(Part of a continuing series on Minnesotans who have fulfilled the dream of wine lovers: opening their own wineries.)
Betty O'Shaughnessy grew up on the prairie, but it's pretty safe to call her a mountain woman these days, at least when it comes to her livelihood.
Mountain fruit -- big and rich, brooding and tannic -- is the star of O'Shaughnessy's superb cabernet sauvignon and merlot. I had become a bit jaded with Napa cabs, but these dark beauties from Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder rekindled an old flame, making me realize why I fell in love with these wines in the first place.
Small wonder that Robert Parker calls O'Shaughnessy "one of the superstar estates on Howell Mountain."
All from a feisty Marshall, Minn., native who decided back in 1996 to buy 60 acres of uncleared mountaintop land. There was no water or electricity, but her timing was good in one sense: "Within six months we had an erosion-control plan approved," she said. "A few years later, I bought 40 contiguous acres, and it took five years to get the permits."
At the time, only Beringer, with its Bancroft Ranch reds, La Jota and Randy Dunn, with his extraordinary eponymous cabs, had made world-class wines on Howell Mountain, which even now is accessible only by two stomach-churning roads.
While developing the winery with the same single-minded determination that helped her later overcome breast cancer, O'Shaughnessy got divorced. She eventually remarried Paul Woollf, now her partner in wine. She took classes at Cal-Davis to learn more about growing and making wine.
But her best decisions already had been made: hiring Sean Capiaux as winemaker and choosing a great site.
"The soils are very thin, very rocky volcanic soils, and the vines just struggle to survive," she said. "We had a block in front of the winery that we had to have a dynamite crew come and get out the rocks. And the exposure on the crest is key. We get great sun."
That tends to make the wines a bit beastly. "Those mountain tannins are so huge it takes a while to tame them," she said. That's why her Howell Mountain bottling is only 85 percent cabernet.
O'Shaughnessy became so enamored of the fruit on Howell Mountain -- which she aptly describes as "chocolate, very definitely chocolate, pencil, graphite, but also some balancing huge fruit, cassis and not quite so much the berries" -- that she decided to make wine from another elevated area on the other side of the valley, Mount Veeder.
The results have been every bit as spectacular. The Howell Mountain cab ($80, 95 points from Parker) is dense but accessible, with delicious fruit and great grip and length. The Mount Veeder ($103, 96 points) is even more massive but boasts spot-on balance and texture.
As impressive as her wines' flavors and ratings are, O'Shaughnessy has not been immune to the faltering economy.
"People are very cautious about their discretionary dollars. Everybody that was buying our wine is buying a little less," she said. "We feel like we'll sell out of the '06 wines, but we're out on the street more, working harder. We're doing more wine dinners, pouring at more wine shops. Paul and I are out there. Mike [Steffel, her general manager and another Minnesota transplant] is really out there.
"There's so much competition. Ten years ago, if you made a great wine, it just kind of sold. We'll get through this time, but it would be inappropriate to say we are not struggling."
And while O'Shaughnessy is spending more time dealing with the public, she isn't skimping on her favorite pastime.
"I work with Sean on the blending, but watching and walking around the vineyard, that's my main love," she said. "I have always loved the land, probably from growing up in Minnesota."