Wine Tasting on the Road: Chateau Montelena


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This one’s for the wine geeks…and the history geeks…and while you’re at it, independent film geeks as well. A visit to the Chateau Montelena Winery offers a flight of top-notch wines in a setting that is historically significant on not one but two counts. This is the third of six winery tours during our trip to California Wine Country.

We started with the tasting, then took in Chateau Montelena’s rich history. Chateau Montelena (short for Mount Saint Helena) was built in 1882 and established in 1888 as a winery by San Francisco shipping entrepreneur Alfred Tubbs. His successful cordage company allowed for pursuits in Napa Valley. Tubbs helped found Stanford University with U.S. Senator Leland Stanford, which they considered building in Calistoga rather than Palo Alto. How different the California landscape might have been!

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The winery was shuttered during Prohibition and opened in 1958 as the retirement home of Yort and Jeanie Frank. The Frank family installed the lovely Chinese gardens and Jade Lake, which remain part of the estate’s beauty today.

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In 1968 Jim Barrett purchased the estate and started making wine with the goal of crafting Old World-style wines, including a First-Growth Bordeaux with California fruit. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay was entered into a blind tasting competition in 1976 in Paris and stunned the world when it beat the established French wines. Similarly, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon placed first in the blind tasting of red wines. The movie “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and Chris Pine, was based – rather loosely the staff will emphasize – on the actual “Judgment of Paris.” Hollywood aside, what the film does capture is the family’s commitment to producing truly world-class wines.

Chateau Montelena is now listed twice on the National Register of Historic Places, first for 1888-1920, the Tubbs era, and again for 1968-1976, when Jim Barrett’s and Warren Winiarski’s wines put Napa Valley on the world stage. Today the iconic Chateau Montelena castle appears on the label, just as it did in 1973.

Our tour began with a wine tasting, appropriately enough, in the Tasting Room:

* 2012 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley Riesling – this welcome wine was light and refreshing, with stone fruit and apples, and just enough residual sugar to pair well with food. It would be a nice addition to a meal of Thai or Indian food.

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After browsing through displays including reprints of a Time Magazine article from 1976 that described the “Judgment of Paris,” our group headed to a private dining room for more tasting:

* 2011 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay – perfectly balanced layers of green apple, citrus, and creamy oak, with no malolactic fermentation. Today’s Chardonnay is made in the same style as its famous 1973 predecessor – classic and Old World in its presentation. It was aged in new French oak barrels for 10 months.

* 2011 Montelena Estate Zinfandel – bursting with fruit, this well-rounded wine served up fruit, oak, and tannin to pair with flavorful red sauces or pizza. The wine was aged 14 months in barrels made of French and American oak.

* 2011 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon – good tannins make for good food pairings and aging – a wine to be enjoyed now or another day with a hearty meal. Filet Mignon or a New York Strip would be great! The wine was aged 14 months in French and Eastern European oak barrels.

* 2010 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – our host had to bring out the big glass for this one. Robust and stately, this wine was pure pleasure to drink. It was aged in 30% new French oak barrels.

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After completing the lip-smackingly good tasting, especially of the last wine, our group retired to the drawing room, where we were joined by our host, Kali Clark. She led us through the cellar, which housed steel tanks and barrels hard at work aging future vintages. The wooden beams in the cellar had recently been retrofitted with steel plates for earthquake reinforcement. Clark explained the chateau was raised one inch in order to complete this process.

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Part of the winery we did not tour were the 20,000 square feet of caves, where even more barrels were aging.

Chateau Montelena produces fewer than 50,000 cases each year, making it a relatively small winery by Napa Valley’s standards.

Chateau Montelena offers private tours by appointment; general tours are on a first come, first served basis. The tasting room is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco offers tastings Wednesdays-Sundays from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m.

Chateau Montelena wines are available throughout Colorado. The Chardonnay is often one of the selections available in the Enomatic wine vending bar at Vinue Wine and Food Bar in Cherry Creek.

Until our next adventure in wine and food…

Chateau Montelena
1429 Tubbs Lane
Calistoga, CA 94515

Napa Valley

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