasting was almost released has even more fruit than the 2004 vintage. Unfortunately it will be difficult to find as only 125 cases were made. As expected this wine is just as dark as the earlier vintage. Earthy aromas lead to a rich core of blueberry and blackberry on the palate with great acidity and again big structure on the finish. It will be very interesting to see how these wines age and evolve over time.
The 2009 Retro Cellars Old Vine Petite Sirah is 13.2% alcohol. This wine boasts mouth filling juiciness with layers of flavor and is perfect proof that there are other vine factors that go into making a complex wine other than hang-time and extremely high brix levels. The bouquet shows sweet dessert spices with both muddled black and red cherry aromas leading to a palate that features chewy tannins that linger for some time.
Retro is an ideal name for the brand – a retrospective if you will which taken as its literal definition is “looking or directed backward”. The name is a tribute to their family as well as a throwback to earlier days of winemaking in California. Methods that used to be common in the wine industry but are no longer common are still “in vogue” at Retro Cellars; head pruned vineyards, managing the vineyards yourself (we’ve seen statistics that up to 80% of Napa’s vineyards are under the management of vineyard management companies), make the wine yourself and never pick when the sugars are too high.
As a result Mike’s wines are in the 13% alcohol range, similar or lower to the alcohol levels of the Dunn Vineyard wines – however Retro’s wines are never lowered in alcohol by winemaker means.
Their total production is merely several hundred cases with very select distribution in just a handful of states. Locally you can find the wine at Backroom Wines in the city of Napa. For more information or to order current releases, visit: www.retrocellars.com