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An Anniversary for an Icon: Chateau Montelena Celebrates Five Decades of Winemaking

by Liza B. Zimmerman
January 15, 2018

It’s a classic name in Napa, made ever more famous by the fact that Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won in the historic “Judgment of Paris” tasting held in 1976. This legendary tasting pitted top Napa producers against the best winemakers in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and much of California came out triumphant. The 2008 film Bottle Shock delved into some of the tasting dynamics and how a British former wine merchant, and now wine writer, Steven Spurrier put the tasting together.

Flash forward 40-something years and Bo Barrett, the CEO of Chateau Montelena, put together a retrospective of the winery’s primarily Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from the 1970s to the present. It was meant as a testimony to how these wines can age, something that is rarely tested in Northern California as a number producers don’t hold back enough stocks of their older vintages.

The wines tasted, dating back to 1974, showed their ability to age and demonstrated how winemaking has evolved in Northern California over the past decades. Barrett, who admits that in his early career he was more focused on skiing and surfing than fine wine production, said that the idea of terroir was not a concept in the 1970s—and much of the 1980s—in the Napa Valley.

“We were trying to accentuate what this vineyard would tell us,” he said about the early days of production at the winery. He added that he and his late father—Jim Barrett—didn’t see the true promise of the property until they had farmed it until 1978 and that by 1982 the family had started getting confident about its winemaking potential.

“Chateau Montelena has always been a classic,” said Clyde Beffa, the co-owner of the four-store, California retailer K&L Wine Merchants, who attended the tasting. He added that he found the winery’s style to be more Bordeaux inspired and less voluptuous and ripe than many of the region’s other producers. It is a thought that was echoed by other attendees. “The wines age well,” he said, adding his belief that they should continue to show well. “I want to buy everything he has but I doubt that it is for sale,” he joked.

The Truth About Calistoga

When Chateau Montelena started producing wines the area at the northern end of the Napa Valley, Calistoga was remote, and was considered to have hotter climatic conditions than the middle and southern areas of the Napa Valley. That is all somewhat ironic, he said, since as much of the region has emerged as a relatively cool-climate, wine-producing area.

It is also surprising because with the build up of the southern Napa Valley, many of the towns and producers have become much more commercial, leaving Calistoga as the “cool zone,” in more ways than one.

Barrett said when he first came to the region from Los Angeles as a kid, the whole vibe of the European spa community felt strange. Now, those classic mud baths have been upscaled and the charming hamlet of Calistoga—and its relatively cooler-climate wines—is all the rage. “Calistoga is the place to be,” confirmed Beffa, who added that a handful of new luxury hotels, such as the Four Seasons and Enchanted Resorts, are slated to be breaking ground shortly.

Montelena’s Wines and Philosophy

Bo Barrett was the winery’s winemaker for some time, although he has continually passed off the reigns to a number wine country greats such as Mike Grgich and Jerry Luper. He said that he has managed to retain consistency in the house’s wines by following a Bordeaux model, which focuses on house style regardless of who is the winemaker.

Karen McNeil, the Napa-based wine writer and educator, said that with Montelena’s wines, “There is some intersection between earthiness and berryness that is delicious.” She added that the earlier vintages had a sense of freshness, something about which a few other attendees concurred. She added that the relative youth of many of the wines from the 1970s and 1980s that were tasted may be attributable to “the fact that they weren’t picked overripe.”

Barrett added that by the 1990s his winery’s vintages had started to “show more pure vineyard characteristics.” Matt Crafton, the current winemaker, noted that wine production at Montelena has been committed to the same principle each vintage. “We’re trying to accentuate the differences of every year. We high-five when we put something together in which we can taste the common thread,” he said. Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, who was at the tasting, confirmed that: “Overall elegance is their hallmark.”

“We have been committed to making the same, iconic, single-vineyard, American wine for 50 years,” said Barrett. “The vineyard is what sets the tone.” He added that he hopes that he can get consumers to realize that “our vineyards are as good as any on the planet.”

If it had not been for the Judging of Paris, Montelena might no longer produce Chardonnay, he said. Regardless of what ensued on that day, he shared his belief that Chateau Montelena’s wines are basically Old World in style because of their acid and alcohol levels as well as their pH levels.

He added that producers in Calistoga have the advantage of living close to a charming town that bears the appellation’s name, much like Bordeaux’s right-bank region of Saint-. Émilion. “It is not so much about us as it is about the place,” he concluded about his family’s winemaking legacy.

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