Cain Vineyards – Exploring Napa’s Complex Geology with Chris Howell

Cain Vineyards

In all my years of traveling to Napa Valley, I had not had the opportunity to visit Spring Mountain.  The thrilling, hilly, twist turning drive up Spring Mountain to Cain Vineyards & Winery explained why.  Spring Mountain is off the beaten path and is perched up above St. Helena on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa and Sonoma Valley.  It is in these rugged hills that I fell in love with a part of Napa Valley that is quiet, remote and rural.  After my visit to Cain Vineyards I made a couple of other trips up Spring Mountain and discovered small family owned vineyards with a deep sense of community and history. Spring Mountain was one of the first areas planted in Napa Valley, going back to the 1800’s

Winemaker Chris Howell

Chris Howell is the general manager and winemaker for Cain Vineyards since 1990.  Having a professorial like personality, I was immediately drawn into his wealth of knowledge on soil, land, geology, terroir, and winemaking.  Chris studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and then studied viticulture in the South of France at Montpellier. He also went on to work with wine makers at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.  Chris has a traditional, old world approach to making wine. He believes in minimal intervention and letting a sense of place come through on his wines. Like a sponge I quickly absorbed his enthusiasm, passion and knowledge about wines.

Cain Vineyards Chris Howell


Cain Vineyards was founded in 1980 by Jerry and Joyce Cain.  Having bought 550 acres, they wanted to plant grapes dedicated to the five Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, ultimately making their flagship wine Cain Five in 1985.  The Cains were true visionaries, at the time blending Bordeaux style varietals was not as common.  There was quite a bit of blending going on in Napa, but Cain was the first to use all five Bordeaux varietals.  After several harvests, Jim and Nancy Meadlock joined as partners in 1986 and then the Cains retired in 1991.

Cain Vineyards


Cain Vineyard and Winery is high on Spring Mountain at about 1400 feet to 2100 feet in elevation.  There are wonderful breathtaking 360° views.   Cain Vineyards is cradled in a bowl on top of Spring Mountain.  We take a walk with Chris through the fields and through the terraced vineyards and observe the various elevations, plots and subplots.  The vast differences between the vineyard plots are quite apparent.  Some steep, some facing the sun, some facing the direction of the wind, some terraced and some on small plateaus.  There are small plots facing all directions, thus contributing to the complexity of the wines.  I would describe all the terraces and subplots with many various exposures and elevations, as Burgundy like.

From where we were standing the views were captivating. We could see the edge of the Mayacamas Range between San Pablo Bay and Mount Saint Helena.  The vineyards are extremely weather dependent, where the Pacific Ocean is 30 miles away.  The proximity to the ocean keep this part of the mountain cooler. The winter rains keep the region cool.  During the summer the mornings are warm and the afternoons and nights cool as the wind and fog roll in.  The vineyards up at Cain are generally cooler year round compared to most of Napa Valley.

Chris described the soil as being sedimentary(versus volcanic), made of sandstone, shale and clay.   The hillsides are very steep so the soils are very thin, the soils do not retain water as the water runs right into the valley, even in the rainy season.  The soils are rich in magnesium and potassium.  Standing at one of the highest points at Cain, we see many trees surrounding the vineyards, made up of Oak, Madrone and Douglas fir.  This unique landscape of spotted trees and forest add to the aromatics of their wines.

Cain Vineyards

Old World Style New World Wines

Chris passionately describe his winemaking style, whereby I realize how Cain wines stand out from the rest of Napa Valley.  The wines are special not just because they are mountain wines, but because of Chris’s approach to making wines is all about letting the place find its way into the glass.  Chris’s philosophy may not be unique when it comes to old world wines, but his style definitely stands out when it comes to Napa Valley winemaking trends.  He uses minimal intervention, in a way that I would describe as almost an old world classical style of winemaking whereby allowing the land and terroir to shine though.

Cain Vineyards

Chris typically harvests his grapes a bit earlier than his colleagues around Napa Valley, sometimes weeks earlier.  He wants to capture the fruit at its peak, not when it is under ripe or over ripe.  There is not a lot of extraction in his wines.  Chris also uses native yeast for fermentation, resulting in a slightly more subtle wine.  His wines are elegant, complex, yet not overly dramatic as he would describe.  Chris Howell is one of the few wine makers in Napa that I would say is more terroir focused, where he feels the most interesting wines are an expression of the land.

Wine Tasting

Chris lead us through the vineyards and pointed out a plot of land that they have recently dedicated to Syrah.  One that I will be eagerly awaiting to try.  We continued further up the hill and we find a shade and plateau to sip and taste the wines.  We were joined by Chris’s wife Katie who is the National Sales Manager for Cain.  Katie made a delicious savory hors d’oeuvre, freshly baked Gougéres, which were the perfect accompaniment to wines.  Sipping wine amongst the vines up on the mountain made for a memorable tasting experience.  We tasted two wines, Cain Concept 2013 and Cain Five 2013.

The two wines we tasted were stylistically very different.  The Cain 5 is a blend of mountain fruit, whereas the Cain Concept is a blend of premier plots from Napa’s Benchland. Below you will find my tasting notes.

Cain Concept 2013 – The Benchland, Napa Valley

Cain Concept is make in the same style as Cain Five.  The difference being the fruit for Cain Concept is sourced from prime parcels of land from the Napa Benchlands or Napa Valley floor.  These plots are alluvial vineyards that are the most famous of Napa Valley.  The grapes are from Morisoli Borges, Hudson, Garvey, Beckstoffer, and Stagecoach.  The resulting wine is intense yet elegant.  This is a big Napa Valley wine. The nose is fragrant with fruit and spice. Lots of blackberries, cinnamon, spice, nutmeg and cocoa on the palate It has a nice firm structure with smooth tannins.

Cain Concept

Caine Five 2013 – Spring Mountain District

Cain Five is made entirely from Spring Mountain grapes.  This wine is intense yet has a sense of restraint.  It is a big wine, but you can feel a sense of place in the glass.  The wine is unique and distinctive, with its herbaceous, earthy notes.  I was beginning to understand and taste the aromatics of the forest in the wines. On the palate there are notes of black cherries, blackberries, mushrooms, and herbs. The wine is elegant yet well structured.  It is also a wine that pairs wonderfully with food.  It would pair well with lamb, steak, or a hearty pasta with a rich red sauce.  Cain Five drinks beautifully now, but can also be put away in the cellar for years to come.

Cain Five

Visit Spring Mountain

Cain Vineyards and Spring Mountain offer a unique sense of place and charm.  A visit to Cain will steal your heart, not just with its views but also with its wines. Having visited many vineyards, I tend to remember those that I connect with and those wine makers whose passion and knowledge leave an imprint on my heart.  For me, Chris offered that unique insight to Spring Mountain and  Cain Wines.  When visiting Cain ask for Chris Howell and he will take you on a remarkable journey to Spring Mountain.

Cain Vineyards

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