Year-in, year-out—from bud break to harvest, barrel to bottle—Napa Valley vintner Chris Howell, AB’75, pursues the perfect wine.
Summertime. Under the sun’s hot gaze stretch acres of green vines, shifting before the cool hillside breezes. The vines lift their leaves and reveal heavy clusters of grapes, slowly deepening from delicate green to rich, dark purple. Lavender mountains—the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges embrace the Napa Valley. California’s Highway 29 cuts through it.
During the glory days of summer, a parade of cars proceeds north along 29 from the city of Napa to Calistoga, cars filled with tourists come to partake of the valley’s famed wine and hospitality. Most see only the romance of the vintner’s life-style, a notion that Chris Howell, AB’75, cheerfully dispels. “You get dirty, you sweat a lot,” he points out. “And you do a lot of menial work, because the primary job in winemaking is cleaning.”
Howell is the general manager and winemaker at Cain Vineyard and Winery, just up the mountain from St. Helena, which is about 20 minutes south of Calistoga. To him, winemaking is “a practical art,” one that combines nature and farming with culture and aesthetics, and one that he alternately dismisses as “at some level, not a very important thing at all” or raises to nearly a sacred plane. In his quest for “a compelling wine,” Howell has a hand—often literally—in every aspect of the growing of the grapes and the making of the wine.
A warm, clear afternoon in July finds him looking for Cain’s new vineyard manager, Benjamin Falk, to discuss how best to nurture some skinny young vines. Dressed in khakis and a “Les Outils Du Tonnelier” (The Tools of the Cooper) T-shirt, a floppy-brimmed hat and sunglasses, Howell, 45, revs his dust-flecked white Ford Explorer on a turbulent ride through the terraced vineyard. Cain’s 542 acres sit near the top of the Mayacamas mountains, at heights from 1,400 to 2,100 feet. Only 84 of those acres are planted with grapes, the five varieties traditionally grown in Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Cain, which is considered a small operation, produces about 20,000 cases, or 240,000 bottles, of wine each year.
Howell stops the car to ask Falk’s whereabouts of the crew,conferring with them in Spanish. The crew’s been busy replanting vines, Howell tells his visitor, because of an American insect called phylloxera, a tiny louse that has attacked grapevine roots throughout the state. Cain’s vines, like many others, are being replaced with rootstock—hardy, wild, American grapevine species—to which the European plants have been grafted.
The new vines, he admits, present their own problems. Driving past a patch of Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell spots one plant with leaves whose edges form a different pattern, and stops to check it out. As he’d suspected, the graft has failed and precious water is being wasted on a rootstock, so he takes a shovel from the back of the Explorer and chops away most of the flourishing rootstock to give the timid shoot of Cabernet Sauvignon at its base a chance to grow.
“Sorry,” Howell apologizes matter-of-factly to the traumatized plant. “Hope you can heal. Maybe there’ll be a new one of you in another year.”
With the new plants, he’s using a European technique called vertical-shoot positioning, in which the plants are placed close together and trained to grow using a trellis system, as opposed to the more laid-back “California sprawl.” Although the vines certainly look much more orderly, that’s not the point, explains Howell. “It’s that the leaves aren’t shading each other too much. Each leaf is getting sunlight, and the fruit for the most part is being exposed to sun.”
Sun is vital for ripeness and flavor, which is why canopy management is an important task for the vineyard crew in the summer. Trimming away some of the leaves exposes the berries, or grapes, and removing some of the outer berries allows the inner ones to ripen, too.
“Too much fruit,” proclaims Howell, “will make an insipid wine.”
Each of Cain’s 1,300 oak barrels holds 60 gallons, or 300 bottles, of wine. The cellar must be kept cool and humid—about 58°F, with 85 to 90 percent humidity—to slow down the aging process and keep the wine from evaporating. (Photography by Dan Dry)
He often speaks like a scholar and philosopher (albeit an irreverent one), but Howell decided in his third year of college that he was more interested in the practical applications of things—particularly how his Ideas & Methods concentration might apply to a career. Thinking about becoming a physician, Howell headed to his hometown of Seattle to complete a second undergraduate degree, this one in chemistry at the University of Washington. While there he met his wife, Sanda Manuila Howell, then a doctoral student in comparative literature and his French instructor. The couple married in 1980; Sanda now handles public relations and comanages at Cain.
