Wine Grower Chris Howell in the cellar of Cain Vineyard and Winery. Photograph by Charles O'Rear.

The success of Cain depends on the combination of an incredible site, an inspired vision, patient, persevering, and tenacious ownership, and the unending hard work of the Cain team. Take any of these key elements away, and you would not be reading this—nor would we even be writing it.

Each year, our work on Spring Mountain is marked by a few almost sacred moments in both the vineyard and the cellar: the beginning of pruning, the end of pruning, budbreak, flowering, veraison, bottling, the arrival of harvest interns, the beginning of harvest, the making of the wine, the end of harvest. Some of these events we acknowledge with ceremony, others we quietly observe.

What follows are our thoughts and observations, our questions and curiosity about this endlessly fascinating alchemy and its history that begins in the vineyard and results in the beautiful, complex, nuanced, refined glass of wine in your hand.

It is so simple, yet, at the same time,
infinitely complex.


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“When it comes to the provenance of fine wine, the single most important thing to understand is that fine wine is, by definition, perishable.” —Christopher Howell


The McCormick Ranch era barn

In 1980, Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased 550 acres, part of the historic McCormick Ranch, on Spring Mountain. Five generations of a family have grown up on the McCormick Ranch. Much of the ranch is still in the hands of that founding family. The tradition of the homestead is embodied today in the McCormick Sanctuary, which, through the generosity of the founding family, has become part of the California State Park System.

The planting of the Cain Mountain Vineyard began shortly after the Cains purchased the property. This initial phase continued through 1988, followed by replanting from 1996 through 2006 onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Replanting has begun again after the 2020 Glass Fire burned directly through the bowl of the Cain Vineyard, taking most of the vines and all of the buildings.

The first crush at the new winery, christened “Cain Cellars,” was in the fall of 1982, at the newly constructed winery. Jim and Nancy Meadlock joined the Cains in 1986, and, in 1991, assumed sole ownership of the property. Chris Howell, who began consulting to the Cains in 1990, took over direction in 1991.

Since then, the entire project has been known as Cain Vineyard & Winery. 1990 saw first vintage of estate-grown Cain Five, continuing through 1994, and beginning again in 2007, as the replanted vineyard matured.

Cain Vineyard & Winery could only have developed as it did through the continuity of more than three decades of ownership and the very long term stewardship of a core group of the Cain team.

History of Cain Image Gallery

Select one of the images directly above to view an image gallery of The History of Cain. To view more Cain Image Galleries, see the Cain blog, Media Archives & Musing

Read More on the History of Cain View complete History of Cain text (pdf)
Cain Vineyard after the Glass Fire, 2020

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McCormick Ranch
At one time, the McCormick Ranch encompassed some 3,000 acres. Before the time when the Cains purchased the property, hundreds of sheep grazed on both the Napa side and the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Range in the area known as Spring Mountain. The historic barn was completed in the 1870s (this beautiful barn from another era was entirely destroyed in the Glass Fire of 2020). Sheep ranching continued into the 1970s, until it became financially unviable.

Cain’s Founders
When Jerry and Joyce Cain purchased the McCormick Ranch in 1980, their vision was to develop a mountain vineyard dedicated to the classical blend of varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The fruit of this vineyard would inspire the creation of the Cain Five—its first vintage was 1985. As Jim and Nancy Meadlock partnered with the Cains and eventually became sole owners, they carried forward this core idea of preserving the classical blend of Cain Five.

Cain Mountain Vineyard
In 1980, with the advice of James Lider, the Cains retained Laurie Wood to begin the development of what they called the Cain Mountain Vineyard. The first vines of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted around La Piedra in 1981 and 1982. Cabernet Franc was planted in the Orchard in 1984. The next year, Vineyard Manager David Hudgins planted Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, thus completing the classic set of five varieties. 1987 saw a new planting of Cabernet Sauvignon on the winery hill and, in 1988, the last area to be planted was cleared and terraced below the “Picnic Tree” on the Napa–Sonoma county line. The last planting of that time was completed in 1992 utilizing a series of phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Eventually, all of the original plantings of the first decade had to be replaced using different rootstocks.

