James P. "Bo" Barrett
If you’ve seen the movie “Bottle Shock,” you already know the story of the 1976 Paris tasting. If you haven’t, the abridged version goes something like this: A British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier organized two blind tastings in which Chardonnays from California, plus Burgundy and red wines from Bordeaux and California, were judged head-to-head by a panel of French judges. In a shocking twist of fate, California wines won both categories. Amid fury and disbelief, “The Judgement of Paris,” as it came to be known, launched New World wine onto the international stage — think of it like the wine version of the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The bottle that took it home for the Chardonnays was a 1973 Montelena — crisp and minerally focused, and forever after in the history books.
Thirty-six years later, there is still a sense of awe and regal bearing surrounding Montelena. The facilities have been improved, modern fermentation equipment and temperature controls installed, and Bo Barrett has taken over for his father, Jim, but the commitment to excellence remains the same.
The Barretts spearheaded the renaissance at Montelena in the early 1970s, but the property’s roots go back much further, to 1882, when entrepreneur Alfred Tubbs bought the land and set up shop. He built the château as a barrel-aging facility, complete with 3-foot-thick European castle-style stone walls — dug deep into the hillside, the château’s design still plays a role in keeping the wines insulated from the hot Calistoga climate today. The Tubbs family held on to the estate through prohibition and up until 1958, when it passed to Yort and Jeanie Frank. Yort landscaped the gardens in the style of his native Hong Kong and excavated a lake — Jade Lake — which remains today. This stunning sanctuary is also the namesake of Montelena’s Jade Lake cuvée series, which consists of a 2014 Semillon and a 2012 Tempranillo (available only to members of the wine club, sorry!). The modern era at Montelena began in the early ‘70s when the Barrett’s purchased the estate. Intent on making a world class product, Jim Barrett replanted the vineyard and began to make wine with estate grown and contracted fruit. The first vintage was 1972. After that, well, you know the rest.
The winery lies just north of Calistoga at the foot of Mount St. Helena. Besides providing a striking backdrop for the vines, the mountain also gives the winery its name — Montelena is a contraction of Mount St. Helena. The soils here are diverse, varying throughout the property. Alluvial soil is the most prevalent, extending up the slopes from the Napa River. There is also volcanic soil on the outskirts of the vineyard and a small patch of sedimentary soil at its base, deposited eons ago by a settling body of water. Viticultural practices here include dry farming and periodic thinning of the vines throughout the growing season to produce maximum concentration in the grapes. During harvest, bunches are picked by hand during the wee hours of the night to preserve flavor.
Matt Crafton has been winemaker here since 2014. He was hired in 2008 as assistant winemaker, and after six years learning the ropes, was promoted to head winemaker. Matt got his start in the wine program at UC Davis and has also worked at several wineries on the North Coast. He recently spearheaded the sustainability program here, built around a newly installed solar power system.
While there have been many innovations since “The Judgement,” the wines have remained slightly old-school in nature, often a bit tighter and more restrained in their youth than some of the sweeter, riper, flashier expressions that have become so fashionable. The Chardonnays are still as crisp and minerally as they were in 1973 and have proven their age-worthiness since then. The Cabernets, which were firm and structured in the early days, are now made with just a little more give and richness of fruit, adding an extra dimension without sacrificing their souls or potential for aging.
Bo Barrett is unquestionably the thread that ties the entire operation together here at Montelena. He has had a hand in every vintage since 1982, first as winemaker and now as CEO. His steady presence has anchored the consistency of the wines and ensured the quality of the estate as a whole. After 30 years he continues to produce some of the most classically-styled, pure, structured wines in Napa.
Area Under Vine: 120 Acres
Wines Made: Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Chardonnay, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Montelena, Estate Zinfandel, Potter Valley Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc
Terroir: For example, nutrient levels and water holding capacity vary greatly among the three soil origins that comprise the Estate vineyard: volcanic, alluvial, and sedimentary. These areas are, in turn, crisscrossed by 5 different classified soil types: Bale, Cole, Cortina, Pleasanton, and Kidd. Add a topographic variation, like an elevated hillside or a level valley floor location, and you have a three-dimensional decision matrix. Once we understand each particular site, we can proceed to sustainable grape growing.
