All photo credits to Chateau Montelena
Sometimes it is impossible for expectations to live up to the reality, often leaving someone feeling underwhelmed.
Then, there are times when expectations are not only met but exceeded.
Such was the case when our ACES wine tasting team visited Chateau Montelena.
Chateau Montelena has always been one of the iconic wineries in the Napa Valley. In large part, it came from the victory of Chateau Montelena with its 1973 Chardonnay in the famous Judgement of Paris competition in 1976.
So stunning was the decision, the French judges were confused by what was a California wine compared to French wine. This was the beginning of Napa Valley becoming known as one of the finest wine regions in the world.
The Judgement of Paris also was the reason for the movie “Bottle Shock,” which chronicled the events from the Chateau Montelena perspective.
Of course, Hollywood took dramatic license with the story – but still, it is a great movie that certainly provides some insight into the personalities behind Chateau Montelena.
In addition to watching the movie, I recommend reading the book “California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine,” by George M. Taber, a journalist who was at the tasting.
Visiting Chateau Montelena brings to life the characters in the movie and provides a dose of history in person as you walk the property.
Chateau Montelena is in the north end of the Napa Valley in Calistoga. The drive is about 45 minutes from downtown Napa and is worth every minute.
As you step out of your car, the history just drips in every direction you turn. You feel like you are back in 1976.
The grounds are stunningly beautiful from the Chateau whose exterior has not changed from 1882, to the beauty of Jade Lake, to the Estate vineyards just beyond the lake.
On our visit we were hosted by Jay Hutchison, the Tasting Room Supervisor. You would be hard pressed to find a more knowledgeable host than Jay. He was welcoming, personable, and a wealth of knowledge when it came to Chateau Montelena.
Jay was quick to speak about the irony of a Chardonnay winning the competition when the region is an area known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
He also was informative about the Barrett family.
Wine was produced at Chateau Montelena beginning back in 1896, but over the years the property had grown into a state of disrepair.
In 1968 Jim Barrett was part of a group that purchased the property, replanting the vineyard and installing winemaking equipment.
By 1972, Barrett was producing wines again, along with winemaker Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills Winery in 1977.
The 1973 Chardonnay is the wine that won the Judgement of Paris, and a bottle of that vintage is in the Smithsonian Natural Museum of American history.
Bottle Shock dives into the relationship of Jim and his son Bo. As the years went on, there was a need for a new winemaker at Chateau Montelena. Jim was initially against Bo taking over, but finally relented in 1982 after Bo passed a probationary period established by his father.
Since then, Bo has been referred to by esteemed wine critic Robert Parker as, “The Cal Ripken of wine makers,” with a “30-year track record of NO DUDS.”
Bo recently turned 68 in March and is still very much involved in the winery.
“Making wine is still Bo’s passion,” said Hutchison. “His office is still down in the cellar, not in the administrative offices.”
Visiting the property and hearing the history is worth the time alone, but let’s not forget they make some elite wine as well.
We opened with the 2019 Chardonnay which was wonderful and comes off not like your traditional Chardonnays. We had a chance to follow with the 2014 Chardonnay, which was a darker shade of wine, something natural in an older Chardonnay.
Next was a 2017 Zinfandel, which is more like a French/European wine. It is also interesting in that Montelena had already harvested their wines before the LMU complex/Grass fires ravaged the region in 2017, so the wine production was not harmed.
The same cannot be said about 2020 Tubbs fire – Chateau Montelena is located on Tubbs Road. The vineyards were heavily damaged by the smoke and Hutchison said the prospects were not good for quality wine production with that vintage.
Back to the Zin. Hutchison touted the wine to be paired with any tomato-based product and added, “Bo says it’s the best pizza wine ever made.”
The Montelena Estate Vineyard breaks down by these acres by variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, 78 acres; Zinfandel, 14.6 acre; Cabernet Franc, 3.8 acres; Petite Verdot, 2.0 acres; and Petite Sirah, 1.7 acres.
The game plan is simple.
“We grow only the best varietals and stick with what we do best,” said Hutchison.
Next up was the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that is blended with Merlot.
“In the United States only 75 percent of the wine needs to be Cabernet to call the wine Cabernet Sauvignon,” explained Hutchison. “The amount of the blend varies from year to year.”
The 2018 Cab is a wine that you can drink right away or can be laid down.
We also got to taste the 2017 Cab, a wine that was made following a tough growing season. Still, Bo worked his magic, and the wine was incredible.
“(2017) was a very hot year,” said Hutchison. “It was very challenging for him. It turned out very smooth – maybe the smoothest (Bo) has made.”
Membership at Chateau Montelena is at 10,000 members and Hutchison has never heard of a plan to cap memberships. There are four levels of memberships, starting from 10-20 bottles annually, up to four cases annually.
There is also a Futures memberships, which reduce it to 6-12 bottles annually. Futures means the member is guaranteed, pre-purchased allocation of Estate Cabernet Sauvignon at advantageous pricing.
There are three tasting options, all of which have their own charm, and all are by reservation only.
“A Taste of Montelena,” explores the current releases of the winery and is held at the stand-up bar in the main lobby of the historic Chateau. Monday-Thursday it is $45 per person, with Friday-Sunday costing $55 a person.
“The Library Tasting,” is a semi-private, seated tasting that features exclusive wines not commonly available in the market, alongside library vintages. Monday-Thursday it is $70 person, with the price going up to $80 per person. The tasting takes 75 minutes.
“The Montelena Estate Collection,” is the ultimate tasting experience and showcases the exceptional character of their flagship wine, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The semi-private seated experience begins with a library Chardonnay, followed by comparative tasting of four Estate Cabernet Sauvignon vintages. Monday-Thursday it is $105 per person, with Friday-Sunday costing $120 per person. Allow 90 minutes for the tasting.
A visit to the Chateau Montelena is a must on a couple of levels. One, the history is iconic, and a visit puts you there. Two, the wine stands the test of time and brings to the table some of the elite from Napa.
You will walk away from the tasting with a sense of history and satisfaction that you have walked along side of a legend of the Napa Valley.
For more information on visiting, the wine, or even to read more history of Chateau Montelena, please visit www.montelena.com.
By Dennis Miller