Home > Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > A Visit to Dunn Vineyards with Mike Dunn

A Visit to Dunn Vineyards with Mike Dunn


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Jenn and I first tasted the wines of Dunn Vineyards well over a decade ago.  We were attending a New Year’s Eve party thrown by a student who was minding the substantial house of a venture capitalist.  We were allowed to raid the small wine closet by the bar.  One random grab resulted in a wax sealed bottle of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  I clearly remember sitting outside, drinking it out of cups.  Our recent experience is due to the annual California Barrel Tasting arranged by MacArthur Beverages.  Though Dunn Vineyards releases separate Howell Mountain and Napa Valley bottlings, there has always been a single unlabeled barrel sample.  I have consistently found them remarkably approachable, already complex, and somewhat earthy.  It was always clear that we would visit Dunn during our spring vacation to Sonoma and Napa Valleys.

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The drive up to Howell Mountain was longer and more winding than I expected.  Only Kak’s phones managed to maintain a single bar of signal so when we unknowingly kept passing the drive to Dunn Vineyards we were able to reach Mike Dunn on the phone.  There are no signs marking the entrance for this is not only a vineyard and winery but the home of Randy and Lori Dunn.  This is very much a family run winery so it was Mike who met us that afternoon.  We started off by exploring the barrel caves or tunnels that were built one decade after the winery was established in 1979.  These tunnels are completely passive and feature a sloping floor so that any excess moisture or water can drain out.

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Mike began assisting at the winery in 1997 then working full-time back in 2000.  Though he still works under his father’s watch, this is very much his territory.   Mike moves all the barrels himself, racks them, and cleans them such that the physical aspects of winemaking give him an aura of strength.  The barrels are stacked two-high, demonstrating his sole physical ability.  There are a lot of barrels in the tunnel.  His son even included a scene of Mike moving the barrels on the mural that appears on the side of the barn.  There was a lone, five gallon glass carboy, they are more fragile than a keg, that he pointed out is used to produce the barrel sample for MacArthur Beverages.  There was at least one larger hogshead that seemed innocent enough until the barrel cleaning equipment needed to be modified to account for the increased diameter.

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The fermentation tanks lie just outside the entrance.  They are exposed to the elements but can be covered if needed.  The grapes are sorted in the vineyard so no sorting table is used at the winery.  Mike explained that a sorting table itself introduces one more potential source of contamination.

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The winery was originally located in the old white house.  Today the basement is used to store equipment like the pump, bottling device, hand operating corking machine, and packing material.  While the Napa Valley bottles feature a capsule the Howell Mountain bottles are sealed with wax by hand.  The tremendous amount of effort required to farm the vineyards and produce the wine is always evident here.

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We followed Mike upstairs.  Despite the presence of the large office, the kitchen and tasting room, which is essentially a dining room, made me feel like I was in the Dunn family home.  They were currently evaluating ten different samples from the 2011 vintage.  Mike poured us one of them and later on we smelled several others.  The samples are followed over several days.  The glasses are covered and periodically freshened from the relevant bottle.  Recent vintages have experienced more variable weather but the mountain location of the vineyards has buffered them from any extremes.

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Mike is quite candidate and practical about the work in the vineyard, making the wine, as well as factors that directly affect the price to the consumer.  Mike has been learning more about the vineyards as of late and how they directly influence the wine.  The parcels are generally planted around 2,000 feet in elevation with deep volcanic soils at three feet. The roots take up potassium which results in particularly high levels in their wines.  Potassium acts as a buffer, resisting changes to pH, so this can affect how they vinify.  Mike will use Round-Up to treat weeds and may apply at night not to be secretive but to take advantage of minimal winds.  Randy Dunn has long been opposed to wines over 14% alcohol and openly employs reverse osmosis to lower his alcohol levels.  Mike still follows this tradition as well as employs the use of commercial yeasts and acidification if needed.

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In addition to the sample we also tasted three vintages of the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon as well as two bottles from Retro Cellars.  The 2010 vintage of the Howell Mountain was young with good personality and grip.  The 2007 and 2005 vintages were more expressive on the nose giving just a hint of what is to come.  We finished with the 2009 vintages of the Retro Cellars Howell Mountain and Napa Valley Petite Sirahs.  This project was started in 2003 by Mike and his wife Kara so everything is done according to their preferences.  Of these two wines the Napa Valley bottle was more forward and fruity but the Howell Mountain had juicy acidity and a saltiness I very much enjoy in wine.  In retrospect it is not surprising that Mike has produced such excellent Petite Sirah for over the years he has made wine from other varieties such as Sangiovese.

I definitely recommend you take the drive up to Howell Mountain to visit Dunn Vineyards.  During our trip we even met a couple who had travelled all the way from Hong Kong!  Thanks again to Mike, Kara, and Kristina for arranging our visit.   Please find my brief tasting notes below.

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2011 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sample B
There were good dry black and red fruit flavors along with good acidity and tannic structure.  The flavors had initial red hint before picking up midpalate density, lovely acidity, and a black, minerally finish.  It was slightly spicy with a hint of smoke.

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2010 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.9%. There was a little greenhouse aroma with a subtle tobacco leaf note.  In the mouth the red fruit mixed with greenhouse flavors.  The wine had good grip, lively acidity, bright fruit, and a little weight.

2007 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.9%. The nose was starting to relax and reveal perfume.  The flavors were a little more generous with a ripe cote of fruit, nice structure, and character.

2005 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.8%. There was more on the nose followed by rounder flavors in the mouth.  It had gentle delicate spices, greenhouse flavors, and a hint of drying structure.  It left nice, ripe tannins in the mouth.

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2009 Retro Cellars, Petite Sirah, Napa County
There was fruit on the nose.  In the mouth the fruit mixed with a dry structure then took on ripe spices.  This was a fruity wine, ripe and sweeter towards the finish.  It had a lot of texture.

2009 Retro Cellars, Petite Sirah, Park Muscatine, Howell Mountain
There was good fruit in the mouth that became tart and black in the middle.  There structure was there but it had a round finish with juicy acidity and a little salty flavor.  There was a bright lift at the end followed by tannins and minerals in the aftertaste.

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  1. June 19, 2014 at 12:00 am

    I just visited them last week and had a great time! article to follow as well 🙂

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