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Howell Mountain AVA

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | January 29, 2012

Several important mountain ranges exist to form the famous Napa valley in Northern California. The Mayacamas Mountain range is located on the west side of Napa Valley and serves as a natural dividing line between the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. On the eastern side of the Napa Valley the Vaca Mountain range forms the eastern boundary of Napa Valley. American Viticulture Areas exist within both mountain ranges and regardless of similarities of locales, wines from both the Mayacamas Mountain range and the Vaca Mountain range show strikingly different characteristics.

On the west side of Napa Valley the Mayacamas Mountain range forms at approximately eight miles from the San Pablo bay and travels about 52 miles north. Contained within the Mayacamas Mountain range are three AVAs known as the Mount Veeder AVA, the Spring Mountain AVA and the Diamond Mountain AVA. Characteristics between the various AVAs of the Mayacamas Mountain range are similar, however wines produced within each of the AVAs are each unique to themselves. The reason for the preservation of unique characteristics is that although geographical and climate conditions are similar, enough diversity exists between the various AVAs to create wines that show a definite distinction of place. If this condition exists within the Mayacamas Mountains, than it only makes sense that other mountain ranges within the Napa Valley would show the same effect. The Vaca Mountain Range on the east side of the Napa Valley is an excellent example of this fact.

The Vaca Mountain range can be found on the eastern side of the Napa Valley and is home to the Howell Mountain AVA. A volcanic plateau by its nature, the Howell Mountain AVA was formed in 1984. An interesting historical fact is that the Howell Mountain AVA was the first sub-AVA to be created within the Napa Valley AVA. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, growing conditions found within the Vaca Mountain Range are very similar to conditions found within the Mayacamas Mountain range. However the wines themselves are surprisingly different.

One aspect effecting the characteristics found within Howell Mountain AVA wines is the elevation of the vineyards. The boundaries of the Howell Mountain AVA have available vineyard land beginning at 1,400 feet. This is significantly higher than the AVAs found within the Mayacamas Mountain range. Also of importance is the fact that while the AVA boundaries begin at the 1,400 mark, many vineyards are found at even higher elevations. It is not uncommon to see grape plantings at 1,600 and 2,000 feet.

The fact that the Howell Mountain AVA begins at such a high altitude has a dramatic effect on climactic variables as well as sunlight intensity. Of particular note is the delay of temperature variations caused by inversion layers. An inversion layer is a point where warm air in the upper atmosphere interfaces with cooler air in the lower atmosphere. Due to the height of the vineyards within the Howell Mountain AVA, exposure to the inversion layer usually occurs later in the day. The lack of fog--and in the case of the Napa Valley, early morning cool fog from the San Pablo bay--is also a difference. The fact that Howell Mountain is at such a high elevation means that vineyards are spared the presence of morning fogs.

Sunlight intensity found within the vineyards of the Howell Mountain AVA is far greater than other hillside vineyards found within the Napa Valley. This is due to the lack of the morning fog and elevation of the vineyards themselves. Interestingly enough, the abundance of sunshine does not translate into higher temperatures. Sheer altitude dictates how hot a particular region will become and the Howell Mountain AVA is no exception. Temperatures are generally warmer in the mornings and cooler midday. As far as evenings are concerned, temperatures are usually 15 degrees warmer than temperatures of the evening valley floor.

While the Howell Mountain AVA may be immune from the early morning San Pablo bay fogs, one thing that it is not immune from is afternoon wind. More than any other factor, afternoon winds affect the temperature of the Howell Mountain AVA. Different vineyards receive different amounts of wind based on exposure, but no vineyard on the mountain is immune from the wind’s effect. This is the main reason why it is cooler midday than in the morning.

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Soil types found within the Howell Mountain AVA are very similar to the soils found in other neighboring mountain ranges. Of the soil types present, all are volcanic in nature with dark red Aiken loam found in the north and Boomer & Forward loams being present in the south. Both soils present different drainage qualities and are typically void of excessive nutrients.

Just like any other Napa AVA, minute characteristics combine together to create wines that are truly unique. Characteristics of Howell Mountain AVA wines present a quality of extreme ease with drinking. Typically, wines produced within the Howell Mountain AVA lack the dense and often jammy characteristics found in many other wines. In another description wine critic Matt Kramer put it best when he stated that Howell Mountain wines "go down like water."

Grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Surprisingly many of the Cabernet wines produced at Howell Mountain do not retain earthy properties and also lack pungency of strong tannins. In the end the watery characteristics of Howell Mountain Cabernets offer a unique sense of grace and style. Much like the rest of Napa valley white grape varieties are almost nonexistent with some plantings of Chardonnay being present.

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