Napa Valley's Howell Mountain Stands Above the Rest

Grapes growing in a Howell Mountain vineyard.Layne Randolph

Tucked away amongst pine, oak, and fir tree forests, the off-the-beaten-path Howell Mountain appellation is so humble that it feels like a secret. Northeast of St. Helena and the Silverado Trail, even its name is obscure – there is no mountain at all—the area sits on an elevated plateau. The Howell Mountain American Viticultural Association (AVA) took its name from a tiny town in the forest when it became the first official sub-appellation in Napa Valley in 1983.

Over a century before, French, Italian, and German immigrants brought their native winemaking traditions to the area and began cultivating vineyards. It did not take long for Howell Mountain wines to make an international splash.

In 1889, French vintners Jean Chaix and Jean Brun won a bronze medal at the Paris World Competition with their Nouveau Medoc wine. The W.S. Keyes Liparita Winery won the grand prize at the 1900 Paris Exposition with its Howell Mountain Claret, and La Jota Vineyard Co.'s Blanco wine won a bronze medal.

Those in the know revere Howell Mountain for the notable American wine history, the secluded and tranquil setting, the incredible soil and position above the fog line, and the world-renowned wines.

Howell Mountain deserves acclaim. The most impactful influences contributing to the exceptional fruit grown in the appellation are location and elevation. The AVA peaks at 2,500 feet above sea level, and the higher elevation offers cool temperatures. Cooler temperatures translate to a later-than-usual bud break, extended hang time, and a later harvest. These three factors allow the fruit to reach its maximum potential and help develop intense color and flavor in the grapes and resulting wines.

Another feature contributing to the fantastic fruit from Howell Mountain is the geological makeup of the area. Centuries ago, volcanoes shaped Napa Valley. Although not a volcano's site, the lava flows left behind white volcanic ash adding to the geology that makes the soils unique today. Howell Mountain soil is a combination of white, crumbly volcanic ash known as "tufa" and iron-rich red clay soil.

Volcanic soil is distinct; it is nutrient-poor and quick-draining, two qualities that force vines to struggle and dig deep for nutrients. Vines that must work hard to survive yield smaller grapes with a higher skin-to-juice ratio. That ratio equates to dark, vibrant color and deep, concentrated flavor.

But the enhanced flavor is not the only benefit; vineyards grown on a combination of volcanic and red clay soils produce wine with higher tannins and excellent age-ability – two hallmarks of excellent and collectible wine. With their position above the fog line, these soils help create the qualities synonymous with Howell Mountain wines.

The Howell Mountain AVA possesses optimal conditions for growing wine grapes. Perched above the fog line, blessed with California sunshine, and home to blissful (and lucky) little grapes, the Howell Mountain AVA stands above the rest.

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I'm a freelance writer living in California wine country. I like to write about intriguing people, the world of wine, and magical travel destinations.

Healdsburg, CA

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