When the little plane finally rattles off the runway, I'm glad to be aloft. I figure it's the only way I'm going to make sense of the tangled mass that is Napa's Howell Mountain. From the ground, it's too disorienting; the top of this mountain provides no vistas from which to look out over the whole. Randy Dunn, no less, is flying the plane. A 23-year veteran of the place, Dunn is one of the main reasons I'm here, as it is his eponymous Cabernet Sauvignon that put the name Howell Mountain into the vocabulary of wine connoisseurs the world over. "I knew this was where I wanted to be," Dunn says. "I liked the fact that it wasn't necessarily going to be easy to make wine." It may not be easy-but the results, for Dunn and others, have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Hundreds of feet below us, small parcels of neatly contoured vineyards sit placidly amid the uncontrolled furls of dense Northern California forest. With very few exceptions, Howell Mountain is red wine country, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. "There's my place; there's Duckhorn's vineyard," Dunn says. "Just up the road you can see the vineyards of Turley and Craig." He points out Beringer's Bancroft Vineyard, the Beatty Ranch, La Jota--a roster of names that reads like a directory of Napa's most famously collectible wines. Also some of its biggest. I remember being awed at the power of a 1987 Dunn Cabernet that last year, at age 13, was still too young to drink. I've been similarly struck by the concentrated La Jota Cabs and Turley Black Sears Zins I've had and wondered: What is it about Howell Mountain? How do these wines get so intense? That, I realized, I wouldn't understand from the air. I had to get back to the dirt.
Situated in the northeast corner of the Napa Valley, Howell Mountain rises steeply near the town of St. Helena. Though it's part of Napa, Howell Mountain is another world altogether. Unlike most Napa regions, it's covered not with tony restaurants and shiny wineries but with forest. The predominant group of settlers weren't winemakers but Seventh-Day Adventists, who are still the majority landowners. Ironically, although they are living on some of the best vineyard land in the country, Seventh-Day Adventists forbid their adherents to consume alcohol.