The wines of Randy Dunn really need no introduction. First with Caymus Vineyards, where Randy was the winemaker from 1975 through 1985, and then with his eponymous Dunn label, whose first release was a 1979 Cabernet from Howell Mountain fruit, Dunn’s wines have made people take notice. Indeed, much of Caymus’s fame was built on the wines of those vintages, and while the Dunn wines are cut from a different cloth, they have won admirers for years.
A Tale of Two Wineries
The lives of the two wineries are more closely related than a shared winemaker. In fact, Randy Dunn happened upon what would ultimately become the first Dunn vineyard in 1978 as he came wandering up Howell mountain to look at property that Caymus was looking to source fruit from. He found a small vineyard next door and knew it was a place to make great Cabernet, so he bought the vineyard. The connection doesn’t stop there. The location of the winery, what was the Dunn home, and the most recent addition to Dunn’s vineyard holdings were purchased from Caymus’s proprietor Charlie Wagner.
Charlie Wagner bought the property, which had been planted to walnut and plum trees with the intention of letting his son, and current Caymus proprietor, Chuck Wagner live there and plant a vineyard. He got as far as ripping out the walnut and plum trees, but as it turned out the younger Wagner had no intention of leaving the relative bustle of opportunity the valley offered for the remoteness of Howell Mountain. Randy originally bought the home and later was able to buy the field, which was planted to hay, fodder for the horses the family kept, until about 1999.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, progress at Dunn was slow. The times were different, the winery was started on essentially a part time basis, and Randy was not wont to bite off more than he could chew. A press here, a forklift there--the workings of the winery were acquired piecemeal as things became affordably available. In fact, the the first tanks were old milk tanks, perhaps unexpected but then a tank was a tank, and they worked.
Planting and Experimenting
In the beginning, the basement of the home served as the cellar, and even though production was low (about 400 cases) it could not have been easy. Starting with some four or five acres on Howell Mountain, Randy leased an additional eight acres adjacent to his vineyard, a lease which is still in place, and eventually bought the Park Muscatine and replanted the Zinfandel present on the property with more Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing total production up to close to 5000 cases a year.
On a bit of a lark, randy kept several acres of Petite Sirah that were planted on the Park Muscatine property, even producing some under the Dunn label from 1992 through 1995. These wines are prized among aficionados today, but when first produced, they languished in the cellars for years until there came a point when Randy was faced with unsold pallets of Petite Sirah sitting in the cellar. Since the wines had some age on them, a solution was at hand--they were offered to Dunn wine club members and select restaurants at a rather steep price, and, perhaps surprisingly, they were rather quickly sold. Not wanting to repeat the experience, Dunn ceased making Petite Sirah, though several years later the fruit from these vines formed the basis of Retro Cellars, a project headed up by Randy's son Michael, who also serves as cellar master and assistant winemaker for Dunn.
Better known than the Petite is Dunn’s Napa Valley Cabernet, long considered a more approachable and less expensive option for those who love the Dunn style. And that style is dictated by Howell Mountain, where cooler weather and volcanic soils tend to produce earthy, savory wines with formidable tannins and bright acids. Wine to age, though not always wines that are easy to sell.
Buying, Blending, and Bottling
The Napa Valley bottling got its start in 1982, ultimately easier to sell and easier to appreciate. That inaugural bottling was produced using finished wines that were purchased sometime in 1984. After a year and half, the quality of the wine had become obvious and Randy felt that with a few additional months of age it would be worthy of carrying the Dunn name. From that very first vintage, Randy found a second wine, something to be a kind of gateway wine for Dunn.
He continued to buy wine in bulk for several years until the mechanics of the market changed. Wines were no longer sold after a year or two, but rather as they were fermenting or going through malo. Not willing to take a risk on unsold wines, Randy instead entered into a contract to buy fruit from the Napa Valley floor, eventually just moving to buying fruit each year, confident that he would be able to find the fruit he wanted even if it meant buying a few tons from here or there.
Today, with more vineyards on Howell Mountain, those hayfields that used to feed the horses are now planted, since 2000, to Cabernet (of course). The Dunn family buys less fruit from the valley floor. In fact, the family now has vineyard planted in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, affording the winemaking team a “whole span of approachability” to work with, according to Kristina Dunn, the second generation Dunn currently in charge of Marketing.
