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Chateau Montelena: Neo-Classicism in Calistoga

Bo Barrett c. 1980s, son of Jim Barrett and master winemaker at Chateau Montelena. [Source: Chateau Montelena]
Bo Barrett c. 1980s, son of Jim Barrett and master winemaker at Chateau Montelena. [Source: Chateau Montelena]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Over the next few weeks we'll take a look at classic Napa Valley Cabernet via the people who still make it, and the places where it grew up — from the valley floor to the mountain appellations. Today: Chateau Montelena.

Chateau Montelena's history dates back to 1882 when Alfred Tubbs — an entrepreneur and former State Senator from San Francisco — purchased 254 acres on Napa Valley's north end, near the town of Calistoga. He paid $16,000.

When Tubbs arrived in the Napa Valley he joined visionaries like Jacob Schram (of Schramsberg), the Beringer brothers (of Beringer), Gustav Niebaum (of Inglenook), and Charles Krug (of Charles Krug Winery). 21 years before he arrived, Charles Krug was the only commercial winery in Napa Valley. In just two decades Napa had gained nearly 100 new wineries and was amidst the first of its two renaissances.

But the Napa of the 1800s was nothing like the Napa that was reborn 100 years later. It was agricultural country through and through. Barns stood in place of the Bordeaux-inspired Chateau of today and Highway 29 was anything but a highway. It was a landscape suited to Steinbeck's archetypal characterization of late 19th Century California as America's Eden — a place of abundant beauty and promise that facilitated both hardship and achievement in equal measure.

Despite it's rusticity, Tubbs foresaw a Napa Valley that could rival the prestige and allure of Bordeaux. Now, almost a century and a half after its founding, Chateau Montelena remains one of the most enduring reminders of Napa's history and the Valley's legacy of European-inspired Cabernet.

Boom to Bust

Four years after Alfred Tubbs arrived in Calistoga, he had planted vines on 175 acres of his Calistoga property. In late November of that year the first crush commenced at the winery, and, judging by the timing and the documented popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon during that time, the variety likely played a very important role at Montelena from the beginning.

The estate's first harvest, under the direction of French winemaker Jerome Bardot, yielded nearly 50,000 cases, making Montelena — upon its first release — the seventh largest producer in the Napa Valley.

Bardot would remain winemaker until his death, in 1896, and the winery would continue to operate through Prohibition by selling grapes to other wineries (who were likely making wine for sacramental purposes) and home winemakers.

Chapin Hubbs, grandson of Alfred, would attempt to revive the estate after Prohibition, but the wine industry would not budge. The winery was forced into hibernation, eventually leading to a family decision to sell, in 1959, to York and Jeanie Frank, a wealthy Chinese couple that had dreams of castle living. They turned the property into a vacation estate, adding Asian flourishes that still survive today. (Their botched attempt at building a moat would end up as the property's famed, Pagoda-laden Jade Lake.)

The Modern Era

The estate would remain under the ownership of the Franks until 1972, when James Barrett — a lawyer at the time — purchased Chateau Montelena with the hopes of replanting and restoring the winery to its pre-Prohibition glory. By his side was his son Bo — now chief winemaker — who was fresh out of high school and on his way to viticulture and enology school at Fresno State. Together they replanted the old vineyards in 1974, just two short years before Chateau Montelena would be etched into the drinking world's international consciousness forever.

The Judgment of Paris, 1976

In 1976 Steven Spurrier, then a Parisian wine shop owner, decided to launch a stunt that would pit the best French wines against the best American wines in a blind tasting. Upon traveling to California, Spurrier hand selected both Chardonnay and Cabernet-based wines to be tasted alongside a selection of white Burgundy and Bordeaux, respectively.

Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay (sourced from non-estate vineyards) took top honors in the Chardonnay category, beating out Burgundian legends like Roulot and Leflaive. From that point on the relatively unknown estate would become one of the world's most visible, and a legend of California's new renaissance.

Now, 35 years after the fateful Paris tasting, the estate — despite its near acquisition in 2008 by Michel Reybier, a hotelier and food manufacturer that has been the owner of Bordeaux's Cos d’Estournel since 2001 — remains under the direction of Bo and Jim Barrett.

Calistoga’s Cowboy

Bo Barrett — the face of the estate — is an animated, larger-than-life California riff on Bill Paxton with a booming voice and a knack for storytelling. He has thinning white hair and dons a Texas-style oval belt buckle, a reminder that California — and Napa, in all of its modern polish — is still the West.

He is the husband of Heidi Barrett, the high priestess of modern Napa cult Cabernet — making wines for the likes of Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, and Bryant Family. Despite his intimate connection to Napa's New School, however, he recognizes the importance of preserving Montelena's tradition via wines that have proven themselves over time.

Montelena's 40,000 case-per-year production has certainly increased over the years, but its wines have remained nearly unchanged. The Napa Valley and the Estate Cabernet (the Chateau's top bottling) generally hover at 13.5% alcohol and are lean with classic herbal, eucalyptus, and graphite notes. The vineyards are farmed via organic and sustainable methods and the Estate Cabernet is still sourced from the now gnarled vines that Jim Barrett planted in the early 1970s.

In its 130-year history, Chateau Montelena has not only become an icon of the classic style of Napa Cabernet, it's a monument to the vision of Napa's 19th Century pioneers, who believed that a valley just north of San Francisco could produce wines that would rival the world's finest.

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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