Napa Valley winery celebrates Mercer Island roots

Chris Howell, wine maker for Cain Vineyard and Winery. - Contributed Photo
Chris Howell, wine maker for Cain Vineyard and Winery.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

You know when you have known someone for a long time, but you cannot remember when you met?

That is the case with Chris Howell, winemaker for Cain Vineyard and Winery. Actually, I think I met Howell’s mom, Barbara, before I met him.

Howell is among the seven winemakers and/or winery owners who grew up on Mercer Island. He is not only the most veteran winemaker, but he is also the only non-Washington winemaker. When Howell followed his winemaking star, Washington’s wine industry was still a fledgling. Howell has been Napa Valley’s Cain winemaker for over 20 years.

Howell’s father worked for Boeing and brought back some of the first vintages of Freemark Abbey and Robert Mondavi from California in the mid ’60s. Then, his dad was in Turin, Italy — again, for Boeing, and was totally immersed in the Italians’ love of food and wine.

Howell was born in Swedish Hospital and brought home to the Shorewood Apartments. He attended Sunnybeam Preschool, Island Park and Lakeridge Elementary Schools, South Mercer Junior High, and graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1970.

Barbara Howell, his mother, still lives on the Island. David Hallgren, his brother; Barbara Hallgren, his sister-in-law; and Lindsey Hallgren Costa, his niece, also live on the Island.

By all accounts, Chris Howell’s early fascination with winemaking must have been a challenge for his family.

“I first made wine in the basement and de-stemmed zinfandel grapes on the kitchen table. I crushed grapes by foot in the bathtub,” he said. “It turned out OK!”

“My mentors were these first-generation Italian-Americans who hung out in the railroad yard in South Seattle,” he continued. “They distributed wine grapes from Lodi in California.”

Howell does have Washington wine roots, however.

“The first professional winemaker whom I got to know was the late, great, David Lake.”

Lake was the winemaker for Associated Vintners, which then changed its name to Columbia Winery. Howell is also a good friend of Brian Carter, who was the winemaker for Washington Hills and Apex, and is now based in Woodinville with his own winery, Brian Carter Cellars. Among winemakers, Carter was the first one who advocated blending while the rest of the winemaking world was concentrating on making only a cabernet sauvignon or only a merlot. Blending is exactly what Howell does at Cain Cellars.

Lake confirmed Howell's strong desire to study in France. While in France, Howell took the advice of his professors at Ecole Nationale Superiure Agronomique in Montpellier, who recommended that he study viticulture along with winemaking. He was then granted a year-long internship at Mouton Rothschild, where he experienced every aspect of the vineyard, cellar and laboratory. At the same time, he studied winetasting at the Institut d’Oenologie in Bordeaux.

“All of this was a great start, but in truth, just a beginning,” Howell said. “I have been lucky to work in a number of different vineyards and wineries here in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. I even had a harvest in 1985 with E.B. Foote Winery in Seattle.”

In 1980, Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased 550 acres on Spring Mountain. Even though they have retired, their partners, Jim and Nancy Meadlock, have carried on their dream of a mountain vineyard dedicated to the classical blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. The fruit of this vineyard would inspire the creation of Cain Five.

Howell produces three wines at Cain Vineyard and Winery: Cain Five, Cain Cuvee and Cain Concept. The “five” in the name Cain Five refers to the five grapes: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malice, which are used in the Bordeaux area of France. Howell strives to use only grapes from Cain vineyards for Cain Five so that “estate-bottled” can be proudly heralded on its label.

Cain Concept and Cain Cuvee can utilize the same five grapes, but Howell has winemaker’s choice here. The current Cain Concept is 2007 and carries the additional designation of “Benchland,” noting that the grapes come mostly from the valley floor. It has four grapes: primarily cabernet sauvignon plus merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

Cain Cuvee is softer, with a majority of merlot and an addition of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot, also mostly from the valley floor. It is not only a blend of four grapes, but it is also a blend of two years, utilizing the 2006 and 2007 vintages.

Even being so far away from the valley floor, Cain Mountain Vineyard had to be replanted using phylloxera — resistant rootstock in 1992. When I visited Napa about 10 years ago, the valley was marked by piles of vines ready to be burned or scorched areas where the vines had already been burned. Phylloxera is an insect closely related to the aphid that feeds on leaves and roots of wine vines. When I was visiting Cain Vineyard during the height of the infestation, I stayed in the car so no possibly contaminated shoes could taint the vineyard soil. Only certain vehicles were allowed into the vineyards so that no tires could carry the infection. By the time a vineyard shows infestation, it is too late and the notorious insect is off destroying nearby vineyards. Robert Mondavi, owner of Robert Mondavi Winery, used NASA satellite photos that detected heat variances. If a vineyard showed higher heat, Mondavi tore it out immediately, hoping to keep the spread of phylloxera under control.

I have been especially interested in how wineries have been the leaders in “green” practices. Cain is a member of the Napa Green Land Program and the Fish Friendly Farming Program, and leads the way in sustainable agriculture practices. Howell has been on the cusp in investigating how climate change will affect grape growing and vineyard management. Above all, he has been alert that proposed practices to forestall the unfavorable effects of climate change do not adversely affect the balance of ecology. He often heads seminars on climate change.

With all these accolades and experience under his belt, Howell is very humble. He is conscientious and attentive in his winemaking; however, his everyday persona is quiet and unassuming. He sums up his journey thus far: “All steps along a path which has no end in sight,” he mused. “My wife Katie and I continue down the same path. I am so lucky.”

Cain Vineyard and Winery can be visited by appointment only. It is about 20 minutes up into the Spring Mountain district from the city of St. Helena. While 20 minutes doesn’t sound arduous, you are warned not to use your GPS. The written directions include such landmarks as “cattle-crossing grid.” While views of vineyards throughout Napa are glorious, Cain’s viewpoint is astounding. The ocean can be seen on an especially clear day. “When it rains,” Howell was pointing out as I marveled at the view, “the water which runs down this way is going into Napa Valley. The other direction, it is going into Sonoma Valley.” To visit, call (707) 963-1616 or email Cain is open every morning except Sunday for groups of four or fewer.

Dee Hitch can be reached at


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