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 who was part of the original founding members of the Howell Mountain Appellation. Mike is currently cellarmaster 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 regard to their sales and marketing including running this part of the business for Retro Cellars. She is the daughter of notable Napa Valley vintner Robert Pecota, founder of Pecota Winery in Calistoga (later the winery was sold to Kendall Jackson for Atalon Wines and currently home to their Spire Collection. Interestingly, Robert was the agent that sold the land to Mike Grgich where he built Grgich Cellars.
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 own and operate Calistoga Bike 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 make 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 variety Peloursin, the often-little mentioned variety that was crossed with Syrah to produce Petite Sirah. Other than perhaps in some old mixed black vineyards still somehow in existence in 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).
The 2020 Retro Cellars Rosé of Peloursin Howell Mountain is salmon/copper colored in the glass; offers aromatics of tangerine, rhubarb stalk, light notes of citrus blossom, slate rock after the first rain and hints of wild strawberry. This wine is nicely balanced between flavor, acidity and texture. The length of the palate offers a rounded and slightly creamy textural feel with flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and a minerality note. Lingers with a refreshing brightness along with a subtle hint of dried parchment paper, deep into the finish. We could easily see ourselves enjoying this wine while waiting for ribs to cook on the BBQ.
Peloursin is one of the parents of Petite Sirah – it is a red grape with very limited plantings in California. When Kara researched the crop report, she found not even a single acre reported in California. At their vineyard, it was interplanted among other varieties. After budding over parts of an old section of their vineyard they discovered that a number of those buds were actually Pelourisin. They produced a standalone wine of this variety in 2015, the only year to date they have done so. This rosé was the only wine they produced in 2020 due to the resulting smoke taint from the Glass Fire.
The 2017 Retro Cellars Syrah Howell Mountain is dark ruby with purplish tinges on the rim; the aromatics are initially dark fruit (plum and blackberry), gamey, mushroom-esque and earthy. There are many layers in this bouquet, and it keeps evolving nicely in the glass. Also shows notes of violets, old cedar wood, and mocha. The early savory notes open to more fruit aromatics as the wine breathes. This wine is richly flavored across the palate and still very energetic some 4 years post vintage at the time of our tasting. The depth and layers continue on the finish with dark spice notes and gravely dark tannins which continue to persist beyond the fruit. Also lingers with hints of dried tobacco leaf. This is a big, bold and beautiful mountain grown Syrah; we might suggest enjoying this wine with smoked hot ribs straight from the BBQ. Plenty of life ahead of it.
The 2017 Retro Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel Chiles Valley is medium to dark ruby in color; the bouquet has plenty of aromatic character with aromas that are immediately savory, gamey, mushroom-like and with old leather. Beef jerky, grilled meats, old cedar box and crushed peppercorns. We love it! The savory and gamey notes on the nose are also represented on the palate. Juicy and mouthwatering, this wine lingers with flavors of bright red cherry, currant and cranberry. It is a very lively showing with a lingering tartness and still somewhat tightly woven tannins sporting a moderate long-lasting grip. Looking for an over ripe, jammy and sweet Zinfandel? Please look elsewhere. Aged in primarily used oak barrels.
The first vintage of Retro Cellars was a 2003 Petite Sirah. During our initial visit to the property, we tried the 2004 Retro Cellars Petite Sirah – one knows this wine is going to have some structure just by looking at it. It is incredibly dark; soon 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 including head pruned vineyards, harvest decisions which favor restraint, the owner is the winemaker and owner managed vineyards. We have seen statistics that up to 80% of Napa’s vineyards are under the management of vineyard management companies.
As a result, Mike’s wines are often 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 one can sometimes find the wine at Backroom Wines in the city of Napa. For more information or to order current releases, visit: www.retrocellars.com