The year was 1976. Steven Spurrier, a wine shop owner in France, decided to host an International blind wine tasting pitting California wines against some of the greatest wines in France. The event became known as, The Judgement of Paris. He fully expected the French to dominate. Spurrier was using it to increase his own business and promote wine from America and France that he sold.

The unthinkable happened. The USA won! This gave the California wines a much-needed jump start, the world over, and they’ve never looked back. Today, California is making some of the best and most expensive California wines in the world.

California is also home to the most AVA’s of anywhere in the country. An AVA is a designated American Viticultural Area for wine growing grapes. There are 138 in California alone per the November 2016 listing by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). An AVA is said to have distinguishable geographic features and its boundaries are distinctly established by the TTB.

My favorite AVA in California is hands-down, Howell Mountain AVA. Designated in 1983, it was the first sub-appellation of the Napa Valley AVA. Situated between 1400’ and 2300’ above sea level with a volcanic soil composition, Howell gets most of its weather influence direct from the Pacific. They generally have slightly cooler temperatures than the Valley floor and this results in a longer growing season. In my opinion, the combination of elevation, soil and climate give Howell a unique wine that is my Top Pick.

Here are my Top 5 Californian Wines specifically located in the Howell Mountain AVA.

Robert Craig Winery, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Located near the very top of Howell Mountain itself, grapes grown for this wine live at 2300’. Winery President Elton Sloan and winemaker Stephen Tebb, work closely together to craft a wine that is simply gorgeous. Besides fantastic wine, they also have fantastic views atop Howell at their winery and tasting room. Originally planted in 1979, they produce a wine that is elegant, yet powerful at the same time. Their wines age very nicely as well, and can easily go for 10-20 years. $95

Redcap Vineyards, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
At 1900’ Red Cap has no fancy tasting room with fountains. In fact, they don’t even do public tastings. They do, however, have a Swiss Mountain Dog named Roscoe. If you are ever lucky enough to be invited up for a visit to Tom and Desiree’s home, he will greet you the moment you pull into the driveway. Better than any new art deco building, the moment you step foot on the property you feel like family. The only thing better is the wine. Almost fully allocated to club members, it is fantastic year after year thanks to winemaker Rudy Zuidema. $90

Sinegal Estate Winery, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
They may be new to the wine scene but its won critics and customers alike. The newest addition to their fabulous portfolio is a 2015 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Not even released yet, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of barrel tasting this wine. Winemaker Ryan Knoth did a gorgeous job. If this is their first vintage, I can’t wait to see what they do in the future. $TBD

Arkenstone Sauvignon Blanc
Rising from 1400’ to over 1650’ Arkenstone is home to a wine like no other. Winemaker Sam Kaplan carefully blends estate grown Sauvignon Blanc with Semillion and then uniquely ages them for 11 months in 1/3 New French Oak, 1/3 used French Oak and 1/3 on Sur-Lie in concrete eggs. This all adds up to the most delicious SB I’ve ever had. $75

California wines

La Jota, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Situated at more than 1700’, the La Jota Vineyard Company dates to the 1890’s when Frederick Hess originally bought the property and began growing grapes. Big and bold, their wines normally need some time to develop in the bottle but are truly worth the wait. Winemaker Christopher Carpenter does a wonderful job crafting wines that are truly, the best of the best. $85

by Daniel H. McCollister

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