Cain Cellars Winery
Once the Cains had completed purchase of the property back in 1980, they obtained the necessary permits required to design and develop the original winery. The winery was christened “Cain Cellars” at its first crush in the fall of 1982. Tanks continued to be installed, and a new barrel room was added in 1984. The structure as it existed prior to the Glass Fire was completed in 1986. The Cain Cellar had a capacity of about 25,000 cases per vintage, and it was initially designed to make both white and red wines. Utilizing both tanks and barrels, the Cain Cellar operated as a facility for making red wines, with two vintages of wines aging in barrels.

The Cain Team
Over more than forty years, the threads of all those who have worked at Cain have been deeply woven into the vinicultural fabric of the Napa Valley. Throughout this time, many people have contributed to the Cain wines. While some have continued to work at Cain for more than ten or twenty years, others have gone on to plant other vineyards, make other wines, and to sell other wines: some are working for other vineyards and wineries, and others have begun their own projects. We can count literally dozens of wines that have been touched by those who also touched the wines of Cain.

The Glass Fire & Renewal
After the Glass Fire, replanting of the Cain Vineyard commenced again. Beginning late in 2020, Vineyard Manager Ashley Anderson-Bennett and her dedicated team of vineyardists replanted a couple of acres and in the Spring of 2021 moved forward to replanting another ten acres. The work is slow; the baby vines are growing well. This has given us an opportunity along with the time to think about how we would want to improve the Cain vineyard, an opportunity that has come out of a lot of hardship and loss.

For Cain, the most reassuring event over the early period of work was that we had a 2021 vintage. Though the harvest was quite small, the wines we produced continue to recognizably reflect the Cain Vineyard, as we have come to know it, over four decades of work. There will be a 2021 Cain Five, grown in the Cain Vineyard.


Pruning in the Cain Vineyard

Take sunlight, add water, and you have wine. It is so simple, yet, at the same time, it is infinitely complex. As everyone knows, it all begins in the vineyard. The beauty and fascination that wine can offer are integral to its beginnings in nature. Vineyard work is one of the most highly developed forms of interplay between human beings and nature. Undoubtedly, the most compelling wines are born in the vineyard. And not just any vineyard, but always a specific vineyard: the result of years of cultivation and discovery. Our quest at Cain, and that of all of our true friends in wine, must be to seek out the sources of individuality of each vineyard with which we work.

Read More About Wine Growing View complete Wine Growing text (pdf)

The Cain Vineyard

Varying in elevation from 1,400 to 2,100 feet (450–675 meters), our vineyard clings to the sides of a bowl, sited spectacularly, and improbably, along the crest of the Mayacamas Range. The vineyard overlooks the Napa Valley and Saint Helena from the most south-western corner of the Spring Mountain District. Here, the soils are almost exclusively of sedimentary (as opposed to volcanic) origin. Formed from decaying sandstone and shale, they contain significant amounts of clay, which holds on to water and nutrients, releasing them only very slowly. These soils contain little potassium and significant amounts of calcium and magnesium, resulting in low fertility.

The slopes tend to be fairly steep, so the soils are thin and water-holding capacity is limited, and most of the rainfall goes to run-off, down into the valley. The exposures can be significant, ranging through all the points of the compass, giving the extraordinary diversity that contributes to the complexity of the Cain Five. With our five grape varieties and the natural variation within our vineyard, harvest usually lasts about six weeks. The first grapes to ripen are usually east-facing Merlot, and the last picked are often some northwest-facing Cabernet Franc.

Cain Vineyard, Spring Mountain, circa 2009

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The weather up here is completely different from that down in the valley. As one might expect, it’s generally cooler throughout most of the year. For example, when it snows anywhere in Napa county, it snows at Cain—which it does nearly every year. But, even though it’s generally cooler up at Cain, the mornings can be warmer than in St. Helena. Especially when there’s no wind and it’s a clear, cloudless night sky, the coldest air will settle onto the floor of the valley and the warmer air will rise. So, even though we’re more likely to have snow in the winter, we’re less likely to experience the spring frosts of the valley floor. During the crucial months of August and September, when our grapes are developing all of their aromas and flavors, we will often awaken to find the Napa Valley filled with a blanket of clouds, while our vines are “flying” above the clouds in the light of the morning sun.

One other notable feature of the Cain Vineyard is that it consists of small areas surrounded by forest. We suspect that the trees—oak, madrone, bay laurel, and Douglas fir—contribute to the unique aromatic signature of the Cain Five. Just to stand on our mountain and to inhale the scented air reminds one that this place is like no other—and you can taste it in the wine.

