2008 Outpost Grenache, Howell Mountain, Napa

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 in Northern California.

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 — and still currently — 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 6 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 was likely one of, if not the best, Grenache I have ever tasted. The 2008 vintage had a hard act to follow, and while I don’t think I can rate it quite as highly as the 2007, it is a fantastic wine and continues to be a benchmark for the variety for me.

This is a California Grenache, which means that it is powerful, and ripe, but not to the point of being overwhelming. The wine bears no trace of its alcohol levels which can get up above 15%, though I didn’t remember to check the specific number for this vintage when I tasted this wine a couple of weeks ago at the Family Winemakers event in San Francisco.

Tasting Notes:
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully perfumed nose of tobacco, strawberry, and a mysterious blend of exotic spices that might have billowed out of a window in Morocco. In the mouth the wine explosively juicy with flavors of strawberry, spices, exotic woods and cedar twisting and vibrating through a long finish where they add cocoa powder and faint floral notes as a denouement. Great acidity, nice balance, and a very faint tannic structure round out the package. Powerful as it is compelling. Outstanding.

Food Pairing:
It just occurred to me that I might like to try this wine with some sort of meat in a traditional Mexican mole sauce. I think it might be an interesting combo.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $40

This wine has yet to be released, but will likely hit the market soon. If you’re interested in buying past vintages (including the 2007, which I rated between 9.5 and 10) here’s a link to buy online.