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.
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.
From dry to sweet, with all styles showing pronounced minerality and acidity
Fish, white meats, Asian food
The Riesling grape may scare away some wine novices. In Germany, where the grape reaches its finest expression, labels hew to a rigid, abstruse set of classifications, leaving newcomers with little idea what they may be looking at. Furthermore, many wine drinkers' early experiences with sweet wines from Germany (think Blue Nun), have not been especially rewarding. We say that it's your loss if you continue to fear the tall, flute-shaped bottles. Sweet does not necessarily equal cloying, and not all Rieslings are even sweet. Push aside these negative perceptions, and discover a complex, delicate, and elegant white wine that expresses the unique characteristics of its growing region.
Riesling originated in the Rhine Valley in Germany, and it continues to flourish here as well as in the neighboring Mosel region. German producers are selective about where they plant their Riesling. It accounts for only 20% of the total plantings in the country, but has priority on steep, slate hillsides, where the soil imparts steely minerality. Here, in Europe's northernmost vineyards of any significance, microclimatic conditions are especially influential to the final product, for the Riesling grape is especially transparent to terroir. In each vineyard, the exposure to the sun, shelter from wind, proximity to water, and other factors contribute to the distinct qualities of a given wine. The timing of the harvest is just as important to the finished wine: on any given site, producers will make multiple passes to collect grapes at differing degrees of ripeness. This allows Riesling to be bottled with different levels of residual sugar: from dry, to semi-dry, to sweet. The residual sugar content also determines the suitability of these wines for cellaring, as sugar and acidity both aid in their preservation.
As a general rule, wines from the Mosel are more expensive and sought-after than wines from the Rhine. But vineyard-to-vineyard distinctions are just as important as those between the regions, and outstanding (and expensive) wines can be found in both locales. Correspondingly, specific flavors will vary from site to site, with some bottlings showcasing varied citrus fruits and others delivering notes of red fruits or apples. Reliable producers include Joh. Jos. Prüm and Reinhold Haart. In the Rhine, look for Gunderloch and Josef Leitz.
For an indication of the transparency of the Riesling grape, move to warmer-weather Alsace. Here, increased (but not overpowering) heat and a longer growing season leads to grapes with less delicacy, lower acidity, and increased fresh fruit flavors. Even still, these wines are praised more for intensity of flavor or elegance, rather than sheer power or weight. In Alsace's grand cru vineyards, sites known to have especially strong ripening conditions and soil with enhanced minerality help craft wines with greater complexity and aging potential. Bottlings bearing the names of these grand crus (e.g. Schlossberg, Sommerberg) will of course demand higher prices. Consider wines from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Josmeyer, and Trimbach.
While Riesling is planted sporadically in other countries, including Austria and Australia, as well as Oregon, Washington, and New York's Finger Lakes region, it rarely achieves the stylishness and grace found in Germany or Alsace. That doesn't mean that these wines should be avoided, for they can be the source of good values-- for example, wines from the Clare Valley in Australia.
Because of its combination of sweetness and acidity, Riesling is an especially versatile wine with food. It works well with fish or pork and is one of the few wines that can hold its own again spicy cuisines like Indian, Chinese, and Thai.