Cain Five, whose precipitous vineyards high on Spring Mountain have been carefully nurtured by the intellectual and erudite Chris Howell for over 20 years now, continues to fly just under the radar of the trophy hunting Californian wine purchaser. After all, they don't chase points and they don't make blockbusters. Theirs is an endeavour of a more subtle nature. Which is probably why we’re such big fans.
That the recent World of Fine Wine Finest Wines of Californian Book cites Cain as one of the top 10 Bordeaux Blends in all of California is no mistake. Others in the list include Dominus, Ridge Monte Bello, Opus One and Rudd. By anyone's yardstick this is pretty fine company to be in. And yet Cain undoubtedly offers something quite unique.
"Now that the replanted vineyards are beginning to reach maturity, the welcome re-emergence of Cain Five as an estate wine will allow Howell and his team to express the complexity and grandeur of this remarkable site to the fullest degree" World of Fine Wine, 2011
Chris Howell's vision has always been to express the particular characteristics of the site the grapes come from. This he has done through very careful vineyard management and a deeply impressive understanding of the sites he works with. Harvest when it comes is often earlier than his peers, bringing into bright focus the specific terroir the grapes come from, not just the sun they ripen under. The estate wine, Cain Five, a classic Bordeaux blend is produced entirely from a very special hilltop site indeed (pictured above). 2000ft up Spring Mountain the vineyards are steep and difficult to work. The soils are sandstone, shale and some clay. As the picture attests to, the differing exposures are almost Piedmontese in their multitude - each one producing grapes of a slightly different character and complexity. Wherein lies one of the keys to Cain's appeal.
Keeping manipulation to an absolute minimum and certainly eschewing any of the "corrective" practices you sometimes hear about in Californian winemaking, Chris produces some of the most elegant, complex and refined Californian Cabernet we know of.
The estate's other wine Cain Concept is absolutely not a second wine. Following his philosophy of producing wines the represent 'place', the one difference with Cain Concept is that it comes from grapes grown on the "Benchland" - aka the Napa valley floor (the AVA's Stag's Leap, Rutherford and Oakville are all benchland). All the winemaking expertise that Chris has built up in producing Cain Five is poured into Cain Concept. As WoFW says, "this is high quality fruit, yet the wine is offered at about half the price of Cain Five, which makes it something of a bargain".
Arguably Americas most important wine growing region, home to the likes of Dominus, Heitz, Cain Cellars and Opus One. Bordeaux varietals are key in this 40 mile long North-South valley that stretches from the San Fransico Bay up towards Calistoga and the sheer variety of different climats and vineyard sites is as bewildering as the sheer variety of styles of wine produced. At their best these can be some of the most opulent examples of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world - truly great wines with dinstinctly long cellaring potentials, but more youthful approachability than their european counterparts.