Fruit from some of the younger vineyards, as well as barrels that were not deemed suitable for the Howell Mountain Cabernet, make up about 85 percent of the Napa Valley bottling. Each of the vineyard blocks are harvested, crushed, fermented and barreled and then kept separate until the final blend is determined for the Howell Mountain wine.The driving motivation at Dunn is to produce the best representation of Howell Mountain Cabernet, a wine that is is age-worthy with moderate alcohol and good acidity. Not quite the recipe for a fruit-forward wine, but that is not the intention nor is it the result, even for the Napa Valley bottling.
The Dunn Difference
What Dunn achieves, year in and year out, is the ability to craft one of the world’s greatest expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, these wines can be challenging to taste early on, but without fail they evolve into wonderful expressions of mountain fruit, firm and unabashedly tannic, truly the product of their vineyards. It would be easy enough to let the fruit continue to ripen on the vine, producing yet another soft, voluptuous, intensely fruity wine, but is that what Cabernet should be? I think not, and so do the Dunns. In fact they are fundamentally opposed to wines that exceeded 14 percent alcohol, even going so far as to dealcoholize their wine in 2004 when it came in at something like 14.3 percent.
Like it or not, Dunn wines are produced with a goal in mind, and the family is not averse to doing what they need to to achieve it. That’s not to say they advocating using all the tricks of the trade. But filtering wines due to brett or using fungicides when need be, such as in 2010 and 2011, is tolerated in order to produce a wine that frankly has no equal in Napa Valley.
Some might come away thinking less of the family for their use of such measures, but it’s worth noting that their concern for the the world in which they live in extends far beyond their own vineyard. The Dunns have donated 63 acres to the Land Trust of Napa County, as well as an additional five million dollars to help preserve an additional 2300 acres of open space. And don’t forget, these vineyards are the family’s livelihood. So while we all might feel better if Dunn suddenly became a model biodynamic winery, feelings don’t pay the bills. Producing world class wines year in and year out, and offering them at surprisingly reasonable prices I might add, certainly does.
I was only able to taste three wines during my recent visit to Dunn, but it’s worth commenting on a few others I’ve recently enjoyed. A 1987 Napa Valley Cabernet was simply gorgeous, full of slightly dense, pure herb-edged fruit. It’s at peak and holding, a persuasive argument for the value offered by this cuvée, though the price differential today between the two bottlings is not particularly significant. However, you don't buy the Napa Bottling to save money, you buy it to enjoy a Dunn wine at a somewhat younger age. Take for instance the 1981 Howell Mountain, enjoyed from magnum not long ago and still in tip top shape, a dead ringer for a fine vintage of Chateau Latour, it needed all of 30 years to reach its peak, at least for my palate. And finally there was the 1995 Napa Valley, enjoyed alongside the 1987, decidedly younger if richer on the palate, it’s a wine that will please many palates, yet for mine it remains youthful and coy and I will gladly trade in some of that early opulence for the complexity to come.
The following wines had been opened a day prior to my visit and gassed. I can imagine what they may have been like on opening (reticent is an understatement) but with some air they did show their full potential.
2007 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain $103
A bit tanky on the nose still, this is tight and nuanced with very fine if slightly nutty oak-driven today. Air brings out a hint of grassiness, then a little blue fruit that shows fine ripeness with an edge of sweetness, dried herb notes that really build on the nose and a hint of roast coffee bean. Wow, this is stunningly well-balanced and packed with dark and powerful fruit that shows lighter shadings of strawberry and raspberry accenting the core of black fruit with lovely nuanced wood spice following on the back end. The finish reveals layers of dusty tannins covered with black cherry fruit, which just builds in intensity and length. This is powerful and seamless. 96 points
2005 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain $98
Tight and muscular if a little floral on the nose, with dark cherry and a bit of blackberry wrapped in nuances of leather, roasted nuts and vanilla, topped with savory herbaceous and earthy complexity. Tight on the palate as well, yet with very fine balance. There’s a little bit of herb on the attack and while the mid-palate is a little compressed at this point the back end reveals beautiful blackberry and blackcurrant fruit gaining some olive notes on the finish. This shows nice, succulent, dense fruit supported by tight-grained, ripe tannins and fine supporting acidity. 95 points
2005 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $80
Gorgeous blackcurrant fruit and herbs come together on the nose, with great complexity and freshness layered over a fine base of oak, accented by a sweet mint note and shades of tea. This is tight and a touch angular on the palate, showing great acids, pure black fruit, and lots of ripe tannins that show a chocolaty edge. The balance is really quite fine, with red fruit building up on the back end and leading to a long, crisp finish that sees the tannins really pop. Really lovely freshness to the fruit here. 94 points