Following the harvest of 1995, we began the lengthy task of selectively replanting our vineyard, piece by piece, lest it would ultimately fail due to phylloxera. As of the end of 2009, we had 95% of our vines on roots that can live with phylloxera. In the course of the replanting, we greatly increased the vine density, changed the pruning and trellising methods, experimented with many new (new to this site) rootstocks and varietal selections, as well as improved our drainage and irrigation systems. As arduous as the original vineyard development had to have been, at that point it seemed that we had put just as much work into its redevelopment. While in every case we always thought that we were improving our vineyard, in some cases, through our replanting, we may have learned what not to do in the Cain Vineyard. We see our vineyard in constant evolution.

Cain Vineyard Varietal Map, circa 2014

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Replanting After the Glass Fire

Though many vines were lost to the 2020 Glass Fire, enough stalwart survivors persisted to remind us why we tend the vineyard on this difficult mountain! We have a lot of baby vines in the ground now—Ashley Anderson-Bennett, Cain’s vineyard manager, and her team have planted tens of thousands of vines—and our focus is on developing a really extensive root system rather than producing grapes right away. This third major replanting of our vineyards has given us the opportunity to “interview” many grape varietals and clones to see if they are a good fit with the terrain of our Spring Mountain site. This is a case of more than recovery because it gives us a chance to reimagine the vineyard as we’ve known it, but without exactly recreating what it was. This effort represents a rebirth of all that is Cain, planting the fruit that will go into our classic blend and be recognizable to all who know Cain.

Cain Vineyard Replanting 2021

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Our Growers

Since 1994, we have sought growers with promising sites in the Napa Valley who share our commitment to learning how to work with their vines to ripen the best possible fruit and to create the most satisfying wines. Today, we are still working with some of the same vines that we first got to know in the mid-1990s. In many cases, we have been working in the same vineyard rows for more than ten years now. All the same, almost every year, we say goodbye to something and begin to get to know a new patch of vines. The site is the determining factor, but, without the care and attention of the grower, nothing can be achieved.

The Key Factors

Soil: The space in which the vine roots live is unseen and inaccessible, and yet it is the most fundamental determining factor in our wines. Because the soil can be seen only when we dig a hole (a “soil pit”), in which some of the roots are destroyed, the soil remains the most mysterious aspect of viticulture. For us at Cain, it is the area of greatest interest. This much we know: The soil is far more than an inert support for the vines. It acts like a sponge, selectively releasing water and nutrients during the course of the growing season. A good vineyard soil holds a significant reserve, but it maintains a scarce availability. More importantly, a good vineyard soil is alive. Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, and bugs all contribute to the complex ecology of the soil, and the vine roots themselves play an active role in engaging and creating this ecology. Thus, while we may know the soil chemistry of a site, we will need many years of patient farming to achieve the optimum balance between a vine and its soil. Most importantly, without soil, we have nothing; therefore, development and preservation of the health of the soil and the preservation of the soil itself (think erosion control) are fundamental.

Exposure: Wherever there is a slope or natural air drainage, the exposure will determine how the heat of the sun is captured and retained. This, in turn, will affect how the vines grow and how the grapes ripen.

Climate: There has been much ado, in the New World, of the effects of climate on the quality of wine grapes. And it’s true that the best wines come from grapes that ripen naturally and progressively under moderate conditions—generally near the natural end of their growing cycle. If it’s too hot, sugar may accumulate, acid may fall, and color may disappear before other qualities (for example: aroma or tannin) reach ripeness. If it’s too cold, the grapes may hang forever, struggle to get ripe, or not even achieve ripeness at all. Each variety has its own requirements.

Water: Fine wines develop under conditions where water is a limiting factor. Some is almost always available—enough to support vine growth in the spring, and enough to allow leaf transpiration during the summer, but not too much, so that the vine can stop growing and ripen its fruit. In the north coast, although it almost never rains in the summer, a vine obtains most of its water from natural soil reserves accumulated during the winter rains. Selective irrigation during the summer and fall is applied as a supplement to meet the vine’s needs to ripen the best quality of fruit.

