To check another item off the bucket list, I finally visited the historic Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. Why in the 12 years I lived in Sonoma County I never made the trip, I cannot say, but it took my daughter Tara’s job to bring me.
We arrived at the winery after the close of WineAmerica’s annual board meeting in Santa Rosa. For a November afternoon, there was a pretty healthy-sized crowd at the bar. We were met by VP of Sales and Marketing, Brian Baker, who escorted us to the bar where we tasted through the riesling, chardonnay, and several vintages of cabernets.
Baker presented us with two copies of Bottle Shock, a film I panned as soon as it came out in 2008. It tells a story about how Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay was deemed by French judges to be superior to the best white Burgundy in what was called the Judgement of Paris. (Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat out all Bordeaux in the red wine category.)
I asked Baker how much of the story was true and he said none of it. Come on, I said, there must be some truth to it and he replied, “yeah, Jim (Barrett) won the Judgement of Paris. That part was true.” But, he said Barrett never threw out a vintage of chardonnay for turning pink. And, he didn’t work at a law firm; he owned it. Listening to him, my estimation of the film dropped to a new low as I wondered who I could pawn the DVD off on.
Then, Baker took us on an amazing tour of the chateau. The place was built in 1882 by entrepreneur Alfred Loving Tubb, for whom Tubbs Road is named. It changed hands only once before being bought by the Paschich family who partnered with Barrett and Earnest Hahn in 1968. The first winemaker to begin making wine there since prohibition was none other than Mike Grgich. I thought, if only these stone walls could talk, I bet we could hear them arguing.
The Barretts are a fiercely Irish Catholic family, as evidenced by the “Parking for Irish Only” sign outside. In what was formerly the chateau’s barrel room, the family has collected some amazing antiques from Ireland and England, including one wood box of unknown utility that even Baker asked our opinion about. The Waterford crystal chandeliers, Jim Barrett is evidently fond of saying, cost more than his father made in his whole life. How Irish.
We descended into the cellar where the air had the feel of a cave and the smell of rotting fruit. But despite it’s antiquity, the cellar was so clean. Immaculate, really.
Baker explained how the winery recently completed a seismic upgrade which included raising the cellar floor by two feet. They installed a number of small fermentation tanks to make wine yet more precisely than before. And everything is now computer controlled, Baker said, so that winemakers could operate them from Jamaica if they wanted.
Standing there at the intersection of the ultra-modern and the relatively-ancient I suddenly realized that at after 130 years, Chateau Montelena has straddled three centuries.
It operated for about forty years, then stood dormant for fifty – during and after prohibition – and it only came to life forty years ago. It’s a like a hole was punched into the middle of its existence and here it was in 2012, more vital than before.
And how is their wine, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. Chateau Montelena tastes like pure history.