Chateau Montelena Winery Review
Address: 1429 Tubbs Lane Calistoga,California 94515.
Phone Number: 707-942-5105
Tasting Hours: 9:30-4:00 and by appt.
Region: Napa Valley AVA, Calistoga AVA, California
Reviewer: Mark and Sonja
Review Date: 7/3/2016
Reviewer: Mark and Sonja
Youve heard of Chateau Montelena. I pen (type) that line with a high degree of confidence because youre reading this review on a web page devoted to wine, and if youre at all interested in wine, then youre familiar with the Napa Valley. And if youre familiar with the Napa Valley then youre quite likely to know that it wasnt until a blind wine tasting in France in 1976 that anyone outside of California cared at all about the wines being made in the United States. And if youve heard of that tasting, known today as the Judgment of Paris, then its also quite likely that youre aware that it was Chateau Montelena, which of course youve heard of, that produced the winning white wine, a Chardonnay, vintage 1973.
Maybe you saw a movie about it, maybe you read an article, or maybe the owner of your favorite little wine bar has simply talked your ear off about this famous moment in time in which the wines of Napa eclipsed even those of France herself, justifying not only your love for them, but also their high prices. But its never really that simple, is it? Never really cut-and-dried. The story of Chateau Montelena isnt the story of Chardonnay at all, and while they continue to make it, and while it remains undeniably an excellent wine from year to year, it is far from a focal point at the winery as it stands today, up-Valley, hidden amongst a small forest of trees near the little town of Calistoga, sandwiched quietly between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. As you might expect, the full story is far more interesting.
My traveling companion Zach and I had arrived early at Chateau Montelena, a familiar location to me as my wife Sonja and I had visited it on our honeymoon a little over three years prior. In the cool morning air, we crunched through the gravel parking lot and set out upon a narrow, paved walkway that wraps around a tranquil little pond in which turtles were visible and an array of beautiful plants adorned the islands and the banks. The islands were accessible from the mainland by a series of jagged wooden bridges, and atop them rested gazebo-like structures that looked more than a bit out of place for their unmistakable Oriental style of architecture. We found the entire environment altogether peaceful and relaxing.
When the time came for our tasting, at nine oclock in the morning on a sunny summer Sunday, the small tasting room in the upper part of the Chateau was already beginning to fill. Having made our arrangements to visit ahead of time, we benefited by being ushered into a small private room along with six other guests by Jordan, who would expertly conduct our tasting. Inside, a long wooden table was set with an array of crystal, and one chair for each expected person sat waiting.
We are a Cab house, declared Jordan, entirely unprompted. This is really what we focus on. One guest looked puzzled but kept his mouth shut. Jordan predicted his question: Yes, of course, were famous for winning the Judgement of Paris in 1976 with our Chardonnay, and youll get to taste that soon, she reassured him. But lets start with our Riesling, which I think is also excellent.
I couldnt help but be reminded of my honeymoon by the pleasant, crisp white that my wife and I had shared a few years prior. From there, our party enjoyed a few wines from the 2009 vintage, including the famous Chardonnay as well as an estate Zinfandel (which I enjoyed immensely and later purchased a bottle of), before moving on to the Cabernet Sauvignons. Side by side, the unimposing, old-world style Cabs became the perfect pairing for a story session in which Jordan narrated the lengthy history of the Chateau. Founded by a friend of the legendary Charles Krug, a man named Alfred Tubbs who had made his riches producing ropes for ships during the California gold rush had taken the advice of Krug and planted grapes. Prohibition took its toll on this winery as it did most every other, and not knowing if or when the amendment would be repealed, the vines were torn out in favor of orchards of fruit and walnuts. In 1958, the winery was purchased by a couple from Shanghai, who left their mark on the property with the small island structures that Zach and I had noticed on our walk. And then, in the early 1970s, Jim Barrett purchased the winery, outfitted it with modern winemaking equipment, and replanted the vineyards. Barrett envisioned a world-class Cabernet production facility, but Cabernet requires substantial time years, to age in oak before its drinkable, let alone world-class, so to pay the bills Chateau Montelena committed to producing some quick-turnaround white wines in the meantime. This included Chardonnay. The rest, as they say, is history.
Forty years and a few months after the infamous Judgement of Paris that put not only this winery but the entire Napa Valley on the worlds wine map, it seems that perhaps Chateau Montelena may finally be poised to recognize its destiny as one of the best Cabernet Sauvignon producers in the Valley, if not the world, at last fulfilling the wishes of visionary re-founder Jim Barrett. His son, Bo, now steers the ship, and if the wines Ive tasted on my two prior visits are any indication, he is indeed a worthy captain.
Chateau Montelena is a special place. You may have seen it featured in a movie, or you may have read about them as the frenzy over the 40th anniversary of the Paris tasting reached a crescendo earlier this spring. But frenzies come and go, and what remains is that which stands the test of time. This never includes people, who are undeniably mortal and never long for the world, but it can certainly include their legacy. At Chateau Montelena, that legacy includes a look into the history of what today is one of the worlds most famous wine-producing regions. It is a story that encompasses the pioneering spirit of the 49ers, the rule of law, the meaningful contributions of immigrants, the rebirth of the Napa Valley, and the vision of a man who simply wanted to make great Cabernet, which ultimately he did.
If youre visiting in the summer months, when the tourists jam Highway 29 with their rental cars and camper trailers, I strongly recommend calling ahead and splurging a bit to arrange a quieter, more intimate experience. But whether something like that is in the budget or not, you wont fail to enjoy your visit to Chateau Montelena. Be sure to walk the storied grounds and take a stroll around the lake. This, one of the Napa Valleys oldest establishments, is a winery to be sure you take the time to visit.