Chateau Montelena Cabernet Estate: 1977-2010


Veteran International Wine Cellar subscribers may recall my report on a vertical tasting of the Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon that I conducted at the winery back in 1998. In March I had the good fortune to do another vertical tasting stretching back to the first Estate bottling and also including vintages from the first decade of the new century. I am happy to report that today’s wines are better than ever, showing more pristine, delineated fruit and mineral elements thanks to a cleaner winemaking facility and the contribution of grapes from maturing vines planted on a rocky hillside north of the winery. Meanwhile, the earlier vintages tasted two decades later are still, with very few exceptions, in remarkable form.

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga

The History of Chateau Montelena

San Francisco rope magnate Alfred L. Tubbs bought 254 acres of land two miles north of Calistoga at the foot of Mount Saint Helena in 1882. He had heard that Napa Valley was the best place to grow grapes in California, and the stony, loose, well-drained soils north of Calistoga were considered particularly suited to Cabernet. He quickly planted vineyards and in 1886 hired a French-born winemaker. Then in 1888 he constructed the “chateau” itself, originally called A.L. Tubbs winery, as a barrel-aging facility, with thick stone walls to provide insulation in summer and winter. It was massive for its time. The winery was built into the side of a hill, providing a further moderating effect on temperatures year-round. The rather forbidding structure is in the style of a Gothic castle, but when I visit I am always reminded of a horror-movie hospital for the criminally insane—especially in late winter, when the building is missing its thick green summer coat of Virginia Creeper.

By the mid-1890s, the winery had become the seventh largest in California. Winemaking ceased during Prohibition, but Tubbs’ grandson Chapin Tubbs re-established grape-growing following the end of Prohibition in 1933, bottling some wine himself and selling grapes to other producers. In 1940, Chapin Tubbs renamed his operation Montelena Winery, a reference to Mount Saint Helena. Winemaking ended two years after Tubbs’ death in 1947, and the Tubbs family eventually sold off the Chateau in 1958 to Yort and Jeanie Frank, who were looking for a place to retire. Frank, an electrical engineer, excavated a lake and landscaped the grounds to resemble the Chinese gardens of his native Hong Kong but did not make wine during his tenure.

The winery, with the Virginia Creeper pruned back after winter frost

In 1968, the Franks sold their property to Lee and Helen Paschich, who quickly put the original vineyards back together before selling the property to lawyer and part-time winemaker Jim Barrett and his partners. Barrett took over full ownership of Montelena in 1972 and immediately went to work restoring grape production and winemaking, clearing and replanting the vineyard, purchasing modern winemaking equipment (trucks, tractors, tanks), and installing a concrete floor in place of the previous dirt surface. He put a new team in place and then grew and contracted for the highest-quality grapes in Napa Valley. In 1972 wines were made for the first time under the new regime, with Mike Grgich as winemaker. Jim’s son Bo Barrett, who had then just graduated from high school, worked at the winery during its first harvest.

It was Montelena’s no-malolactic fermentation Chardonnay that put the estate on the world wine map when the 1973 vintage won the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, being preferred by a panel of French judges over five other California examples and four white Burgundies in a blind tasting. The judges were also convinced that the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was a Burgundy. Grgich immediately capitalized on this surprise victory by leaving to establish his own eponymous winery, Grgich Hills Estate, and Jim Barrett then hired Jerry Luper (who had previously made wine at Freemark Abbey before moving to France for a year). Luper, whose availability Bo Barrett described as a stroke of good luck, made the 1977 through 1981 vintages before Bo officially took over winemaking duties at the beginning of 1982. (Bo had earned a degree in Viticulture and Enology from Fresno State in 1977 and, after a few years at Montelena as assistant winemaker, left the winery in 1980 and 1981 to broaden his winemaking experience and tour the major wine regions of Europe before returning to join his father.) Bo continued to be responsible for winemaking until he promoted Cameron Parry to the top job in 2008, followed by Matt Crafton, who took over in 2014 after serving as assistant winemaker for several vintages, with Barrett assuming the role of CEO.

In June of 2008, it was announced that Michel Reybier, then the owner of Cos d'Estournel, had purchased Chateau Montelena. But several months later, the agreement was canceled by Montelena owing to the worldwide financial crisis at the time and fears about Reybier’s financing. But the period of negotiation had a significant impact on Chateau Montelena, as the improvements in the vineyards and winery that the would-be Swiss and French owners had expected to carry out convinced Jim Barrett to invest heavily in the estate vineyards and to redesign and modernize the cellar by purchasing smaller tanks and eliminating old barrels that might have been responsible for past issues with brettanomyces.

The man-made Jade Lake, in Chateau Montelena's backyard

The Sources for the Montelena Estate Cabernet

Chateau Montelena’s first estate Cabernet Sauvignon was made in vintage 1978, from the 65 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 of Cabernet Franc that had been planted in 1972 and 1974 on loose, well-drained alluvial soils just to the west of the Napa River, as well as on sedimentary deposits from an old ocean or lake on the property. Jim Barrett’s objective from the start was to make the chateau wine of the Calistoga area.

