What do I say about Chateau Montelena? On my tour of Napa it was a must-see, but I was probably most nervous about going there. A few things come to mind when thinking about the Winery.
First and foremost, it was their wine that won top honors in a 1976 competition between legendary French white Burgundies (Chardonnay) and California Chardonnay. The wine, tasted blind and by French judges, was so wonderful and so close to the historic wines of Burgundy that the competition stunned the wine world and gave California mad credibility (the French were SO pissed that their palates had failed their nation, FYI. I love French wines but I hate snobs, so I find the story amusing).
After this fete, no one could deny that California was capable of making outstanding wine. That's Montelena's unbelievably positive and wonderful legacy -- making California a "real" wine region.
On the other hand (and I'm sorry if you liked it), there was the horrific sham of a movie, Bottleshock, made about that competition (also known as The Judgment of Paris). It makes the Winery seem silly, the owners inane, and worst of all, it spreads misinformation about winemaking that I'm sure a lot of people believed. If I haven't been clear enough, I could barely sit through the whole movie and my once glowing opinion of Montelena was more than a little tarnished by this cheeseball production.
So all that said, I really didn't know what to expect. Napa snobbery to the Nth degree because of the Winery's history and prestige, or tacky cheesiness because the owners were as they were portrayed?
Well, there was an excellent first impression. When you drive up to this Chateau (and it IS a chateau), way the hell north of Napa in northern Calistoga, it is NOT cheesy. Bought in 1882 and built for several years after by a rich San Francisco entrepreneur, Alfred L. Tubbs (BTW, even in the 1880s the story of Napa is the same -- rich dude from San Francisco has dream of setting up winery, spends exorbitant sums, makes it happen...), this place is a class act.
The winery made wine in the 1880s, paused for the hell that was Prohibition and started up again afterward.
Montelena, named as a contraction of Mount Saint Helena, at whose base it lies, changed hands in 1958 and the owners built a gorgeous Asian-style lake outside the Chateau. Although a little eclectic, it's beautiful and was a good contribution to the property.
The current owners (on whom Bottleshock was based) then acquired the winery made their first vintage in 1972. Their second vintage won the Judgment Paris (1973). Very cool.
The coolest thing? The people that work at this winery kick ass. I was welcomed by the marketing folks, Nyk, Jamie, and Brian. They were having a social media "drop in and taste" event and I was excited to be there for it. We were shown to a gorgeous back area that looked like a room in a European castle and started the tasting.
Not only were the wines OUTSTANDING in every capacity, Nyk and Jamie were fun, knowledgeable, and completely laid back. I expected stodgy, old, and formal, and I got the exact opposite. It's so refreshing to have an historic winery in Napa that has such a normal vibe. The people here are totally fun and I wanted to hang out for longer because I was having such a good time talking to them, dishing on the exciting and not-so-exciting world of social media and blogging, and sharing new Web sites that will be censored for the purposes of this post (it's a family show, folks : )
I was impressed both by the product and the people. I give this place a major thumbs up and encourage you to make the trek very far north to see it if you're in Napa.
The post wouldn't be complete without a lineup, so here is a very enthusiastic review of all the delicious wines we tasted...not a bad one in the bunch...
Wine 1: Riesling, Potter Valley, 2009
I was a little surprised to find a Riesling from Chateau Montelena. But Jamie told me that this one is made more out of tradition than anything else. Alfred Tubbs used to welcome guests with Riesling when they arrived at the Chateau, and the Barrett family wanted to continue this lovely tradition. I like it!
But then there was another question: How can they produce cool weather grapes in warm Northern Cali? Well, this one was made in Mendocino (the only place in Northern California that's really cool enough to grow the grape), but it's made in the Potter Valley, which is not known for it's coolness. I inquired. Apparently there is a little pocket of cooler temperatures in the Valley and that's where this is grown. I believe it. The wine was good!
Color: It looked promising -- a very pale straw color, almost platinum. The meant it probably wasn't too high in sugar (sugar darkens a wine). Good sign -- I like my Riesling bone dry.
Smell: This was FRESH! Lemon and lime aromas were prominent and it was light and bright. There were vague honeysuckle and peach notes too. It smelled like springtime!
Taste: What a refreshing, welcoming wine! Just like it smelled -- peachy, with lemon and lime notes and a very pronounced but not overwhelming acidity made the wine so clean, bright, and refreshing. To me, it was a simple wine but well-made and delicious!
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. This wine pays homage to the original reason it was made at Montelena -- it's a wonderful wine to serve to guests as an apertif as they come to your house before dinner, or to enjoy when you're sitting outside. M.C. Ice LOVED this wine and he said it's best pairing was with a porch. I couldn't agree more!
Wine 2: Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2008
One wine in and we hit the flagship! This is the wine that put California and Chateau Montelena on the map. I'd had it before but I really couldn't remember it, so I was excited to get another crack at this classic.
Price: $50 (pricey, I know!)
