by Dwight Casimere
A Western Union telegram dated May 26, 1976 changed the history of American winemaking forever. It read: Bordeaux 5/26/76 AM 1:46
“Stunning success in Paris tasting on May 24 STOP Took first place over 9 others with Le Premiere Cru wine STOP Top names in France were the blind taters STOP TIME Magazine to do article Congrats to Everyone Jim Barrett “
That simply worded telegram shook the very foundation of the wine world and changed the face of the California wine industry. What had been the private cache of a select group of eccentric ‘gentleman farmers’ in a remote corner of the world north of San Francisco Bay called the Napa Valley was suddenly thrust onto the world stage. The rest, as they say, is history. I was standing inside the stonewalls of Chateau Montelena on Tubbs Lane in the northern reaches of the Napa Valley in the town of Calistoga. It’s a remote setting, complete with an imposing nearly hundred thirty-year-old castle, a pair of placid lakes complete with Chinese pagodas, charming footbridges and a resident swan.
The event was the basis for the 2008 movie Bottle Shock and the book “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” by George M. Taber (Scribner, 2005). The other winners that year were Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ’72 Cabernet, Chalone ’74 Chardonnay from Monterey county and Spring Mountain Chardonnay ‘73, also from Napa Valley.
“ The winery was built by Alfred Tubbs in 1882, which was a California Senator and wealthy businessman who had traveled extensively to France” explained by Josh Luhn, tasting room manager at the winery. “The actually winery was on a hill behind us and the juice was gravity fed to the building here for barreling and maturation. The second owners then converted the building to a residence, the Wing family, who fled China to come to the United States at the onslaught of World War II. The only thing that’s original in the building, as it’s currently constituted is the stonewalls and the tunnels. Jim and Bo Barrett bought it in 1972 with the idea of making premium Bordeaux-style wine in the Napa Valley.”
Apparently Barrett and his team had gotten it right the first time around!
My tasting experience in the Wine Library tucked away inside one of the tunnels of the stone castle was a revelation. 2005 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($55) was exceptionally brilliant with a bright gold color and a fragrant fruit cornucopia of a nose. There’s only a slight hint of toast from French oak. The rest of the palate is all pears, citrus and white flowers. “The beauty of this wine is that it will change character after ten years and start to reveal something all together different that is closer to the type of layered palate you’d find more in a French wine. You’ll never experience that heavy buttery taste people associate with California Chardonnays with our wines because that breaks down so quickly with aging,” Luhn emphasized.
2003 Napa Valley Cabernet (also $55) was another testament to the art of great wine making and exemplary of the Bordeaux style the winery is famous four. Plums and black currant literally jump out of the glass as soon as it is poured. A round, full flavor with very soft tannins caresses the middle of your tongue and then slides down the back of the throat with a hint of pepper and cassis. I’d love to have this one with prime steak au poivre but sometimes, when a wine is this complex, a bit of Mobier cheese, and a warm fire will make for a cozy accompaniment!
Being a wine writer does have its privileges and one of them is an opportunity to taste Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($135, the bottle). “This was the product of a great growing season with good weather and just the right balance of sun, rain and cool breezes coming across the mountains,” Luhn said. The wine has an opaque density of bright ruby red color and aromas of black cherry and boysenberry jam. “This is where you get to experience the impact of terroir,” Luhn explained. “Our unique soil blend really comes through and gives the wine a strong profile of tannin and that long, desirable finish of layered spice, oak, cherries and mint.”
Potter Valley Riesling 2005 ($25) was the dessert course. It was all honeysuckle and peach cobbler with just a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. “Our chef makes a mean peach cobbler flavored with this one. You can also just pour it over strawberry shortcake or peach melba for a real decadent treat!”
All of Chateau Montelena’s wines are on strict allocation, so I joined their wine futures club to ensure a steady supply of this liquid gold. You might want to do the same at www.montelena.com.
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