Sonoma Valley is nestled between the Sonoma Mountain Range on the west and the Mayacamas Mountains on the East. North Coast winemaking began here back in 1825 when the missionary fathers established Mission Sonoma. By the 1850s, Sonoma had evolved into California's wine making center, a distinction it gradually ceded to Napa over the next fifty years. In the 1970s, however, Sonoma wines had begun to reclaim the international renown they enjoy today.
With more than 7,000 acres planted to Sonoma Valley wine grapes, the Valley stretches for 40 miles north from the San Pablo Bay to just below Santa Rosa. Although summertime fog enters the valley from both the north and south, Sonoma's cooler regions by far are located in the southern part of the valley, primarily in the Carneros district. In contrast, the climate along the valley floor in the middle of the region can be quite warm.
Though compact, Sonoma Valley hosts a very wide array of vineyard soil types, topographies, and elevations. That said, there are a few rules of thumb: In the southern Valley (between Carneros and the town of Sonoma), the best Sonoma wines come from early-maturing varieties like Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and, from some producers, Merlot. On the hillsides and along the hilltops, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel fare the best so long as the elevation is above the frost line. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two most widely cultivated varieties in Sonoma, perform best along the benchlands between Sonoma and Kenwood.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Cabernet Sauvignon Facts
Full, tannic wines with notes of blackcurrant and cassis
Grilled red meats, stews, hard or rich cheeses
Cabernet Sauvignon has been the flagship red grape of the California wine industry for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Napa Valley is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon production and is clearly an ideal region for creating world-class wines. If any Cabernet-based wine is capable of giving Bordeaux a run for its money, it's Napa Valley's examples. However, due to the extremely high cost of purchasing and developing vineyards in California, and the cachet of Napa Valley on the label, this has largely become a category for the well-heeled wine lover.
At their best, Napa Valley's Cabernets are characterized by fruit notes of cassis, black cherry, and licorice and sweet oak notes of chocolate, mocha, cedar, and tar. Today, most of the best wines are aged entirely or almost completely in French oak barrels, which tend to produce somewhat more refined wines than do most American barrels. (These latter barrels often introduce exotic and pungent suggestions of scotch, bourbon, tar, coconut, and dill.) But the use of expensive French oak is no guarantee of a good bottle: too many wines today, due to high crop levels or insufficiently ripe fruit, do not have the stuffing to support their oakiness and can quickly be dominated or even dried out by their wood component. The best California Cabernets mellow and soften with five to ten years of bottle aging, developing more complex and less fruit-dominated notes of tobacco, leather, and earth, with mellower wood tones. Compared to the top Bordeaux, however, many California Cabernet Sauvignons merely endure in bottle rather than truly become more interesting. There are no shortage of quality producers, even if these wines are rarely values. And it remains to be seen if today's outsized showstoppers, made from superripe grapes and undeniably impressive on release, will reward extended bottle aging or will turn out to have been best suited for drinking in their youth.
Many wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon contain small percentages of other so-called Bordeaux varieties -- chiefly Merlot and Cabernet Franc but also Petit Verdot and even Malbec (varietally labeled wines in California must contain at least 75% of the variety named).
Cabernet Sauvignon also flourishes in Washington State, Australia and even Chile. In Washington, prices have been creeping up at the high end, with some producers aiming to compete with cult wines from the Napa Valley. Consider Chateau Ste. Michelle and Woodward Canyon. In Australia, look to the Coonawarra and Margaret River regions. Chile can reveal excellent bargains to those who know where to look: Montes makes a strong range of quality bottlings, as does Casa Lapostolle.
As Cabernet Sauvignon is bold and assertive on the palate, it pairs best with foods like grilled red meats. Taken together, the proteins and fats in the food neutralize some of the stronger tannic qualities of the wine, leading to a harmonic combination that enhances both partners.