The road to Cain Vineyard and Winery is not for the equilibrium-challenged (let’s just say there are more than a few twists and turns). But a road like that can often lead to unique experiences, just like this one does.
Founded in 1980 by Joyce and Jerry Cain, this is one mountain vineyard with a true sense of place. And its signature offering, a Bordeaux-style blend called Cain Five, is where its soul intentionally lies.
The five varietals that are used to create Cain Five—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot—were the first ones planted on the 540-acre, bowl-shaped property atop Spring Mountain along Napa’s western edge. Since then, the vineyards have all been completely replanted (they just finished this spring) with phylloxera-resistant vines, and a little Syrah has been added to the mix. (The first release of the Syrah was the 2002. It’s 100 percent Syrah, fully estate grown and only available at the winery.)
Now owned by Jim and Nancy Meadlock (who purchased Cain in 1991), the winery is the largest of more than 30 in the Spring Mountain district. The 1,400 to 2,100 feet elevation lends cooler days and warmer nights to the vineyard. And since much of its terrain is sloped and terraced, it takes a lot of TLC to maintain. Luckily, associate vineyard manager Ashley Anderson and winemaker/general manager Christopher Howell are there to keep a close eye on things.
“For me, it’s best to be out here in the fields, seeing what’s going on,” says Anderson, who’s been with Cain for nearly seven years. Hailing from Michigan, she has a degree in ecology and environmental studies. “I didn’t get involved in viticulture until I came to California,” she says. In fact she has quite an unusual background for a vineyard manager. Before this, she was growing orchids; then joined the Peace Corps and spent some time in Mauritania, Africa; then became involved in animal rehabilitation (for wild birds) in the Florida Keys.
“Eventually I decided I wanted to get back into growing plants. I wanted to be part of producing something I enjoyed,” she says. And who doesn’t enjoy food and wine? (OK, maybe some people, but we won’t worry about them here.) “Good food and wine have always been a big part of my family,” says Anderson.
Aside from her own interests, Anderson also emphasizes the importance of having a regular team of vineyard workers. “For example, when we prune, each worker has ‘his’ own vines that he comes back to every year. They know the vines,” she says. “If I just got new people every year, Cain wouldn’t be the vineyard it is.”
“It’s hard to find people who are tied to the spot. But the key to the vine is understanding it,” agrees Howell, who places just as much emphasis on the vineyard speaking for itself as Anderson does on the people who are a part of it. “The mountain vineyards all have something in common,” he says. “Spring Mountain has had vineyards since before 1900.”
When Howell started at Cain in 1990 as a consultant, he brought a different viewpoint to the table. Originally from Seattle, he obtained a degree in philosophy and chemistry before venturing to France to attend Mount Pellier University to learn about wine. Upon his return he worked at Clos du Val, Clos Pegasse, Peter Michael and Marimar Estate.
“The first thing I did when I started full-time at Cain was introduce the Cuvée,” he says. Cain Cuvée is one of the three main wines Cain offers (aside from the Syrah, which is an extremely limited production). It makes up about half of the winery’s output, and was born out of the idea of doing a new style of Cabernet blend—one that compliments food rather than overpowers it. “It’s an attempt to work with Cabernet and break the stereotype of what people think of Cab,” says Howell, referring to the big, inky Cabs for which Napa is known. A blend of 46 percent Merlot, 41 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 13 percent Cabernet Franc, the grapes come from Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain—and they’re all purchased specifically for this blend. The result is a bistro-style wine that has a bright and complex nose, followed by a balanced, silky palate of ripe fruits, mild spices and a long finish. Its versatility makes it a friendly, approachable wine with unmistakable character.
Cain Concept is an entirely different approach. It’s named after a “concept” that Howell and Jim Meadlock came up with while discussing where the best Cabernet vineyards are in the Napa Valley. The answer for both men was the Rutherford Bench (namely the Georges III and Tokalon vineyards). “We decided to make a wine that reflected these sites,” says Howell. “It’s the closest we get to the traditional Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Blended from 84 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Cabernet Franc, 5 percent Petit Verdot and 4 percent Merlot, the result is rich and seductive. It’s thick on the nose with spicy, meaty aromas, then opens up on the palate with a surge of lush, rich dark fruit with hints of dust and black olives. It reminds me of some of my favorite Spanish wines.
And if Cain Cuvée and Cain Concept are all about Napa blends, then Cain Five, like I mentioned before, is all about place. “The intensity of effort we put into this vineyard is reflected in this wine,” says Howell. “There’s nothing about it that speaks easiness,” he says. “And the cool thing about it is that, in the end, it’s all about the vineyard. It’s not about us. It speaks for itself.”
The blend is 43 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Cabernet Franc, 19 percent Merlot, 13 percent Petit Verdot and 5 percent Malbec. Luscious and smooth but with an unmistakable edge, it has the concentrated character of the mountain itself. “Our vineyards only produce about 1.5 to 2 tons per acre,” says Anderson. (Valley floor vineyards can product twice as much.) Because of the soil and climate, the grapes are small and thick-skinned—and their distinctive attributes are reflected in the glass. Aromas of vanilla, mocha, spices, cherries and a hint of licorice invite you in and are followed by a dense, rounded palate and smooth mouthfeel. Its lingering finish leaves one wanting another sip. And another, and another…
All the grapes Cain grows and purchases are hand-harvested, destemmed, fermented with native yeasts, macerated then manually pressed. They’re separated by vineyard lot during this time, and they complete malolactic fermentation in the barrel. They’re blended in the summer following harvest and then barrel aged to round out the flavors. Bottled without filtration, the end result is one-of-a-kind.
If you visit Cain, tastings and tours are available by appointment on Friday and Saturday mornings. The property is beautifully landscaped and the vineyard and Napa Valley views are breathtaking. Customer relations manager Meghan Ainsworth was kind enough to show me around while I was there—perhaps you’ll be so lucky. Whatever your experience, a trip to this, in Meghan’s words, “hidden gem of a winery,” is well worth the ride.
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