Cain Vineyard and Winery  
Visiting California's Napa Valley, part 1


I arrived at San Francisco airport on a gorgeous late autumn day, just after 2 pm. After clearing homeland security and picking up a hire car, it was already 3.15 pm – travelling with just hand luggage - something I was very proud of - hadn't really saved me any time. According to my schedule I was supposed to be at my first visit, Cain, by 4.30 pm, which wasn't going to happen, even given a nice steady drive out of town. Oh well.

This was to be my first visit to Napa, and so by the time I crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge, I was getting excited. The sun was dipping, and my only cause for regret was that it would be dark by the time I got to Spring Mountain, where Cain are located, and so I'd miss the views. It's about a 90 minute drive to the town of Napa on a good run, and the vineyards begin as you leave the town limits.

I called ahead to let Chris and Katie Howell at Cain know my progress (Chris is general manager/winemaker here, pictured above). Very kindly they offered to pick me up from my accommodation, which turned out to be a lovely cottage at Cakebread Cellars just south of St Helena. In my jet-lagged state, not having to negotiate a windy mountain road was a real relief.

Their home is idyllically situated at the top of Spring Mountain. Even though it was dark, we could see the general layout of the valley, and over a ridge we could see to Sonoma. Katie was cooking – she'd spent the last year training in chef school, so the food was close to perfection. This was a really good start to the trip.


Chris Howell is an interesting, thoughtful person, and this is reflected in his wines. Cain Cuvee NV6 is a Merlot-dominated blend of two vintages and is fresh and elegant. 'I think Napa Valley Cabernet is stereotyped as being very oaky, very ripe and high in alcohol,' says Chris. 'The goal with Cuvee is to get a lighter style, although this is all in context.' It's picked a little less ripe and extracted less.

Cain Five 1996 is a really thrilling wine, with intense, savoury, spicy character and just a hint of animal. The purist might call this as bretty, but even if it is, it's definitely good brett. It reminds me a bit of the classic Provence red Domaine du Trevallon, but maybe a bit more refined and focused. Cain Five 2005 is beautifully focused and structured, and I really like it. Cain Concept 'The Benchland' 2005 is poured by Chris to compare with Five – this is from the valley floor, as opposed to the mountain vineyards that Five comes from. It's sweeter and purer, but perhaps a little less intense and compelling. The mountain vineyards are 1500 feet higher up, and have much shallower soils. 

Cain make proper wine. I was impressed.


Cain Musqué Sauvignon Blanc 2002
From Ventana vineyard, Monterey, this is the last vintage made of this wine, and it's amazingly fresh for an seven year old wine. 'In the 1970s people thought Sauvignon Blanc had more potential than Chardonnay,' says Chris, 'but now Sauvignon sells for about the same as Merlot.' Which isn't very much. This has beautiful grapefruit, herb and nut characters, with lovely freshness, complexity and minerality. Drinking at its peak. 91/100

Cain Cuvée NV6 Napa Valley
This is a blend of two vintages, and is 40% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. Lovely balance with sweet elegant cherry and berry fruit with nice mineral elegance. Good structure, but balance is the key. 90/100

Cain Five 1996 Napa Valley
Wonderfully intense, spicy and savoury. There's an animal edge to the palate with earth and pepper notes, but there is still lots of fruit. Earthy, spicy and dense, and although there's probably some brettanomyces here, it works in the context of this wine. 93/100

Cain Concept 'The Benchland' 2005 Napa Valley
55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot. Sweet, open, pure nose with lovely black cherry and plum fruit. The palate has richness and focus with sweet fruit and hints of meat and olive. Rich but still focused. 91/100

Cain Five 2005 Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the balance a mix of the other Bordeaux varieties. Beautiful focus to the dark fruits nose with some hints of violet and a subtle roasted character. The palate is powerful, intense and structured. A lovely wine. 94/100


Photos from Napa Valley
Part 1, Cain
Part 2, Schramsberg

Part 3, Corison

Part 4, Saintsbury
Part 5, Lagier Meredith
Part 6, Trefethen
Part 7, Trinchero
Part 8, Grgich Hills
Part 9, Cakebread

Wines tasted as 11/09  
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