From landscape to taste, Cain is top barrel

Dee Hitch/Special to the Reporter Employee Chris Howell works in the barrel room at the Cain Vineyard and Winery in the Mayacamas Mountains in California. -
Dee Hitch/Special to the Reporter Employee Chris Howell works in the barrel room at the Cain Vineyard and Winery in the Mayacamas Mountains in California.
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Dee Hitch
On Wine

The Cain vineyard site is spectacular, cradled in a bowl overlooking the town of St. Helena from the top of the Mayacamas Mountains in California. Sonoma County is to the west, and Napa County to the east. On one particular morning when the fog lifted early, I could see the Pacific Ocean off in the distance. I have visited Cain Vineyard and Winery three times. I am always in awe of the landscape.

Dramatic terraces have been cut into the steep hillsides. Above the fog, intense sunlight bathes the vines. Afternoons are tempered by cool breezes blowing over the mountain from the Pacific Ocean. While this panorama is magnificent, all the components of fog, breezes and long days of sun are reasons why the wines from Cain consistently are high quality, receive high scores from critics and have almost reached a cult status.

Cain was founded in 1980 when Joyce and Jerry Cain purchased part of the McCormick Ranch, a homestead dating back to the 1840s. Jim and Nancy Meadlock joined the Cains in 1986 and subsequently purchased full ownership in 1991. The first wine was the 1985 vintage.

The Cains were in search of a mountain property where they could realize their dream of planting the five grapes that made up Bordeaux, the French wine comprised of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Mountain vineyards are unique. The soils are thinner, and the vines yield less fruit. Spring comes later, and the afternoons are cooler. The sun shines longer and with greater intensity. All these factors create grapes that produce a concentrated wine.

Former Islander Chris Howell has been the winemaker since 1991. He studied and worked at Mouton Rothschild in 1983. Returning to the United States, he worked at Clos du Val, Clos Pegase, Peter Michael Winery and Marimar Torres Estate. His style of beautifully balanced wines with great finesse reflects that background. As Howell puts it: “I have focused on fine winegrowing — following the process from the vineyard into the winery and, finally, to the glass. There are just two essential requirements to do this: knowing and loving wine. These are never-ending pursuits, and all of the rest will follow.”

My husband and I were treated to a tour of the winery and vineyards with Howell. He has been experimenting with various barrel treatments, putting the same wine in barrels of various oaks so that he can directly compare the impact of the wood on his wines. Curious about our opinions, he led us through a series of comparative red wine tastings. To us, differences were subtle, and we doubted that we could reliably identify the differences between French and American oaked wines or between different French barrels. We thought it would be much easier, but found that it was like an eye exam … “Is number one better or number two?”

When at Cain during the crush celebration lunch, I was honored to give a presentation on Washington wines to the Cain staff and three interns … two from France, one from Chile. The wines were served and discussed during lunch, reflecting the view that wines and foods should not be separated.

Selecting wines to bring was a challenge, and I don’t mind admitting to some serious stage fright! After all, I am a Washingtonian, eager to show off my state’s wines before this august body. I brought Long Shadows Poet’s Riesling, Long Shadows Chester-Kidder, L’Ecole Fries Semillon, L’Ecole Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling. The Washington Wine Institute provided pamphlets about Washington with all the statistics. I was pleased that these wonderful wines were all well-received. They seemed most interested in discussing the rieslings.

Cain is an appointment-only winery. When we were there, a couple appeared and was turned away.

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