Viticulture: During the past twenty years, much has been learned (or relearned) about classical viticultural methods. Today, a great deal of attention is given to the choice of rootstock, variety, selection and clone, vine spacing, row direction, vine height, trellising scheme, cover crop, soil nutrition, irrigation methodology, and so on. Every detail makes a difference; and the cumulative effect of many of these choices can have a definitive impact on the ability to ripen grapes appropriately for making fine wine.


“Les Vendanges,” Tapestry, Musée de Cluny, Paris
The barrel room at Cain Vineyard & Winery. Photograph by Mitch Rice.
The Cain Cellar

…our constant goal is to create wines of complexity, balance, harmony, and grace that are timeless

The transformation from grape to wine is magical. 1,000 years ago, alchemists called this process “fermentation.” Although much is understood, much is also misunderstood, and much more still remains a mystery. This is exactly as we would have it.

Nothing that we do at Cain could be called unique—in fact, it could be called classical winemaking. Nevertheless, we believe that the sum of all our choices could still yield a wine that is uniquely Cain. Making red wine can be reduced to the most elemental, timeless recipe—and this is how we approach it. Our winemaking program is simple, and it follows the same path for all our wines: hand picking, gentle destemming, native-yeast fermentation, thoughtful maceration, and intentional élevage.

Read More About Wine Making View complete Wine Making text (pdf)
Rather than using “fermentation” to refer to the entire process of wine making, today, enologists use the word “fermentation” to distinguish the biological conversions of grape sugars and acids from the physical processes of extraction, which they denote by the term “maceration.” Like cooking, and all of the food arts, winemaking is the culmination of a myriad of choices, some intended, some accidental, and some unseen. Our goal is to grow our grapes and make our wines with intention. Still, we understand and honor the fundamental truth that natural wine must be, in part, the outcome of circumstances beyond our control. Of course, we will always do everything we know and everything within our power, and everything we believe in, to ensure the best possible outcome. But we also know that, if wine were merely the predictable product of technology, we would not be driven to make wine, nor would you be reading this. After our process of hand picking, destemming, native-yeast fermentation, maceration, and élevage, the wines usually complete malolactic fermentation in the barrel, are blended in the spring following harvest, and are repeatedly racked from barrels. They are usually egg-white fined, and they are often bottled without filtration. As can be seen, wherever possible, we eschew intervention. Our clear mantra is “less is more.”
Cain Audio: Christopher Howell, “Let’s Get Real: Episode 48,” Heritage Radio Network
Blending in the Cain Cellar

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Once this is understood, we should also state clearly that our constant goal is to create wines with virtues that we believe are timeless: complexity, balance, harmony, and grace. There must also be a sense of energy and of vivacity. Specifically, in wine, we value these attributes: a complex bouquet; a silky entry; a nice balance between the sweetness of fruit, refreshing acidity, mouth-filling viscosity, and finely textured tannins; a graceful exit; and a lengthy finish. There must be a rhythm to a fine wine. Sometimes insubstantiality is politely described as “elegance.” And sometimes, true elegance is mistaken for insubstantiality, especially by those inclined to judge a wine by its weight and power. But, knowing just how difficult they are to attain, we remain comfortable in our commitment to our goals. Most of the critical decisions that will affect the finished wine have been made by the time the grapes are picked. These decisions were all made in the vineyard, and they culminate in choosing which area to pick and the harvest date. Each facet of each vineyard must be identified and vinified separately. We understand that, with all fruits, there are the familiar stages of unripe, ripe, and overripe—the key is in their identification. While unripe fruit will not fully express its potential and can be harsh and green, overripe fruit loses much of its complexity, and the wine from it may become more soft and plush—it begins to flatten out and to lose the tension and energy that we call vibrancy, which gives life and excitement to a truly fine wine. Once the grapes are picked, the next key decisions surround the handling of the fruit as it is transformed into the raw, young wine. We believe that red wine is a partial extraction of the grape. Our goal is to get what we want and to leave the rest behind. Therefore, we need to handle the grapes gently; we choose to remove the stems and to deliver a high proportion of whole berries to the tank. By not adding yeast, we can let the grapes continue their metabolism before the fermentation begins with native yeast on the skins. The length of maceration and the intensity of pumping-over, or of punching-down, is determined entirely by taste. Air plays a constant role in our vinification. All of our pressing is controlled manually, so as to obtain the finest quality of press wine. Again, our decision whether or not to incorporate any portion of the press wine to each individual lot that we vinify is made entirely by taste.
Élevage Then & Now. Left: the two-year cycle of élevage at Cain. Right: racking wine, from a woodcut by Johann Schott, Strasbourg, 1518.

