The Long And Winding Road To Napa Valley

It was my first day in Napa Valley and the motion sickness pills were still in my system from the long day of travel.  I had been up since 4 A.M., East Coast time, so I was only running on pure excitement when our flight arrived.  We loaded into the small cars that will take us up the mountain to Cain Vineyards.  Having never been to a Napa winery before, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Cain Winery produces fabulous wines, some of them quite pricey, so I at least knew that I was about to have a quite exclusive experience.

Chris Howell and his wife, Katie, greet us at the top of the long and winding road that led us to them.  They accepted us with casual warmth, smiles, and hugs wrapped in loose cotton clothing before taking us on a short tour of the winery.  We loaded into Chris and Katie's old SUVs and again headed up the long and winding road that would lead us to the vineyard and to the famous Cain rock.  The bumpy ride up the mountain knocked around old water bottles and shoes that littered the floors of their car, just like in the car of any normal person.  I was wondering where all the glitz was.

I rode with Katie on the way up and with Chris on the way down.  Katie, her brown hair blowing in the wind through the open car windows, spoke like an artist (wild eyed and colorful) while gesturing with her hands like they were stroking a canvas.   And Chris, the more reserved of the two, appeared to be two parts farmer, one part scientist.  In fact, when you talk to Chris about the winery, he refers to himself as a farmer, with a very grassroots take on winemaking.  If you look at their website, a quote reads, "Take sunlight, add water, and you have wine.  It's so simple, yet, at the same time, it is infinitely complex."  He told me how he likes to assign one person (another farmer, I would presume) to one row of vines and that person is forever attached to those plants.  In doing this, he believes a delicate relationship grows between person and plant, producing better fruit and subsequently better wines.

Chris says he doesn't like the new approach to wine tasting, meaning the dissecting and the analyzing used to distinguish certain flavors and smells. He says drinking wine is not an intellectual sport, but rather a sensual sport.  He really seems to enjoy his wines, and the process of making them.  As we tasted his wines later that evening he said, "Wine shouldn't always be about the separate, distinct flavors, but instead about how they blend to become one."  And what's unbelievable about the Cain wines is that he accomplishes just that.  Instead of detecting what the malbec brought to the wine, or how much petit verdot can be detected in the blend; you simply taste one delicately harmonious wine.

For the four-course dinner, we all sat around a large oval table with floor to wall windows overlooking the mountains. Bottles and bottles of open wines were scattered about. We listened to Chris talk about his love affair with wine before toasting our first sip to Chris saying, "Wine can be about beauty."  We drank the 2000 Cain Five (a Bordeaux-style red blend) with our first course of sake-marinated black cod in shiso broth and it was uncanny how beautifully the strong fish paired with the cabernet blend.  But the wine, surprisingly so, was light and delicate, a mere breath of a cabernet, which was just what the dish needed.

We continued to dine on a simple and delicious roast chicken with golden potatoes, romano beans, vine ripened tomatoes and basil, which we ate with the 2005 and 2008 Cain Five, a lightly dressed Mixed Green Salad and various cheeses with the Cain Concept and a beautifully restrained Italian Prune-Plum Crostada with the Cain Cuvee.  Everything was perfection.

As the server cleared my final plate, and I let the remaining juice from my glass trickle down my tired throat, I sat back and marveled at what was before me.  "So, this is Napa," I thought.  I never found the fancy, never noticed the glitz, but that long and winding road that led me to Cain was still worth every twist and turn.