Chateau Montelena Winery: Famous for Chardonnay, but Don’t Overlook the Cabernet Sauvignon

On May 24, 1976 Chateau Montelena’s fortunes changed for the better — and in a big way. Jim Barrett’s 1973 Chardonnay won the Judgement of Paris white wine competition. It wasn’t just any competition. The Judgement of Paris was organized as a blind tasting of California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against France’s best Burgundy and Bordeaux. Not insignificantly the competition was in France and the judges were French.

Not only did Barrett’s Chardonnay win the Chardonnay competition, but the Cabernet Sauvignon competition was won by Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The wins put the individual wineries on the map and put Napa Valley on the wine map too. With an exclamation point.

That was 40 years ago. Today, Jim Barrett’s son Bo is CEO and Master Winemaker at Chateau Montelena. According to Bo the winemaking style at Chateau Montelena hasn’t changed over the years. The goal is still to make classically-styled wines that reflect Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena produces Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Riesling.

We recently received a tasting sample of Chateau Montelena’s 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was our first taste of the winery’s Cabernet and although it wasn’t as historic a tasting as the Judgement of Paris it certainly made our day.

ChateauMontelenaCabernet2013 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignonmedium ruby in the glass. Generous plum and black cherry aromas become more complex over time with added scents of dried alfalfa. Dark fruit flavors of blackberries and black cherries combine with dusty earth and hints of leather. The tannins are a bit grippy initially, but quickly become smooth with time in the glass. The body is medium, the wine has bright acidity and the tannins are very well integrated with the flavors. 14.1% abv. $58. Natural cork closure.

This is a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon made in a restrained style, but certainly not lacking in flavor. It was a delicious dinner companion and would pair well with a variety of dishes. Braised pork or beef short ribs come to mind. Roasted chicken and vegetables would also be a delicious pairing.

The history of Chateau Montelena Winery reaches much further back than the Judgement of Paris. Alfred L. Tubbs, a successful businessman and state senator, purchased 254 acres north of Calistoga in 1882 and set about planting vineyards. The stone winery building was built into the hillside at the foot of Mount Saint Helena in 1888. The winery, then known as A. L. Tubbs Winery, was unique for several reasons. It was built of stone, rather than wood as was more common at the time, and it had an extensive cellar built into the hillside. Even in the early years of the winery there was a French connection — the first winemaker Tubbs hired was French.

Prohibition meant a discontinuation of wine production, but after Prohibition was repealed Tubbs’ grandson, Chapin Tubbs, began winemaking again for a few years. It was at this time the winery was renamed Chateau Montelena. After Chapin’s death in 1947 winemaking ceased.

The winery and overgrown grounds were purchased by Yort and Jeanie Frank in 1958 and they set about restoring the property. Inspired by their native Hong Kong the Franks created a lake and landscaped the grounds in a Chinese style. The lake, named Jade Lake, remains today.

In the early 1970s Jim Barrett purchased the winery and vineyards. The vineyards were cleared and replanted and the winery equipment was brought up to date. The first vintage under Barrett’s direction was 1972. He hired a winemaking team that included Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (he went on to found Grgich Hills Estate Winery in Rutherford) who made the award-winning 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. An interesting history.

Wine tasting as well as estate and vineyard tours are available at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga. Details are on the winery website.

We thank Calhoun & Company Communications and Chateau Montelena Winery for sending this tasting sample our way. We enjoyed the opportunity to discover the history of Chateau Montelena for ourselves.


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