In 1989 and 1990 a 20-acre parcel was planted on fractured volcanic bedrock soil on a hillside just north of Montelena’s original vineyards at the foot of Mount Saint Helena (and extending up to 650 feet above sea level). Co-owned by Bo Barrett and his wife Heidi Peterson-Barrett, this early-ripening, low-yielding vineyard began making up a small portion of the Estate blend with the 1994 vintage, while a good part of the acreage was reserved for Peterson-Barrett’s own La Sirena Cabernet. (For several years, some of this fruit also went into wine that the Barretts made under their Barrett & Barrett label.) But for a period of nearly 20 years, until after the aborted Reybier purchase, there had been no redevelopment of the original vines at Chateau Montelena, and today a total of 73 acres of estate Cabernet remain. Fortunately, though, the estate had never used AxR1 rootstock, a previously resistant rootstock that began to succumb to phylloxera caused by a new biotype of the aphid-like insect in the early 1980s, and for this reason one of the original 1974 plantings is still in production.

Annual production of the Montelena Estate Cabernet peaked in ’94 and ’95 at about 12,500 cases. But by 2000, grape yields had fallen to the range of just one to two tons per acre. According to Bo Barrett, the estate’s older vines were planted at 8 feet by 12 and with this kind of spacing vines normally “peak out” after about 20 years. “Most people would have replanted, but we didn’t until much later,” he said. Nowadays yields are typically in the 2.5 to 3 tons-per-acre range but Chateau Montelena bottles just 7,500 cases of their Estate wine in a good year. At the same time, Montelena had introduced a second Cabernet in 1992—the Calistoga Cuvée, renamed simply Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley as of the 2001 vintage—which is a blend of lesser estate fruit and grapes purchased through contracts with local growers.

Old vines in Chateau Montelena's original estate vineyard

Evolving Winemaking and Cellar Improvements

From the outset, Jim Barrett sought to produce ageworthy Cabernet in an Old World style from New World fruit. And Bo Barrett, who likes to describe the Montelena Estate bottling as “a celebration of unadorned Cabernet Sauvignon,” has long held strong ideas about how to avoid the potential excesses of the relatively warm area where his vineyards are situated. In essence, he likes to pick when a parcel loses what he calls “its hard-palate tannins, the gack” but before the grapes begin to get overripe. He noted that the estate vineyards are planted at 400 to 650 feet above sea level. “We have cold nights here, so we're normally waiting for the acidity levels to come down,” he told me. “The fruit generally comes in balanced because we don’t go for surmaturité.” Montelena generally starts picking on the early side, with small parcels of hillside Cabernet frequently coming in around Labor Day at the same time as the Chardonnay, but the harvest typically lasts five or six weeks, with the bulk of the Cabernet coming in between September 14 and October 5 in a normal year.

According to Barrett, the estate vineyards, especially those on the hillsides, are low yielders, “so any shriveling of the grapes is very fast and we lose too much wine. And all raisins taste the same.” Barrett instinctively avoids high-alcohol wines and, with the exception of the 1978 bottling, which was a very high-for-its-time 14.4%, the Montelena Estate did not surpass the 14% threshold until 1995. Barrett explained that 1978 was before the estate had irrigation available, and before he began picking at night, and that September was “smoking-hot,” with dehydrating Santa Ana winds, so grape sugars were mounting rapidly at harvest-time.

Even today, Chateau Montelena is typically bottled at between 13.8% and 14.3% alcohol, which is downright moderate by current Napa Valley standards. For his part, Barrett notes that “alcohol enhances mouthfeel up to 14%, but at over 14% it accentuates bitterness and can clash with the wine’s tannins.” Of course, high octane levels can also mask terroir character, especially in the early going. In most years, finished pHs for the Estate Cabernet are between 3.55 and 3.6, with total acidity in the range of 5.5 to 6 grams per liter.

Cabernet vines planted on a volcanic hillside

With the exception of an experiment with extended maceration in 1984, the wines up until that point spent just seven or eight days on their skins in large (8- to 10-ton) stainless steel fermenters, with two pumpovers per day. Chateau Montelena used a destemmer through 1989 that Barrett described to me at our vertical tasting 20 years ago as “a grape disintegrator that tore up the stems and gave a certain bitterness to the wines.” He addressed this bitterness in 1990 by extending maceration time to 45 days for half of the crop. He also purchased a gentler destemmer and for a few years continued to keep a portion of his wine on its skins for a full three weeks after the alcoholic fermentation had finished. “We were getting huge tannins but ripe tannins then.” Subsequently he decided that the long maceration, “the pulverization of the tannins,” was not required, and with the ’97 vintage the lots that underwent extended maceration were left out of the blend.