“I took my French class because I knew I wasn’t going to become a chemist, either,” says Howell. “There was this sort of hypothetical goal to become a physician, but in fact, I never could stand the sight of blood. I was basically still trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do.”
He began by working at an environmental company, near some railroad yards where a group of Italian men, immigrants in the days of Prohibition, still came to buy wine grapes shipped up from California to make their own wine. Howell started taking breaks and lunch hours with them. When a coworker gave him some books on winemaking, Howell had an epiphany of sorts. “I thought: It’s chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, analysis,” he explains. “And it’s about wine. I understand all these things. I could do this.” Using techniques borrowed from his noontime companions and grapes purchased at the railroad yards, Howell made his first batch. After two years of experiments, he started to think about becoming a full-time winemaker, but worried that the occupation was “marginal, to say the least.” So he thought about it for another two years.
“You want to do something that you like and you feel you’d be good at,” Howell explains. “I didn’t make up my mind until I was 29. I can tell you, I was worried.”
As was his father. “My father was a believer in great education,” notes Howell, “but when I told him I was going off to become a winemaker, he thought: ‘You’re nuts! What is this? Who are winemakers? What’s your future in that?’”
Of course, in some places, winemaking is just another job. And, as in many other professions, graduate school is a good way to break into it.
Looking for hands-on training in traditional winemaking techniques, he opted for Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier, one of France’s premier schools for viticulture and enology. The only American at the school, Howell studied there for two years, earning his diploma in 1984. He also received a winetasting degree from the University of Bordeaux, and he worked at Bordeaux’s famous Château Mouton Rothschild.
Upon his return to the States, Howell spent seven years working his way up at various vineyards before joining Cain. First he worked a harvest at Clos Du Val Winery in Napa Valley, then briefly tried out Washington state vineyards. Going back to Napa, he spent three years as the enologist and assistant winemaker at Clos Pegase Winery, helping the fledgling business to set up its laboratory and record-keeping system. Next he went to Sonoma County, doing similar work for another new winery, Peter Michael Winery. Then he became winemaker and vineyard manager at the nascent Marimar Torres Estate before the vineyard was even under construction. Along the way he began consulting at Cain.
For Howell, Cain’s 1991 offer of a full-time job was “closing a loop,” bringing together all his experience. Like Mouton Rothschild, Cain grew the Bordeaux varietals and made a blended wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Working at Peter Michael had provided Howell with experience in a mountain vineyard, while Marimar Torres had given him a taste of being in charge. But Cain presented “a greater challenge still.”
“Suddenly I was in charge of this business, and although I had lots of ideas about how to make it work, I really just needed to make it go,” says Howell, now the president of the California Cabernet Society. “I needed to survive.”
Founded in 1980 during one of Napa’s winery booms, by the early 1990s Cain faced a national economy that didn’t leave much room for luxuries like fine wine. Howell looked for ways to improve what was already being done well, assembling a crack staff of about 20, approximately half working in the vineyard and the rest divided among the wine cellar, the office, and sales. Next, he started some serious streamlining, selling several pieces of equipment.
“You could say my great accomplishment was I got rid of the giant hopper with the big old screw in it that tended to grind the fruit up before it ever hit the destemmer,” Howell jokes. “I didn’t think it was necessary. Winemaking isn’t really based on stainless steel machines, especially at our scale.”
He also chose to limit Cain’s entertaining to people in the wine trade, though others can visit by appointment. Howell, Sanda, and the two sales representatives take turns giving thrice-weekly tours of the vineyard and the winery, a three-building complex that includes the cellar, laboratory, bottling facilities, offices, and kitchen, but has no formal tasting area. Visitors may be invited to have a sip in the dining room, made light and airy by several sets of French doors. Sanda cooks for special guests; her paintings on silk adorn the walls.
“We’ve made the place, I think, as warm and hospitable as possible without being pretentious,” says Howell.
Besides making changes in the operations, he tested new ideas on the wines. Feeling that Cain’s strengths didn’t lend themselves to making a distinguished Chardonnay, Howell encouraged owners Jim and Nancy Meadlock to stop making it, despite the varietal’s popularity. He then concentrated on the flagship red Cain Five, a blend of the five Bordeaux varietals, and added Cain Cuvée, a lighter red blend. The winery continues to produce Cain Musqué, a Sauvignon Blanc made with grapes from another vineyard. Future wines might include a Syrah; Howell has already planted 1,000 vines.
