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.