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 5,000 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.