Regular readers know that I’m a sucker for contrarians and iconoclasts when it comes to winemaking. Not that my tastes in wine are that far out of the mainstream, rather they’re broad enough to encompass and enjoy those who stray from the traditional path in their winemaking.
Strangely, in California these sorts of winemakers are hard to find. Of course, there are plenty of folks making individualistic, expressive, personality laden wines all over Napa and Sonoma. I review a lot of them here. But what I’m talking about here are folks that really push the definitions of conventional wisdom and stylistic themes in their winemaking.
Since their first crush in the back of a pickup truck in 1984 Michael and Kathryn Havens, along with co-owners Russell and Jon Scott, did things just a little bit differently than 98% of the rest of the wineries of Napa Valley. For starters, they insist on not raising prices to keep up with land values in Napa. Add to that their persistence in making wine from Carneros Merlot and Syrah, two varietals that are hard to grow, let alone get ripe, in the cool reaches of Napa where they source some of their fruit. And finally, their insistence on significant bottle age before release of some of their wines puts them in a very small group of producers willing to forgo revenues much longer than usual in favor of making sure the wines they release match their vision.
The Havens Winery vision is itself a departure from Napa convention. Since its inception, the Havens’ have deliberately made what were then called European styled wines, and what are now more commonly referred to as Old World style wines. These are wines that are generally driven not by fruit, but by more mineral, earth, and other subdued flavors. These are also wines that are fundamentally food friendly — lower in alcohol, higher in acids, and aged in lower percentages of new oak (usually only 25%). These stylistic preferences combined with their bottle aging program prior to release means that their wines, especially their reserve wines, taste like very few others made in Napa.
Winemaking is done by Jeff Keene and John Killebrew, in conjunction with Michael Havens, with grapes from the estate’s 10 acre vineyard in southern Napa as well as grapes purchased from various vineyard sites around Carneros.
After twenty years as a family owned and run business, Havens was just sold a couple of months ago to Billington Imports, a 25-year-old importing and wine marketing company based in Springfield, Virginia. Havens joins a small portfolio of other wineries and labels owned by the company, including Sin é, Blind River, Big Tattoo, Chapin Cellars, and Chasseur among others.
Havens holds the distinction of making the very first Syrah from the Carneros region in 1991, from the Hudson vineyard, owned by Lee Hudson. The winery still gets grapes from this vineyard, and uses them to make their only single vineyard designate wine. Six years earlier than that first Syrah bottling, the winery dove into making Merlot from a region that some people consider to have the climate of Bordeaux in a bad year.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2002 Havens Merlot, Napa
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of stewed prunes, tobacco and soft aromas of plum. In the mouth it is smooth and dry with very few tannins and a predominantly plum aspect which is more tart than lush in its expression of fruit. Medium bodied, the wine moves nicely across the palate with a pleasing finish. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $24. Where to Buy?
2001 Havens “Carneros Reserve” Merlot, Carneros
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a spicy nose that also manages to incorporate some floral aromas along with its minerality and red fruit scents. In the mouth it is lively with good acids and complex with brambly flavors of black plum, cherry, and a hint of green wood that makes this wine a Bordeaux doppelganger if there ever were one in California. An underlying minerality shines through on the finish. Those looking for fruit bombs would do well to look elsewhere, but anyone interested in a fundamentally unique expression of Merlot from California is encouraged to give this one a try. Score: 9. Cost: $36. Where to Buy?
2001 Havens “Borriquot” Red Blend
Medium garnet in the glass with orange highlights, this wine has a dark nose of slow cooked meats and tobacco aromas. On the palate it has an old world weight and texture to it, providing cherry, leather and hints of candied orange peel flavors supported by good acids and a light tannic structure. Unlike most every Cabernet or Cabernet blend produced in Napa, and worth a look. Score: 9. Cost: $36. Where to Buy?
2002 Havens Syrah, Napa
Dark purple in color, this wine has a dusty nose of…well…dirt, and dust. The tiniest hint of fruit shows through, but the primary aromatic expression is essentially a landslide in action. And that’s a reasonably good thing. Interesting at the very least. In the mouth the wine seems somewhat muted in its expression with black olive and blackberry flavors that roll roundly down the tongue towards a modest finish. Score: 8.5. Cost: $24. Where to Buy?
2001 Havens “Hudson Vineyard Block T” Syrah, Carneros
Dark garnet in color with purple highlights, this wine has a classic cool climate syrah nose of blueberry, blackberry and white pepper. In the mouth it is a gorgeously pure expression of blueberry and blackberry bramble, that is very satisfying, lightly grippy, green tannins and all. Not many decent Syrahs are made from Carneros and this must certainly be one of the better ones. Score: 9. Cost: $36. Where to Buy?
2001 (Havens) Cave Dog “Napa Valley Reserve” Red Wine, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a lovely tobacco, espresso, and cherry fruit nose. In the mouth it delivers everything the nose promises, with nicely balanced cherry flavors, good acidity and a nice texture. Poised and well proportioned, the wine reveals tobacco and then darker, peat-like flavors as it heads to a pleasing finish.
Score: 9. Cost: $28. Where to Buy?
I should note that while these were the only wines available for me to taste, the winery does produce a few more, including an Albarino, as well as a couple of other Syrahs, and a few additional wines under the Cave Dog label.