Killing it with Petite Sirah from Howell Mountain | Interview with Mike Dunn of Retro Cellars

Retro Cellars was founded by Kara and Mike Dunn in the Howell Mountain AVA in 2003. The wine industry is not new to the Dunns. Some of you most probably recognize their last name, Dunn, from Dunn Vineyards. Dunn Vineyards is where Mike started his career back in 1999 after the tragic passing of one of his sisters, in order to help out his father, Randy. As years passed Mike and Kara decided to start their own winery in 2003. One big difference between this new estate and Dunn Vineyards is the main varietal produced, Petite Sirah. At the moment, under the Retro Cellars label they currently produce two different Petite Sirahs. One from the Iron Corral Vineyard in Pope Valley (hyperlink is to an article by Wine Spectator regarding the region) and from the Park Muscatine and Los Abuelos Vineyards on Howell Mountain.

Mike's winemaking style is definitely more old world in nature. He is a big proponent of showing the terrior of the vineyards he is using. Additionally, Mike ages his wines in majority new French oak barrels (sprinkle of American oak too) from a total of four different cooperages (Billion, Gamba, Garonnaise and Boutes) and ages his Petite Sirah for an extended period of time, 30 months. That is almost three full years in barrel!

Not sure about you, but one thing we always find interesting is learning about something new. In this case...."What is Petite Sirah?"

When we were first started with wine and heard about Petite Sirah , we thought...."Is it the same thing as Syrah/Shiraz but just Petite?" If you are a wine nerd or know anything about wine you might think it is a stupid question. but remember, you have to start somewhere right?

Petite Sirah is actually, in a way you could say, a child of Syrah. Petite Sirah was made by a French botanist, Dr. François Durif, in the late 19th century through the cross-pollination between Syrah and Peloursin, making the Durif varietal, aka Petite Sirah. Dr. Durif was experimenting with making a more resistant strain of Syrah to withstand downy mildew and produced PS which has tiny berries that are clustered tightly together.

If you look around online and try to research some of the common characteristics of Petite Sirah such as color, aromas, flavors and texture of the wines, you will see that these two bottlings by Retro Cellars show it all. Check out our interview below and tasting notes on the 2011 bottlings.

Mike working hard in the cellars. Photo credit - Rick Fessenden.

Mike working hard in the cellars. Photo credit - Rick Fessenden.

Q1: We know you started in the wine industry right from the start with your family estate, Dunn Vineyards. Did you ever think of going into another profession or was it always headed in this direction?

Mike Dunn (MD): I studied Physical Anthropology in college and started racing my bicycle my senior year as well as working at the campus bike shop. After graduating, I had a few bike shop jobs before starting my own shop in Calistoga in the summer of ‘90.

Q2: When it comes to wine, what was you "AHA” moment?

MD: I was always interested even as a kid but couldn’t see working for my parents! :) I remember going into a book store in Mendocino and picking up a book on wine and reading about my family…….it was time to get involved. Tragically one of my sisters died over a weekend from meningitis and that was when my Dad really needed me to help him out. That was 1999.

Q3: Besides biking and your family, what are some hobbies you have or something you want to get more into?

MD: Like Kara mentioned I’ve been singing in different groups for over 10 years. I get a charge from it like no other!

Q4: What is something that is unique that most people wouldn't know about you?

MD: I’m sensitive underneath my burly build and bluster.

Q5: What is your go to wine as of late? What do you have open at home right now?

MD: We have been drinking Hayfork Grenache Blanc that the winemakers gave me. Reds I have been drinking obscure Italian varietals from Orsi that another friend makes wine for…..Aglianico, Montepulciano, etc.

Q6: In honor of the holidays, what will you and your family be drinking for Thanksgiving?

MD: Whatever Randy brings from the old Dunn cellar, usually mystery wines with no labels.

Q7: After working with your father since 1999 making two fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, why and when did you decide (before starting Retro in 2003) that you wanted to start making Petite Sirah on your own?

MD: We farmed the grapes since buying Park-Muscatine in ’92 and my Dad made a barrel or two and sold the rest of the fruit. I always enjoyed tasting Petite when racking the barrels so I started buying the fruit in ’03 to have a project for Kara and myself. Also it allowed me to experiment in the winemaking and aging process without my Dad’s control. Ultimately we changed Dunn’s barrel program as a result of my dabbling with different coopers, toasts, and forest regions. The marketing and sales side was a big eye opener as well.

Q8: Have you worked at any other wine estates in your career (besides Retro Cellars and Dunn Vineyards)?

MD: My first harvest I was loaned out to Chateau Montelena and worked a solid month there before we started harvest at Dunn. Bo was a great intro for me and I worked my tail off that year.

Q9: We noticed that the alcohol levels on your wines are insanely low, why is this and how do you achieve it?

MD: The Petite struggles to ripen on Howell Mountain, I rarely enjoy brix levels above 24!! Also the old vineyard had a lot of virus, leafroll and possibly red blotch so the vines struggled to photosynthesize sugars.

Q10: Why did you choose these vineyards (Park Muscatine, Los Abuelos and Iron Corral Vineyards) over others for your Petite Sirah? And have you thought about venturing into producing any other varietals or other bottlings?

