Of all the hot new (and revered old) producers on Howell Mountain, none may be better right now than the tiny Spence Vineyards. And no wine Spence has yet made equals their brilliant 2005 Cabernet. In fact, it was one of only five Howell Mountain Cabernets (and the least expensive of these at $65) to earn the top “A” rating in a recent tasting featuring nearly all of the top Howell Mountain reds of the past few years.
Not only did it rate above such newer Howell Mountain stars as the 97-point Arkenstone and CADE (both over $100); it also beat – and frankly, deserved to beat – such established leaders as Dunn “Howell Mountain” (multiple vintages, including the Parker 97-point 2004!), 2004 La Jota “Anniversary” and “Howell Mountain Selection,” 2006 and 2007 Robert Craig “Howell Mountain,” 2004 Duckhorn “Howell Mountain,” Cakebread “Dancing Bear,” Outpost, Cimarossa, Cornerstone, Red Cap and a whole host of others!
It’s also the best vintage to date for Spence. (The 2007 vintage rated “A-“ and the 2006 was a “B+”.) The lowest price for ANY vintage of Spence on Wine-Searcher is $65.
Yet while it lasts, we can offer this superlative 2005 Spence “Howell Mountain” Cabernet for only $35.99 by the case!
Now, several factors account for the exceptional quality here. For one, the vineyard is right at the sweet spot for Howell Mountain, at 1900 feet. (The appellation ranges from 1400 to 2200 feet.) But it’s also atop a small knoll – and enjoys a constant convection breeze (not felt just a couple of hundred yards to either side) that serves to thicken the grape skins - concentrating them and intensifying their flavors.
The soil here is also exceptionally deep for Howell Mountain, its red volcanic material brimming with small stones. Not only does this soil drain particularly well, it allows for denser than normal planting and roots which go extremely deep in their pursuit of water. All of which results in fruit that’s rich, deep and concentrated even by Howell Mountain standards.
From this tiny jewel of a vineyard, winemaker Marco DiGuilio - who established Lokoya as one of the Napa Valley’s Cabernet icons (and whose Howell Mountain Cabernet now sells for over $200) , and who has a rare ability (especially in California) to make Cabernets that are both immensely impressive and truly site specific – crafts less than 300 cases of one of Napa’s greatest “hidden gems.” This is rich, full and extremely powerful yet also somehow also long, fine, mineral-laden and even elegant and intense.
It’s almost like a Dunn “Howell Mountain” without the early hardness (and perhaps even more multi-faceted and complex…definitely more aromatic and penetrating). And in fact, the Dunns and the Spences are close neighbors and good friends – and Randy Dunn helped them get their vineyard and winery started.
Here’s a very good – and I think accurate – consumer review from Cellar Tracker (where, incidentally, every single review of every single vintage of Spence is at least outstanding!):
“Awesome wine with great dark Howell Mountain fruit. I love a cab with dense sweet tannins and this was right up my alley. It showed next to a 2001 Silver Oak Napa and was slightly better. Where the Silver Oak had softer tannins and one dimensional flavor profile, the Spence was more masculine and dominated the palate with a grip that was not overpowered by alcohol or oak. A great buy of an unknown wine for $65.”
There’s a revealing story about Marco DiGuilo when he first made Lokoya. He knew it would be a great wine, but told owner Jess Jackson he couldn’t see himself spending so much for a Cabernet. To which Jackson replied:
“Do you think the people who buy Rolls Royces are the ones who make them?”
Well, DiGuilio has definitely fashioned a Rolls Royce of a Howell Mountain Cabernet here – though one more in line with his pricing philosophy than Jackson’s…especially at only $35.99 by the case.
Naturally, though, the production is miniscule, and we bought every single bottle we could get. In fact, I’m generally pretty relaxed about sharing our allocated wines with a few local restaurants…but not this time.
We just wish there were more!