Howell’s goal was to “make it go,” and Cain does seem to be going. Sales of Cain wine, after dipping to 8,000 cases in 1991, have returned to around 20,000 every year. Ten to twenty percent of the bottles are purchased directly from the winery by individuals; distributors buy the majority, reselling it to restaurants and wine shops.
“This is a lesson I learned here at Cain,” Howell offers. “Between us and the person who eventually pulls the cork and drinks the wine, there are a lot of people and a lot of different things that can happen. We literally have to shepherd that wine all the way to the table. We’re not done until the bottle is empty.”
Getting the wine into the bottle is no easy matter, either. The land and the grapes demand a year-in, year-out cycle.
“The beauty of winemaking and grapegrowing is that every year you go through a lot of the same steps,” Howell says. “It almost becomes like a ritual.”
In the vineyard, after the September or October harvest—a bit later in the mountains than in the valley—Howell and the vineyard crew must start preparing for winter storms, whose rains increase the threat of erosion to the terraced hillside land. January through March are spent pruning the vines, which are planted in scattered sites. Spring brings “bud break,” after which the vines require watering, pest protection, and exposure to sun as the grapes ripen throughout the summer.
Then, as pressure in the vineyard eases, Howell and the staff turn their attention to cleaning and adjusting equipment in preparation for the coming harvest.
The cellar, of course, has its own ritual. Once they have been handpicked, the grapes must be destemmed within the day and put into tanks to be vinified—initially creating as many as two dozen lots of wine. Each lot’s distinct flavor is influenced not only by varietal, but by where in the vineyard the grapes were grown.
Those lots eventually become the three wines that Cain bottles and sells, each of which follows its own cycle through the cellar. The Cain Five’s cycle is the longest and most complex. After two to four weeks in the tanks, the lots go into oak barrels, where they stay for the next 18 to 22 months. For the first several months, the Cain staff tastes the lots regularly. Then they blend the lots to make the Cain Five and the Cain Cuvée, selling the wines they choose not to use in bulk to other wineries. Back in barrels, the blends are racked, or decanted, every three months for clarification and aeration.
Nearly two years after a harvest, the Cain Five made from that vintage will be bottled, but not labeled. “Because it’s Cain Five, and that’s my baby, we don’t put the labels on,” Howell says. “We’re going to look at it again in six months. If it looks perfect, we’ll stick the label on.” Even then, the final product won’t be released until Howell thinks it’s ready; the 1993 Cain Five was just released this past April.
Though Howell has the final word on when to pick the fruit, how long to macerate it, and which lots to blend, he emphasizes that winemaking is “always, always a team process.” Tasting, in particular, is done as a group. “You can’t use a single opinion, you need to do it more than once, you need to work together collectively,” he says. “Each day, each person perceives a wine slightly differently.”
With the vineyard’s signature Cain Five, he strives for general ideals: Aromatic complexity. The absence of flaws, such as a vegetable smell. A smooth entry that builds in weight and volume. Suppleness. Body. A balance between astringency, acidity, and sweetness.
“The ‘in’ word in descriptors today is ‘jammy,’ that cooked-fruit flavor,” he says. Cain Five, in contrast, “doesn’t have that full-on cooked-fruit flavor that everybody loves so much.” Instead, “it has really deep, intense, complex flavors.”
So far, Howell says the 1991 Cain Five (sold out since 1995, the year it was released) is his favorite of the wines he’s made, followed by the 1994 Cain Five, to be released in 1998. But Howell himself is reluctant to call any wine “his.” Even a group of people can’t take credit for a wine, he notes, because the land plays a significant role, as well.
“Somehow this fruit expresses through the wine something of where it came from,” says Howell, sitting with his empty cup of morning coffee in the dining room.
That doesn’t mean that a wine’s impact is entirely rooted in its provenance, he contends. It also reflects one’s experience in drinking it—the friends, the food, the weather. “I like the fact that it’s always going to be different and you don’t have that control,” Howell muses contentedly. “In a way I chose my profession because there is no great pretension about it. I just knew people would drink the wine and it would be gone and that would be that. It’s not like building monuments. You can go look at Roman ruins, you can look at pyramids, but you can never taste their wine. I like that ephemeral aspect.”