I recently had the privilege of staying up at Cain vineyard and winery, on Spring Mountain, in Napa Valley. From an elevation of 2100 feet, the views were spectacular, overlooking Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, southern Napa, and Cain’s 140,000 vines. It’s a far different perspective than that of the tourists experience on highway 29; surrounded by nature, quiet, and without any pomp and circumstance.
I spent three hours with J.J. (the operations manager), and met the associate winemaker, François, along the way. We were able to try all three of their current releases, the “Cain Cuvée N.V. 12”, the 2008 “Cain Concept”, and the 2012 “Cain Five”. J.J. also broke out a crown jewel of a wine, in the 2006 “Cain Five”. All the wines were superb. One thing that stands out about Cain (relative to Napa wines, in general) is that they all have an earthiness that’s reminiscent of Bordeaux. They still have the lovely California fruit, but there’s a common thread about all these wines, that I’ve loved from Cain over the years.
During my visit, we were able to check out the cellar, a vast, air conditioned hall, containing myriad barrels of different shapes and sizes. What I found out was fascinating. The cellar contains Brettanomyces, a yeast strain that affects the bouquet and palate of wine. “Brett” occurs naturally, forming on the skins of fruit, then later marrying with the juice, and feeding off the sugars in new oak barrels, as the wine ages. It can have a wide range of effects on wine, from an orange citrus / cranberry note to leather, tanned leather, and even a barnyard-like quality.
To some, this may sound off-putting. Merryvale winery, in Napa, spent millions ridding themselves of their “spoiled” barrels, worried that they might fall out of favor with certain wine publications. But to those of us that love the earthy component in our wine, “Brett” can have a balancing component to the lush fruit that California terrior evokes. Cain embraces this concept. In fact, it is a part of the winemaking process that fascinates them.
There’s a mystery here, though. When speaking with the very people that have been working with “Brett” for years, they don’t know how to predict it. They can tell you that two out of every three vintages of “Cain Five” (2012 has notes of floral citrus and tanned leather) have it. “Cain Five” contains only estate fruit (where “Cain Concept” is all purchased fruit, and “Cain Cuvée” is a blend of estate and purchased), and “Brett” is definitely present regularly in some of their vineyard blocks that make up “Cain Five”. But it doesn’t show up in the wine every year. Ultimately Mother Nature decides when “Brett” will make an appearance. The most fascinating part of this is that, even though all three wines rotate and share oak barrels (“Brett” can be passed through oak), it shows up in the “Cain Cuvée” and “Cain Concept” a lot less frequently. It is in these mysteries that wine continues to captivate those of us who love it.
Let me know if you’d like to visit Cain for a tasting. I’ll connect you.
Current Cain releases:
Cain Cuvee NV12
A blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, with 60% from the 2012 vintage and 40% from the 2011 vintage. Notes of coffee, leather, moss, licorice, minerals, blackberry liqueur, black tea, sage, and lavender. Dry finish, with firm tannins, balanced acid, and a Campari finish.
Cain Concept 2008, the Benchland, Napa Valley
“Concept”, meaning, in the style of the great 70’s Mayacamas wines of Napa. A blend of the “who’s who” of Napa Valley vineyards, including George III, Tokalon, Missouri Hopper, Stanton, and Morisoli. Nose of spice, leather, bramble, and blackberry lemonade. Round, and silky texture. Vibrant acid, and a chocolaty finish.
Cain Five 2012, Estate
A blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All estate fruit (see the photo for this spectacular view!). Nose of violet, “Sen Sen” candy (back in the day, you’d pop these after leaving the bar to “freshen the breath”!), citrus/floral, tanned leather, brandied cherries, black cherry, toffee / coffee, and pine. On the palate, chocolatey / silky tannins, rich body, mocha, and structured. Try is with grilled ribeye and cippolini onions.
And if you are lucky enough:
Cain Five 2006, Estate
A similar blend to that of the 2012 vintage. As with all wine that ages, the palate is much more integrated, and a bit rounder around the edges than the 2012. Nose of minerals, pencil lead, barnyard, blueberry, black tea, exotic spices, black cherry, sage, citrus/violet, umami, and plum. Still plenty of tannins on the palate, with a well integrated body, and transcendent finish. Try this with beef tenderloin, sauteed mushrooms, and turnips.
We can never know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.