By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017

Or at least on top of Howell Mountain, in the tasting room at Outpost Winery, where the floor to ceiling windows offer an extraordinary view down over the vineyards and a small lake out into the bowl of Napa Valley. (As winemaker Thomas Brown pointed out when I was admiring the view, the building initially had a blank wall where those windows are; co-owner Kathy Dotzler walked in, took one look at it, and said, more or less, "are you guys nuts?")

I tasted through the Outpost portfolio with Thomas, the only winemaker I know who has a degree in poetry from UVA rather than in enology from UC Davis, and my friend Kerri Laz, the wine buyer for Dean & Deluca's St. Helena store. I was skeptical at the start, since the only Outpost wine I'd had before was its '98 Zinfandel, which was presented to me with the usual fanfare of next-best-greatest-Zin-thing-since-Turley and struck me instead as overly porty, slab-like stuff-if a wine can be said to be slab-like.

Well, slab-like no more (admittedly, the '98 was Outpost's first vintage, so they were still getting their ducks in a row, or vines in a row, or what have you). The 2004 Outpost Howell Mountain Zinfandel ($42) is ebulliently aromatic with white pepper and dark berry scents, then a surprisingly light-on-its-feet concoction of blackberry liqueur, black pepper and underlying earthy notes. Admittedly, it does have the whopping 16+ alcohol levels that mark most high-end Zins these days, but as Thomas helpfully notes in his very poetic way, it also has a pH of 3.5. (Less poetically: it's got very good acidity, which is why it doesn't seem heavy and/or fat.) In the end, very impressive Zinfandel, one of the best I've had in a while.

We also tasted the 2004 Outpost Grenache ($40), made from estate fruit grown on vines propagated from cuttings taken from Château Rayas. Appealing translucent red color, and a penetrating aroma of what Kerri described as buttered cinnamon raisin toast, which seemed to me a spot-on assessment. Loads of sweet fruit-too sweet for me, but that's not a dismissal of the wine, more a personal preference. The flavor recalled dried cherries with a hint of vanilla, ending in a slightly resinous, smoky finish. No new wood at all; as Thomas pointed out, ripe Grenache often has a slight vanilla note to it, easily mistaken for oak. A few more wines from this tasting tomorrow as I'm running out of time here in foggy Yountville.