Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Winemaker Dinner with Chris Howell from Cain Vineyard and Winery at a Place where the Rich and Powerful Used to Dine – 2100 Prime, Washington DC, USA

Picture:  Christian G.E. Schiller with Chris Howell from Cain Winery and Vineyards in California at a Winemaker Dinner in Washington DC

I met winemaker Chris Howell from Cain Winery and Vineyards in California at a winemaker dinner in Washington DC, as part of the Third Annual Capital Wine Festival.

Third Annual Capital Wine Festival at 2100 Prime Restaurant

The Fairfax at Embassy Row Hotel in Washington DC is currently hosting the Third Annual Capital Wine Festival in its restaurant - the 2100 Prime - with 10 weekly winemaker dinners showcasing wines from California and Oregon. Each dinner is priced in the $125-145/person range and includes gratuity or tax.

Picture: The Fairfax at Embassy Row Hotel in Washington DC

2100 Prime was formerly the Jockey Club, the legendary restaurant that served the likes of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Eva Gabor and Joe Dimaggio. In particular during the Reagan Presidency, this was the place where the rich, famous and powerful would mingle.

Cain Vineyard and Winery

Cain Vineyard and Winery is a producer in the Spring Mountain AVA above the central Nappa Valley town of St Helena that makes 25.000 cases per year. In 1980, Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased 550 acres, part of the historic McCormick Ranch, with the vie of setting up a winery. As the project was coming into focus, the Cains were joined by Jim and Nancy Meadlock. The Meadlocks became partners at the beginning of 1986, and, since the retirement of the Cains in 1991, have carried on as sole owners.

The Wines: Cain Five, Cain Concept and Cain Cuvee

Cain Vineyards and Winery makes three wines: Cain Five, Cain Concept and Cain Cuvee.

Cain Five

The “five” in the name Cain Five refers to the five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malice. Chris Howell strives to use only grapes from Cain vineyards for Cain Five: “If the Cain Five is utterly unique, distinctive in both aroma and taste, this can only reflect the Cain Vineyard, which gives birth to this wine and is both spectacular and idiosyncratic. Composed of the five classic varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot—Cain Five epitomizes the benefits of blending to achieve a complex wine. It is supple and rich of texture, combining a full, firm structure with a long and subtle finish.”

Cain Concept

Chris Howell: “Cain Concept is vinified and aged exactly like the Cain Five, but the core of our Cain Concept—The Benchland is Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the classical “benchlands” that have defined the greatness of the Napa Valley for more than 100 years. Naturally, in the “Cain Way,” we blend in the sister varieties to build complexity, to add nuance, to articulate the structure, and to draw the wine to a satisfying close.”

Cain Cuvee

“The Cain Cuvée is our most creative endeavor. It’s about the style of Cain and our vision of what classical red wine can be. Drawing from specific vineyards, both mountain and valley, as well as two vintages, we strive to compose a wine of aromatic complexity that is truly silky and sits lightly and refreshingly on the palate. If we have succeeded, the wine will dance on your tongue!” said Chris Howell.

Cain Cuvee is softer, with a majority of Merlot and an addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, also mostly from the valley floor. It is not only a blend of four grapes, but it is also a blend of two years. The amounts shift, Howell noted, "depending on what nature gives us. And I'm picking the fruit riper now. The wines used to be about 13.5 percent alcohol, and now they're 14 to 14.5. I'm doing shorter maceration times - just 10 to 14 days. The wines undergo full malolactic in the barrel. And because this is mountain fruit, I have to carefully manage the tannins."

Winemaker Chris Howell

Soft-spoken Chris Howell is the longtime winemaker and general manager at Cain Vineyard & Winery. He grew up in Washington State. He studied in France at the Ecole Nationale Superiure Agronomique in Montpellier and interned at Mouton Rothschild for a year. At the same time, he studied winetasting at the Institut d’Oenologie in Bordeaux.

Pictures: Chris Howell

Chris Howell is also a leader in terms of “green” practices. Cain is a member of the Napa Green Land Program and the Fish Friendly Farming Program, and leads the way in sustainable agriculture practices. Chris Howell has been on the cusp in investigating how climate change will affect grape growing and vineyard management. He often heads seminars on climate change.

Spring Mountain District Wine

The Spring Mountain District AVA is located at a low point in the Mayacamas Mountains on the western side of the Napa Valley in California, which divide Napa from Sonoma Valley. It was awarded AVA status in 1993.

The Dinner

The evening began with a reception in The Fairfax Lounge with a Piper Heidsieck Non Vintage Brut.

Chris gave us a brief introduction. The event then moved to 2100 Prime where guests were seated in tables of 2, 4 or 6, depending on the size of their party.

Pictures: Reception

This is very much a classic place  with a private dining club feel. Nice wood-paneled interior with windows onto Massachusetts Avenue. The atmosphere is dark wood, deep red velvet, brass fixtures, and paintings of fox hunts.

Pictures: The Cain Wines

First Course

Toasted Fennel Pappardelle
Lamb, Crushed Basil and Tomato Bolognese

NV8 Cain Cuvee

Second Course

Pan Roasted Veal Tenderloin
Wild Mushroom Medley and Garlic Cream

2001 Cain Five

Third Course

Prosciutto Wrapped Venison
Black Lentils and Salsify

2007 Cain Five
2007 Cain Concept

Fourth Course

Strawberry Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Toasted Almond Biscotti

Chef George Fassiadis and his Team 

Pictures: Chef George Fassiadis and his Team and Chris Howell

Reinhold Schulz

The service was excellent, under the leadership of Reinhold Schulz, Director of Food and Beverage.

Pictures: Reinhold Schulz and Chris Howell

It was a very memorable evening.

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