Last week found me at Martin Wine Cellar for an impressive lineup of wines from the famous Chateau Montelena. The room was full, as it should have been. Beyond the fact that they have produced riveting Cabernet in Calistoga for nearly 40 years, they were the subject of the recent movie 'Bottle Shock.' This somewhat sensationalized version of Montelena's story as it relates to the Paris tasting in 1976 exposed the winery to new eyes. My history with the winery dates back nearly two decades and includes some impressive vertical tastings of the estate Cabernet.
There are precious few high end California wines I believe are worth the price. Overmanipulation, lack of depth, and an absence of a sense of place are just some of the issues I find all too regularly in luxury wines from the land of "The Governator." Montelena, however, always offered a fair amount of value, all things considered, but it has been a while since I tasted the Estate Cabernet.
Brian Baker, VP of Sales and Marketing for Montelena, was our energetic, informative, and thoroughly engaging master of ceremonies. He offered some tidbits of history, which I will pass along as accurately as possible.
Alfred Tubbs had the chateau built in 1882 after returning from a visit to Bordeaux. Mr. Tubbs sold supplies to gold rushers, making money more than most of his customers. His family ran the estate until prohibition and then resumed growing grapes, when the law allowed, until they sold it the the Franks in 1958. Yort Frank created his wealth by being the first television repairman in the San Francisco area. The modern incarnation of Chateau Montelena began when Jim Barrett purchased the estate in 1972. His 1973 Chardonnay changed the wine world forever by beating many French wines in a blind tasting. For more on that event, see the movie, or better yet, read George Taber's book, "Judgement of Paris."
Potter Valley Riesling 2007 - From high altitude in Mendocino the wine offers bright pear and melon (honeydew?) fruit with a juicy, succulent, but not too sweet palate. Persistent length and a nice mingling of fruit and dryness make this a potentially very good food wine. I found myself wanting a bit more depth and/or complexity, but the wine was thoroughly enjoyable. $19-$22
Napa Valley Chardonnay 2007 - The fruit for this wine comes from just north of the town of Napa, well south of the estate. Montelena opts out of malolactic fermentation for their Chardonnay retaining crisp acid to balance the full, rich, California fruit. I smell oak with a mild toast accent and just a hint of nuttiness on the nose. The fruit here is clearly sweet, not sugary but on the opposite end of the spectrum from citrus. On the palate, I found red and green apples with a creamy texture; oak returns on the finish but the wine remains fresh and inviting. $47-$50
Estate Zinfandel 2005 - Zinfandel is a challenging wine. Despite being a near polar opposite in texture and feel from Pinot Noir, both wines require some knowledge of the winery's style or you may be unpleasantly surprised once the cork is removed. Is it Turley style: huge, thick, high alcohol, nearly sweet? Or is it more claret (British term for Bordeaux) style: red fruit dominant, drier, more food friendly? Montelena follows the more traditional route of drier, claret-like, Zinfandel. I must admit that while I generally prefer this style of Zin, I have never been a big fan of Montelena's version. Juicy fruit and cedar on the nose leads to oodles of red fruit; the wine is clearly reminiscent of Cabernet but is not overly structured. Cherry, leather and some dusty cocoa on the finish eventually opened up a bit more to show hints of blueberry. Overall, I enjoyed the wine, but had the same reaction as I have for years. I find Montelena's Zin lacking some intensity. I would be perfectly happy with this wine and some lamb or rabbit, but I can not recall ever buying a bottle. $28-$30
Estate Cabernet notes in the next post.