Color: I was so surprised to see that this wine was a hay-like color -- it was not too much darker than the Riesling. Nyk and Jamie had said that it was "Classic California Style" so I assumed it would be yellow, goopy, high in alcohol, and smell like oak. At first (second and third) look, it looked more like a Burgundy than a California Chardonnay.
Smell: And it kind of smelled like one too...minus the mineral and earth aromas that are so prominent. This was a restrained Chardonnay, not an over-the-top one. There were lovely green apple, lemon, and lime aromas with a little bit of baked pear in the mix too. On a second sniff, DAMN! White flowers -- like a jasmine lei -- and a little exotic spice too. Unexpected -- I was excited to taste this.
Taste: If Napa Valley is capable of making wine like this, why don't more producers do it? Jamie told me that the Barrett family wanted to make a European-style wine in Napa that was made to go with food and was not overpowering. Mission accomplished. This wine is absolutely beautiful. That pear and green apple essence was lifted up by the citrus notes. Then there was a gentle smokiness and a vanilla note (both from oak) that gave the wine dimension without destroying it's fruit. From a texture perspective, there was something I rarely taste in a California Chardonnay -- great acid! And the oak imparted just a little bit of mouth-drying tannin too. This wine was multi-dimensional and outstanding.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. This is a winery that respects Chardonnay and doesn't abuse the fact that, at heart, it's a subtle grape that can be dominated by oak and other (often egotistical) whims of a winemaker. Chateau Montelena understands Chardonnay, respects the hell out of it, and makes a wine that is completely different from the oak and butter bombs we so often associate with California Chard. If you like the oak and butter, you may not like this Chardonnay, but I hope you can at least respect the wine for its merits -- which there are countless!
Wine 3: Zinfandel, Montelena Estate (Calistoga), 2007
Another surprise for me -- Zin, in Napa? Usually you find that in Sonoma. But I love that they lend some vineyard space to California's flagship grape.
Color: Ok, so this was not dark purple or ultra pigmented. It was kind of crimson with a brownish rim. It looked older than 3 years and definitely was not going to be a jammy bomb of a Zinfandel -- you could just tell from the lighter color that there was subtlety to follow.
Taste: This wine had great fruit -- raspberry, dark cherries, and strawberry were prominent. It was tannic -- even to the point of being astringent -- but that was a good balance against the full fruit. There were subtle vanilla notes but the finish was all dried cherry.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. This was probably my least favorite of everything we tasted but it was still a great wine. Subtle, balanced, and fruity, it was so consistent with everything else we'd tasted. I really love that all the wines from this place are similar in style and philosophy. _________________________________________________________________
Wine 4: Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2007
This wine was just released and we were so lucky to have tasted it! It comes from five vineyards around Calistoga. The fruit is from the valley floor (a little lower quality than the coveted mountain fruit, which tends to show more complex flavors) but the wine is lush and outstanding from the heat and ripeness it gets there.
Color: A beautiful ruby color that was consistent from the middle of the glass to edge. The wine didn't stain the glass, which made me think that it was going to be a little more balanced. The staining comes from prolonged contact of the grape juice with the skins and sometimes that means the wine will be really high in tannin or a little bitter. Sometimes it just means it's a bomb of flavor. I didn't expect that to be the case here.
Taste: Wow! This was like a black cherry cola but with more complexity. Dark cherries, a touch of lemon, and cinnamon were overlaid by this slightly dusty essence of Mexican chocolate (spicy chocolate) or high quality dried cocoa powder. There were high tannins -- I felt like the wine was asking for some food to temper the tannins and complement this awesome bunch of flavors.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. I loved this wine and bought a bottle to bring home. Why? Even with all that flavor, the wine was not over-the-top. Everything was balanced and restrained. It didn't overwhelm my mouth and I could easily imagine having a glass with food. Another home run for Montelena!
Wine 5: Cabernet Sauvignon, Montelena Estate, 2006 This Estate wine is grown on the Montelena property in three different soils -- volcanic (lends a smokey note), alluvial (responsible for earthy notes), and sedimentary (rocky, minerally flavors). It was an excellent finale.
Price: $135 (yup, that's why we bought the Napa Valley one and not this one!)
Color: Unlike the wine before, this wine had all the signs of a big fruit bomb! It was a deep purple-maroon color with a watery rim. Although it didn't stain the glass, it was still dark as night.
Taste: It tasted just like it smelled -- earthy, fruity, minty, and pencil-y. I liked the complexity and the fact that the tannins were moderate instead of being really mouth-drying.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink.The least subtle of all the wines, it still showed balance and restraint. This was a great wine -- so well made, so carefully put together, and so delicious. What I love about it the most -- like all of Chateau Montelena's wines, it is it's own style. The wine isn't like anything else I've had in Napa and I love the winemakers for staying true to their ideals, making wines that give a nod to European style, are food-friendly, and are clearly made with passion, and love.
Thanks for reading! Next on deck -- the dish on a bad visit to a mediocre Napa winery...what a bummer after Montelena!