HOWELL MOUNTAIN HIGH
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO a Swiss family homesteaded on Howell Mountain on the eastern rim of Napa Valley. Grapes grown on those steep slopes produced an intensely flavored wine that had a reputation even before Prohibition, and it still does. The winery operating there during the 1960s was Souverain, and it produced some outstanding cabernet sauvignon. Souverain has since moved over to Sonoma, but the Howell Mountain vineyards and winery are still producing, having been expanded and technically improved over the last decade by Tom Burgess.
Today Burgess Cellars produces 18,000 cases a year of quality wine. The reds are characteristic of what are now referred to as "mountain grapes," those grown on the same westward facing slopes.
Like many winemakers in California, Burgess began by making many dfferent wines, but now limits his production to two reds -- cabernet and zinfandel -- and one white, a chardonnay. (Some excellent dry Burgess Cellars chenin blanc remains on the market, but no more is
being made.) The chardonnay, unlike
the reds, is made from grapes grown
down on the valley floor; it has gained
a reputation over the years for richness and elegance -- and price. When
similar Napa chardonnays were fetching $15 and $18 a bottle, a Burgess
Cellars could be had for half that.
Today the wines sell for about $10.
The '81 Burgess chardonnay, ready to
drink, has a good, fresh varietal nose,
good body, a touch of oak and a long,
lemony finish. The '82 is still hot, meaning the alcohol has yet to be resolved, and is a bit less complex, but it should develop very well during the next couple of years. Both chardonnys are barrel-fermented. For aging, Burgess has recently switched to barrels made in Meursault, home of the classic burgundies.
The Burgess cabernets are uniformly dark in color, with a lot of character though not necessarily weight. A vertical tasting of some recent vintages reveals a remarkable similarity between the wines, as well as some interesting variations -- the sort of distinctions that cabernet lovers love to dwell on. The '77 cabernet, for instance, has developed a cedary nose, the so-called "cigar box" smell associated with many fine bordeaux. The fruit is declining slightly, but the wine is both elegant and distinctive, and the one to drink now if you want to try this essence of Howell Mountain cabernet.
The '78 Burgess, from a highly touted vintage, has a fuller, cherryish nose and more body. The '79 is a bigger, more tannic mouthful, with some discernible oak and the most character and potential of any of the recent vintages. All receive two years of barrel age and sell for about $18 a bottle.
The '80 Burgess ($16 a bottle) is a somewhat different wine, containing about 12 percent merlot, which lends a more floral character and softness. (Burgess has used cabernet franc in his '82 blend.) The '80 was also more thoroughly fined than the others. It is still elegant but, like the most recent Burgess chardonnays, lighter than its predecessors. The trend in California is toward less substantial wines, and in some cases that can be a blessing. Distinctive wines like these, however, don't need much fine-tuning, and some might be better off without it.