At Napa’s Cain Vineyard and Winery, planting a new future means learning from the past

Anyone who has visited Cain Vineyard and Wine Estate can attest to the fact that this is one of Napa Valley’s most unforgettable wine spots. Perched atop Spring Mountain, its vines wind through the hills in a bowl that overlooks the valley from the west. Surrounded by forests, rows of organically grown vines are interspersed with plants and wildflowers that act as a permanent cover crop, and Cain Vineyard has proven to produce some of the region’s most distinctive wines.

But in September 2020, the Glass Fire swept through Napa County, including the Spring Mountain District in the Valley. Cain’s winery was destroyed, and while it initially looked like the vineyard had largely come through the fire intact, most of the vines eventually died.

“Many of our blocks were lost, including some of the parts of the vineyard we thought we would prefer,” says Christopher Howell, winemaker and co-general manager of Cain Vineyard and Winery. The slope of the vineyard was taken into account in the fire damage; steeper slopes, Howell says, left vines more vulnerable to fire, while those on flatter spots suffered less damage. The permanent ground cover, the cornerstone of the vineyard and the resulting wines, may also have transmitted the fire to the vine, exposing it to more heat.

Although the 2019 and 2020 vintages were destroyed, the vast majority of Cain’s finished wine was stored in two Napa warehouses that were unaffected by the Glass Fire. In 2021, the team produced around 20 barrels of Cain Five – a vintage blend of the five classic Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot – and base wine for the multi-vintage Cain Cuvée at a nearby Napa Valley winery, which provided them with winemaking space.

“Communities in Sonoma and Napa have reached out to say, ‘What can we do to help?’ says Howell. “Even Oregon winemakers were reaching out. We have a strong and resilient community. Cain Five’s 2021 vintage, he says, is fairly representative of Cain’s vineyard, as they were able to work with small portions of all the varietals and major areas of the vineyard.

However, production will remain limited for the next three to four years as the replanted vines mature, and there will be a lag between the yet to be released 2018 vintage and the small 2021 vintage. As the winery continues its 10-year replanting project, the Cain team find new opportunities to rethink their vineyard strategy – potentially including experimenting with new varieties – and change their approach to current releases using library wines. SevenFifty Daily caught up with Howell to learn more about how Cain Vineyard and Winery has begun to rebuild over the past two years and what they envision for the future of the winery.

Cain Vineyard is known for its bowl shape overlooking Napa Valley.
Cain Vineyard, before the 2020 Glass Fire. Photo by Charles O’Rear.

SevenFifty Daily: What have you been doing with Team Cain since Glass Fire in 2020?

Christopher Howell: Following the devastation of the fire, which caused so much loss and trauma in our region, our first job was to come to terms with it all. We have a much better understanding of what we have lost and what remains, and we have spent a lot of time controlling erosion, rebuilding irrigation infrastructure and replanting the vineyard.

It is more than a recovery because it gives us the opportunity to reimagine the vineyard as we have known it, but without recreating exactly what it was. We know better how to trellis the vine and what are the appropriate rootstocks and we can open up to other grape varieties.

Most people ask us questions about the reconstruction of the cellar, and we systematically answer: “It is first of all the vineyard that counts”. Although there will eventually be a winery, we need more grapes first. Our first attention was to reclaim some of the best parts of the vineyard to recreate Cain Five as we knew it. We have lots of young vines in the ground—Ashley [Anderson-Bennett, Cain’s vineyard manager] and his team have planted tens of thousands of vines – and our goal is to develop a truly extensive root system rather than produce grapes right away.

You have noted that the steep slopes and plant cover may have amplified the impact of the fire on the vines. How will this change your replanting philosophy?

We are still discussing how this information will factor into the future of the vineyard. We’re not straying from the cover crop; it is the life of the soil. Rather, cover crop management will be our challenge. Will we learn ways to prevent the cover crop from getting too close to the base of the vine? Yes. Will it save us? Maybe. We plan to graze animals in the future as part of our ranch, but are not quite ready to bring cattle onto the property just yet.

Just to note, after the fire the cover crop came back in full bloom the following spring – it was as lush and happy as ever, if not more so. For the floor, it’s not so bad, it’s just complicated.

Initially it looked like Cain Vineyard was spared, but many vines died.
Cain Vineyard, after the Glass Fire. Photo by Kelly Puleio.

Cain’s foundation rests on the Bordeaux grape varieties. What new grape varieties are you considering for the vineyard?

We didn’t order new varieties, but we had planted things we were interested in in the past. Over the past four or five years we’ve planted Nebbiolo, Riesling, and an experimental hybrid that might possibly tolerate Pierce’s disease, but they were so young that we didn’t learn much from them.

In 1992 we planted Syrah, which taught us the value of later ripening, drought tolerant varieties. It could be Mediterranean varieties like Grenache and Mourvèdre – and having studied in Montpellier, I have seen what can be done with Carignan – but why not go as far as Turkey and Lebanon to consider alternative grape varieties? My wife [Katie Lazar, the director of sales and marketing and co-general manager of Cain] pushed us beyond our limits, and we also got some Tempranillo vines from a friend in the Sierra foothills.

What will be the impact of the replanting of Cain Vineyard on the identity of these wines?

What reassures us is that no matter the variety, our wines have always smelled of the place where they were made, they all smelled and tasted of Cain. Cain’s wine is particularly green – not vegetative, but a little herbal, with elements of Douglas fir and citrus, plus a bit of what could be bay leaf. We have a particular plant that grows throughout the vineyard called tarweed, which has a citrus and herbal note.

Unlike much of our region, there is nothing volcanic in our soil; it is formed on sedimentary rocks and is slightly alkaline, with a fair amount of clay. These elements, plus altitude, which puts us above the inversion layer with warmer nights and colder days, are all factors in our particular style.

What should buyers expect in terms of Cain wine availability?

Many people did not know that we have maintained a deep library thanks to the encouragement of our owner. After selling the 2017 and 2018 vintages, we will have an issue with the current availability of vintages. However, we are also busy selling older wine; right now we like to sell the 2008. Unlike other library releases, where restaurants feel like they have to buy it now or they’ll lose it, we’ll have enough to sustain a number of placements for about a year.

It has become a central part of our business model, and we plan to offer current wine and library wine on an ongoing basis. It’s a cultural shift because most wholesalers aren’t used to having old wine for sale, but it gives us the opportunity to help people explore bottle-aged wine. And emotionally, having these wines is reassuring and comforting, and gives us something to look forward to in the future. If we hadn’t had these wines, Cain would be in a very different place.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the editor of SevenFifty Daily and Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta’s, Dirty French and Terroir, and her work appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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