Cain Vineyard personifies the pioneering spirit of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District

Often overshadowed by those on the valley floor, the Spring Mountain District appellation sits above the town of St. Helena, overlooking most of the Napa Valley.

Early wineries on the mountain thrived in the late 19th century but due to a phylloxera infestation, the vineyards were deserted and remained fallow

Cain Winemaker Christopher Howell

and overgrown for decades. Fortunately, a renaissance began in the 1960s through the 1980s with the emergence of many iconic wineries like Smith-Madrone, Cain and later Philip Togni, who established the region and still produce fine wine today.

Back in the 1880s, Spring Mountain grew from 55 to over 200 acres, mostly planted in zinfandel. Today, it supports more than 1,000 acres, predominantly planted in cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other Bordeaux varietals. The mountain represents only a small percentage of Napa Valley vineyards, but the releases from this secluded gem are recognized worldwide.

The Cain Vineyard sits high above the town of St. Helena overlooking Napa Valley. (Courtesy/Cain Vineyard and Winery)

The Cain Vineyard (photo credit: Janis Miglavs)

Last month, I had the pleasure to taste wines from Cain Vineyard twice in one week. First at the Slow Wine Tour at Pier 27 which highlights sustainably-made wines and again at Cook’s St. Helena restaurant where we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Cain Five, their flagship Bordeaux blend.

The winery began in 1980 after Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased the land and set about to establish a mountain vineyard that focused on Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. The Cain Vineyard sits along the crest of the Mayacamas mountain range, straddling the peak at elevations from 1,400 to 2,100 feet. Surrounded by forest, exposed to wind, cooler temperatures and thin soils that are common on steep slopes, the vineyard creates complexity and a distinctive personality to the fruit used for their premier blend.

Among its many attributes, the Cain Vineyard soils share a unique tarweed plant that is credited with influencing the herbal quality and spirited aromas of their wines.

Striving to showcase the complexity and individual traits of their vineyard sources, Cain winemaker Christopher Howell creates only three cabernet blends each vintage, known as Cain Cuvée, Cain Concept and Cain Five. The one outlier that we tasted was the 2017 Cain Musque, a sauvignon blanc release that features musque clones from vineyards in Monterey County.

Cain credits its success with a simple technique of partial extraction of the grapes, Their goal is “to get what we want and to leave the rest behind,” something they achieve organically through labor intensive tasks like hand picking, manual pressing and the use of native yeasts.

Tasting several vintages of Cain Five at the same time, I was taken aback on how much the expressive aromas varied year to year. The nose of the vintage 1985 was vibrant with aromas of dried mushrooms and forest floor while the 1995 was much more akin to perfumed candied fruit. A personal favorite of the vintages tasted, the dense, full-bodied 1995 Cain Five had an extraordinary mouthfeel with fine, structured tannins.

Cooler temperatures required the mix of some outside fruit in the 2000 Cain Five that led to more herbal aromas while those of the 2005 vintage revealed toasted nuts with red cherries and exotic spices that preceded balanced flavors and a lush mouthfeel.

Returning to an earthy bouquet, the 2015 Cain Five ($125), their current release blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec had a rich density with herbal and savory notes to compliment tannins that forecast a prosperous future.

The Cain Cuvee, sourced from the estate and other valley floor vineyards, uniquely blends two vintages. The current Cain Cuvee NV15 ($36) features grapes from 2014 and 2015, delivering deep savory and red fruit flavors with a lengthy finish.

Showcasing vineyard sites on the alluvial benchlands throughout the Napa Valley including Beckstoffer George III in Rutherford, Truchard in Carneros and Stagecoach in Atlas Peak, the Cain Concept is defined as the ripest and roundest wine in their portfolio. The current 2012 Cain Concept ($100) displayed lively aromatics and ripened fruit flavors that honored the pedigree vineyards.

Associate Winemaker Francois Bugue

Surprisingly, the Cain Five anniversary tasting ended with the PNV Lot 3 Francois’ Pick 2018 Malbec, poured by Cain’s long-standing associate winemaker, Francois Bugue. The aromas in this special release were fruity and floral with balanced, delicate flavors, a departure from the full-bodied cabernet blends.

Cain Vineyard and Winery is another top notch producer which personifies the stability and sustainability among the pioneers who, years ago, forged the renaissance in the Spring Mountain District.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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