To the casual visitor or inexperienced wine lover, Napa may just be a name on a bottle, or a vision of vineyards stretched between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. But like many wine regions, Napa is only a word on a map and an official designation for a group of winegrowing regions that, at times, seem to have little in common. The extreme variations of climate, soils, and topography among the various sections of Napa County make the subdivision of the region into separate AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) an inevitability. The variety of terroirs represented by these 14 (going on 15) sub-regions is quite remarkable, and they reward a deeper exploration by any wine lover looking to better understand why their favorite Napa wine tastes the way it does.
The Howell Mountain AVA is about as different as you can get from the flatlands of the Napa Valley. Situated to the Northeast of the valley, Howell Mountain reaches up thousands of feet above the valley floor. A drive up Deer Park Road out of downtown St. Helena will take you into an entirely different world. Towering pines, ocean driven fog banks, and cooler temperatures mark a growing region that increasingly produces some of Napa’s most interesting wines.
In the uppermost reaches of Howell Mountain, Terry and Juli Pringle purchased 42 acres of vineyards from Bob Lamborn in 1998 to found a winery that they aptly named Outpost, staking a claim on some of Napa’s most extreme viticulture. Perched on a ridge in the forest, and cascading down towards the valley below, the old vines that make up Outpost’s estate vineyards are exposed to weather unheard of on the valley floor. Whipping winds, pelting rain, hail, snow, dense fogs, you name it. These climactic challenges roll off the pacific, straight over the Mayacamas mountains and into the vineyards atop Howell Mountain. At the same time, in between these extremes of weather, Outpost benefits from the same climate that makes Howell mountain such a great place to grow grapes, namely that abundant sunlight and cooler temperatures through the summer and fall mean that grapes can mature slowly while maintaining vital acidity.
Outpost harvested its inaugural vintage in 1998, and the wines were made by Ehren Jordan, but Jordan quickly handed the operation over to Thomas Rivers Brown, who has been making the wine for the past decade. During that time, the Pringles sold the winery to Frank and Kathy Dotzler, its current owners.
In many ways the story of Outpost is the story of its winemaker Thomas Brown, under whose vision and guiding hand the wines have become some of the benchmarks for what is possible on Howell Mountain, and in the case of the winery’s Grenache, what is truly possible to do with that particular variety.
Thomas Rivers Brown fell in love with wine like many do. Right out of college he worked as a wine buyer in a restaurant, and after discovering he had an interest in wine, he traveled around Europe as a twenty-something where he really caught the bug. But unlike many of us, he decided to do something about it, and with the impetuousness of the young, he found his way to a friend’s house in the Oakland ghetto in 1996, where he had a standing offer to sleep in a very small walk-in closet. From there it was a reasonable hitchhike to the Napa Valley, and he eventually pestered his way into an entry level job at the All Seasons wine store in Calistoga. Thomas’ first experiences in the vineyard came working the 1997 harvest at Kent Rassmussen’s vineyard.
In addition to finding ways to get his hands dirty, so to speak, Thomas spent his time out of the fields tasting as much wine as he could, as often as he could, with people who knew a lot more than him about it. One of those people ended up being Ehren Jordan (then the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars) who happened to mention in late 1997 that he was thinking about looking for an assistant for the following year.
Thomas thinks his resume was the first of nearly 200 that Jordan received for the position, and he ended up with the job, partially because he was a bit of a blank slate, he suspects. “It was after the harvest, so Ehren had a bit of time, and he didn’t mind teaching someone, as long as they didn’t come with any preconceived notions about the right way to do things.”
And as the saying goes, that was the first day, of the rest of his life. After more than four years of working with Jordan, Thomas went out on his own as a consulting winemaker, at a high point in demand for such services, and quickly picked up a number of high profile customers, including Outpost.
Brown continues to work with the owners and the Outpost team to push the quality envelope. I have had the pleasure of tasting the estate’s wines pretty consistently for about 5 years, and while the wines have always been excellent, they continue to reach new heights. This may be due in part to the fact that the estate is now farmed 100% organically. Brown continues to dial the wines in towards his ultimate vision, while adhering to the practices he believes make for the best wines, including bottling the wines without any fining or filtration of any kind.
In particular, I have come to regard Outpost’s Grenache as the single finest example of the variety in the state of California, and that was even before I tasted the 2007 vintage, which is quite unlike any California Grenache I have ever tasted. In a good way. The winery has also recently developed a new vineyard plot that has been named “True Vineyard” from which they are making an outstanding Cabernet that will be commercially released for the first time this year.
Note that some of these wines have yet to be released. In those cases, I have provided links to purchase past vintages.
2007 Outpost Grenache, Howell Mountain, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has an unbelievable nose of cola, cedar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and incense. The longer you smell it the more you find swirling in the glass. In the mouth it is positively otherworldly, both epitomizing the bright fruit you expect from Grenache but transcending it into some other realm of spices and exotic woods. Beautifully balanced and lithe on the tongue, I taste raspberry, vanilla, cola, sandalwood, sarsaparilla, and lots of other things that I can’t put my finger on, despite these flavors lingering in an incredibly long finish. To be released in the Fall of 2009. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2006 Outpost Zinfandel, Howell Mountain, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of chocolate, cherries, and plum aromas. In the mouth it has some stuffing, coming across as muscular and full. Lightly suede-like tannins swirl with flavors of chocolate, black cherry, and cola as hints of black pepper emerge on the finish. Good acidity balances the fruit and means the wine will age quite well. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Where to buy?
2006 Outpost Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa
Dark, inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of tobacco and sweet oak. In the mouth it tastes of caramel, bright cherry, and hints of vanilla. The wine has a wonderful quality of clarity to it, even as its depths get dark and earthy. There’s a lot of nice complexity here, and a long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. Where to buy?
2006 Outpost “True Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has an explosive nose of black cherry, tobacco, and wet dark black earth. On the palate this wine is like a fluid sinkhole, pulling me down in to its depths of liquified earth, cassis, and black cherry flavors. Smooth tannins emerge in the darkness, buoyed by good acids, and the whole package is still deep, dark, and resonant as the wine finishes. My handwritten notes feature prominently the word: Rockin’. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $85. Where to buy?
2006 Outpost “The Other” Petit Sirah, Howell Mountain, Napa
Inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of grapey, cassis aromas. In the mouth it is quite tannic but those tannings have a soft velvety edge. Hints of anise, black cherry, cassis drive the flavor profile, which unfortunately turns slightly towards bitter on the finish. No doubt this wine needs a bit more time in the bottle. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $55. Where to buy?