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As soon as possible, each wine goes to barrel where it will complete its fermentations. The French have a word to describe the development of wine from its raw, unfinished state at the end of fermentation until it reaches the finished stage, at which it is ready to be bottled. They call it “élevage” in winemaking vocabulary. There is no equivalent English word for this process. Many transformations will occur—many of them not completely understood. Again, oxygen plays a crucial role as the wine loses its gas and sediment, clarifies, and becomes increasingly more stable. Early in the year after the harvest, we begin a series of tastings to understand each lot and, ultimately to compose the blends of each of our three wines. Usually, some twenty individual lots will contribute to each of the Cain Five, Cain Concept, and Cain Cuvée. Once the blend has been determined and realized in our cellar, the wine goes back to barrels to continue its élevage for another year or more. During this time, the wine will be “racked” (drawn off) from its lees (sediment) in the barrel, reblended, and then returned to barrel. The decisions about when to rack the wine, how much air to give it, whether or not to fine the wine, and whether to filter it, are, once again, determined entirely by taste. When the wine is ready for the bottle, our goal is always to get the wine into the bottle with the minimum trauma possible. This means gentle pumping, gravity filling, and as close to zero oxygen uptake as we can get. At that point, our job is done.


Cain Vineyards & Winery Staff at La Piedra on Spring Mountain
The People of Cain at La Piedra in the Cain Vineyards, Harvest 2022

Over forty years, the threads of all those who have worked at Cain have been deeply woven into the vinicultural fabric of the Napa Valley. Through the years, many people have contributed to the Cain wines. While some have continued to work at Cain for more than ten years, others have gone on to plant other vineyards, make other wines, and to sell other wines: some are working for other vineyards and wineries, and others have begun their own projects. We can count literally dozens of wines that have been touched by those who also touched the wines of Cain.

Jim and Cindy Meadlock, Owners
Ashley Anderson-Bennett, Vineyard Manager
Alberto Avila, Vineyardist
Enrique Cortes, Vineyardist
Leopoldo Espinoza, Vineyardist
Mandy Heldt Donovan, Winemaker/Sales Rep
Christopher Howell, Wine-Grower/Co-General Manager

Katie Lazar, Director of Sales and Marketing/Co-General Manager
Alberto Ramos-Amezcua, Vineyard Supervisor
Lupe Ramos, Vineyardist
Brooke Sinnes, Direct to Consumer Manager
Matt Strayer, Wholesale & Operations Manager
Jose Antonio Torres Ayala, Vineyardist

More About Cain

Beckmann Image Gallery

Beckmann Image Gallery

Select one of the images directly above to view an image gallery of Cain Vineyard & Winery by Olaf Beckmann. To view more Cain Image Galleries, see the Cain blog, Media Archives & Musing

Cain Vineyard & Winery Facts

Founded:1980 by Jerry and Joyce Cain
Cain Vineyard:500 acre ranch, 90 acres planted, Spring Mountain District
Production:12,000 cases
Owners:Jim and Cindy Meadlock
Wines:Cain Five—Cain Vineyard, Estate Grown & Bottled
Cain Concept—The Benchland
Cain Cuvée—Napa Valley
Wine-Grower/GM:Christopher Howell
Vineyard Manager:Ashley Anderson-Bennett

A Selection from Cain Media Archives & Musing

For more stories & topics and to explore our Cain blog: Media Archives & Musing

An image gallery of images by Olaf Beckmann
Wine Grower Chris Howell and Chef Matt Bennett discuss wine and food pairing and the recipes that Matt created to pair with Cain Cuveé
“For me, wine begins with fruit, but that’s not where it stops, any more than a cheese stops with the milk.” —Christopher Howell
“The best wines all want food. They may be the focus, they may be the accompaniment, depending on the situation, but they’re always good dancers.” —Chris Howell
The “Cain Moment” will be found somewhere in the range of maximum aromatic potential, floral-spicy, fresh fruit-mature fruit, peak of color, and in the early range of maximum of tannin-pigment complexity.