Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The winemaker and the novelist

      Dinner with winemaker Randy Dunn, Howell Mountain cabernet pioneer, and novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City; The Last of the Savages). 
      McInerney (right) is one of those covering wine for the Wall Street Journal,  and we gathered - appropriately - at Press, the penultimate meat-erie in south St. Helena, Napa Valley. Randy's Howell Mountain and Napa Valley cabernets have recently come into their own again after a long hiatus when they were slighted by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate,the advocacy being of fat, fruity, alcoholic wines that ate Napa alive for two decades and are finally getting pushed back into the chaparral by critics and younger wine drinkers turned off by their excesses (and cost). 
      Balanced, better made cabs like Dunn's reward aging with great complexity and compatibility with food. He brought along three of the Napa Valley appellation cabs, slightly less expensive than the Howell Mountain, with fruit from various vineyards and some from his own. They were 1986, 1996, and 2006, the '86 with barely a trace of bricky color and a big, fresh, oaky nose. That one got leaned on heavily by us, but the '96 - slightly brighter in the glass, with a long, redolent finish, and the '06, already drinking well - were close behind. The wines helped in the demolition of grass-fed rib-eye and Snake River flank steak while the conversation followed the usual progression from wine to place to method.     Howell Mountain's on the east side of the valley, where Dunn and his wife, Lori, bought back in the Sixties and revealed as some of the most coveted cabernet terroir on earth. The defunct cellar was beneath an old house with it's own provenance - Warren Winiarski once lived there; a mountain lion once jumped through the window (after Warren moved out) - and Dunn has been unrelentingly hands-on, from vineyard pruning to wine-making.
     McInerney was surprised to learn, as most people are, that Dunn repairs his own tractors, and he was shocked - really - to learn that Dunn occasionally reduces the alcohol of small proportions of his wine by reverse osmosis. This is blended back in to lessen the punch overall and does not interfere with flavor. In fact, it enhances. Equally surprising was the fact that Dunn lightly filters his wines, famous for their integrity, complexity and age capability. "Filtering's not a bad thing," Dunn explained, if it's done right, removing impurities that don't contribute to flavor and can impede longevity.
      "My wine's sterile when it goes into the bottle," he added, but something else indeed emerges after some years,  proven once again by the dark, redolent pools sitting in big stemmed glasses in front of us.
      The novelist scribbled away. Look for a story eventually in the Journal about these revelations from a writer who has turned from Parker's and the Spectator's alcoholic, jam-busters toward balance and power for the long haul. It's all exemplified by Dunn, who sits high among the American iterations of cabernet sauvignon.

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