MD: I planted Los Abuelos in ’05 from the old clone out of the Park-Muscatine vineyard because of the age of that old vineyard. I removed the Petite at Park-Muscatine after the ’15 vintage and now the new vineyard produces the same amount in a third of the acreage. Park-Muscatine was planted to Cab this year. Iron Corral was a connection from a friend of mine when I needed to get more fruit due to low yields in the old vineyard.

I am phasing out that fruit source and the Napa bottling after 2014 due to lack of space in the cellar. I also have a Syrah planting coming on strong at our home property so we will be offering other varietals soon. Zin was also purchased this year from Chiles Valley with 40 year old vines and I’m excited about that!

Q11: What would you say puts your estate apart from other boutique Petite Sirah producers in Napa Valley or more specifically ones made from mountain fruit?

MD: I make a more restrained structured style for the cellar. There is very little Petite up here and the others I’m aware of are riper and fruitier, also more alcoholic.

Q12: How do you see that your winemaking philosophy differs from your fathers?

MD: I’m less likely to manipulate the wines, maybe a softer touch. I also pick earlier than he does.

Q13: So far your production size in 2011 was around 750 cases for Retro Cellars, is this about the size you are looking to continue at or are you looking to increase in the future?

MD: We will taper down in 2015 and will probably stay around 5-600 cases total. We will be bigger in ’13 and ’14 due to larger crop sizes.

Q14: If someone wanted to come out and try your wines how could they go about doing that?

MD: Reach out to Kara!

We received both their 2011 Napa Valley and 2011 Howell Mountain bottlings. These are some killer wines and definitely worth checking out.

2011 Retro Cellars Napa Valley Petite Sirah

Background Information:

This is the Napa Valley designated bottling of Petite Sirah from Mike Dunn. Mike sources this fruit from the Iron Corral Vineyard in Pope Valley which is approximately 1,300 feet lower in elevation than the vineyard they use for their Old Vine Howell Mountain bottling. The soil type is alluvial which is a fine particles of slit, clay, and gravel that was deposited by water due to flood plains. In addition to the soil type these are younger vines that produce lighter tannin fruit. This wine is aged for 30 months in a combination of 90% new French oak (Billion, Garonnaise and Boutes) and 10% American oak (Gambia). Only 300 cases produced and an alcohol level of 13.4%.

Tasting Note:November 3, 2016

Deep ruby red with high intensity. Very interesting nose to start. Layered with gamey and floral notes, black raspberries, wet rocks and dried savory herbs. Day two added some darker and thicker blue and blackberries. Moderate tannins (7.5/10) with solid acidity giving it some killer structure. Medium plus to full bodied with a fruit forward attack comprised of black cherries and cranberries. A little bit of cinnamon and perfumey herbs too. This kept going on day two and three. Day three the acidity definitely seemed to be more integrated after spiking a bit on day two, also added some additional complexity with some leather and earthy notes. Still carried a long finish till the end. This is an incredible little baby that will only get better with time.

Drink Dates:

2016 till 2026.


92 points.

Price Point:

$$ - Provided as a sample from the estate. Can be purchased for $35.00 from the estate.

2011 Retro Cellars Old Vine Howell Mountain Petite Sirah

Background Information:

The 2011 vintage is blend of 90% Petite Sirah and 10% Syrah from the Park Muscatine Vineyard (60%) and the Los Abuelos Vineyard (40%). The Park Muscatine Vineyard is at an elevation of 1800 feet and was originally planted back in the 1890's. Through DNA testing has shown that most of the vines are the Durif clone as well as some Peloursin clone. The vines specifically used in this bottling come from four acres that were last replanted in the 1950s which Mike personally cares for and maintains. The Los Abuelos Vineyard is located directly adjacent to the Dunn Vineyards winery and Mike's parents house. Prior to planting Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this vineyard was growing hay for the Dunn's horses. Additionally, this sits in a small valley that gives this terrior cool weather and requires protection from frost through the use of sprinklers. This wine is aged for 30 months in 100% new French oak, all with tight grains (Billion, Gamba, Garonnaise and Boutes). Only 450 cases produced and an alcohol level of 12.8%.


Tasting Note:November 18, 2016

Deep purplish-blue. Love the complexity of the nose on this bottling. Tons of blueberries, baking spices, toasted wood, savory herbs, burnt matches, burnt mulch, sweet smoke and purple floral notes. Heavy tannins (8.5/10) and full bodied. Loads of oak influence on the palate as well with toasted wood, cinnamon and vanilla. A little savory too as it aired out with some dark cherries and black fruits. Super long finish. Absolutely a killer bottle for under $50.00 with tons of aging potential. If you want to drink this now, decant for 6+ hours.

Drink Dates:

2018 till 2036.


93 points.

Price Point:

$$ - Provided as a sample from the estate. Can be purchased for $45.00 from the estate.

Photo credit -   Rick   Fessenden.

Photo credit - Rick Fessenden.

If you are interested in getting in contact with Retro Cellars, want to purchase their wines or ask us any questions just click on one of the links below!

Where are they located? 1955 Summit Lake Dr, Angwin, CA

Do you need an appointment? Yes, but all you need to do is reach out to Kara by shooting her an email!

Who is their winemaker? Mike Dunn

Price Ranges: $35.00 to $45.00 for current vintages.

Recommend: Absolutely killer Petite Sirah! Highly recommended.

More Posts:

- Tasting Notes