In 2001 the estate purchased an even gentler Delta destemmer that, thanks to its variable speed capability and its adjustable and removable crush rollers, enables the winemaking team to keep more whole berries without crushing the grapes. Since then, the Montelena Estate Cabernet has spent only about ten days on its skins, although it can take a few days for the chilly grapes, picked at night since 1997, to start fermenting. The maximum fermentation temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with the target being 85. Barrett avoids post-fermentation maceration and has never added back any of the press wine to the Estate blend, “because the wine was already plenty tannic when we pressed.” But in recent years, he has used some press wine in Montelena’s Napa Valley bottling.

In the early days, the wines went into large oak tanks after the alcoholic fermentations, where they remained until the malos finished. The Montelena Estate wine was then aged in mostly Seguin-Moreau barrels until 1990; Barrett subsequently added some Radoux and others to the mix, using mostly chateau-style, thin-staved ­barriques. He racked traditionally as in Bordeaux “but not on a set schedule.” Today the Estate Cabernet goes into small barrels sooner (normally in November or December) and there’s a bit less racking, but that’s also due to the fact that vintages since 1991 have been bottled the second August after the harvest, whereas before that they were generally bottled during the third spring—i.e., seven to nine months later. Incidentally, Barrett has never been a fan of American oak for his Cabernet, as he can’t get past “the whiskey lactones.” More important, Barrett has always minimized his use of new oak. In fact, until about 2008, when the estate’s caves were expanded, the percentage of new oak here did not surpass 20%. And even in recent years it’s still a relatively low 25% to 30%. Current winemaker Matt Crafton also noted that he’s using “lower-impact” wood today.

It should hardly be surprising that the Estate Cabernet was not just tannic early on but lacked the easy sweetness and makeup of wines made with a high percentage of new oak. Although Montelena did not release its new vintage until the fourth year after the harvest, the wines still tended to be clenched in the early going.

Chateau Montelena's estate Cabernet vines in February of 2019

What the Tasting Revealed

Barrett began our tasting in March with the 1978, the first vintage made entirely from estate vines. (I later tried the ’77 chez moi, a wine that Barrett described as “the last prototype before we launched the estate wine in 1978,” as well as the ’80, from my own cellar.) The fruit sweetness and mouthfeel of some of the older vintages through the late ‘80s (as well as a couple in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) were in some cases compromised by the low-level presence of TCA and related compounds in the ancient winery, which were probably originally introduced into the wood surfaces in the facility through the use of chlorine-based products. After a local wine lab detected what was technically a below-threshold presence of TCA in 2004, the Barretts went through an exhaustive clean-up process, eliminating old barrels and suspect coopers, as well as wood barrel racks. The winery’s thick stone walls were scraped to remove years of accumulations, and other wood surfaces (catwalks, ladders) were replaced with aluminum. And in just a couple of years, the winery replaced its large old oak storage tanks with new oak and stainless steel receptacles.

Over the years, the winery has also had to contend with on-and-off brettanomyces issues (a spoilage yeast) that can introduce leathery, gamey, sweaty or even cigar ash notes into the wines and compromise their fruit purity. For his part, Barrett describes brett as “a color in the palette that can be useful,” although he admits that “it’s generally out of style now.” He also noted that some vintages that showed brett early on have somehow absorbed that element, but it’s hard to know if the brett has been subsumed by other tertiary compounds in the wine or is simply a function of bottle variation (i.e., brett blooming in some bottles with lower remaining SO2 owing to higher oxygen transmission rates, probably a function of cork variation). Certainly, the ’97 in particular has shown a brett element from the beginning and yet the sample in my tasting, despite retaining a faint leathery element, displayed captivating fruit sweetness, a silky texture and enough energy to keep it going for another 15+ years.

Bo Barrett during harvest at Montelena

Still, the vintages since the cleanup in the early 2000s strike me as more “modern” in style than those of the past, and I mean this in a positive way. Today’s wines show purer Napa Valley fruit character and less of the cellar funk that may have been introduced by low-level TCA or imperfect cooperage. The newer wines appear to be as potentially long-lived as ever, and I’d expect minimal bottle variation from recent vintages, in part because, beginning with the 2014s, Chateau Montelena has bottled its red wines with DIAM corks, using the extra-dense DIAM 30s, even for the Napa Valley Cabernet and the Zinfandel.

Incidentally, Barrett feels that the 1990s was a pivotal decade for Chateau Montelena. Not only was he hitting his stride as a winemaker but California Cabernet “was taking over the world. We had never previously enjoyed a decade like the 1990s,” he said. Our extensive vertical tasting also made it clear that quality took a leap beginning in 1990, especially in terms of consistency. And the addition of the new vineyard on volcanic hillside soil up the canyon since the mid-1990s had added both minerality and muscularity to the Estate Cabernet. So even if today’s wines generally possess more refined tannins and a tad more new-oak sweetness, they should rarely be consumed in the decade following the harvest. “And certainly don’t drink these wines between age five and seven,” Barrett urged. “Come back at age ten. By then, most of the work of aging has been accomplished and the jam and juice disappear.”

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