A Day at
By George Heritier
Early on during
the summer of 2000, some members of the online wine crowd were
having a virtual discussion regarding the wines of Chateau
Montelena. After some back and forth, Allan
Bree, who has been collecting the wines of this producer for
years, decided to see if he could put together a comprehensive
tasting at the winery itself. He made some calls, checked
on various dates, and finally settled on September 16th for the
event. Because of space considerations, it was limited to
thirty people, and Kim and this taster raised our hands
immediately when the call went out as to who might want to
September 15th, Bree and Kim spent the entire day shopping for and
preparing food for not only the following day’s affair, but
also the Sine Qua Non gathering
that evening. Together, they put
together a spread that was every bit the match for the wines
that were presented.
We arrived at
Chateau Montelena, on Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga at 9 AM
Saturday morning, and began taking food, wine and accessories
out to one of the two beautiful island pagoda/picnic areas (*above)
the property, situated in the middle of a rather sizable pond.
Once this was accomplished, it was just a matter of getting
organized and waiting for folks to arrive. The setting is
an idyllic one, with large man eating gold fish, medium sized
turtles and a collection of waterfowl that add a special feel to
the already lovely ambience. While we waited, I made the
acquaintance of the resident goose, with the help of some bread
and crackers. I was also inspired to compose a few haiku.
Now the goose and I are one
in the sun
And carp fishing for handouts
Don’t play coy with me!
to arrive, and by the time everyone was assembled, we were
thirty strong indeed. Attendees included those who had
been at the previous night’s affair (with the exception of
Lisa), Josh du Lac (right, the shorter
Maximovich, George and Sheila Chadwick, Robin
and Ngoc Gee, Paula Galleron and her son Matthew,
Bill McCullers and Melissa Whitney, Stephen
Bozeman and Kim Bernard, Sam and Jean Leone,
Morgan Ong, David and Glenda King, Peter
(above, the taller guy) and Barbara Marsh, Bruce Leiserowitz,
John Jenness, David Wright and Pamela Mallett.
Our tour guide,
a gentleman named Ralph, then joined us and led us up to
the winery. We couldn’t enter the facility, as
“crush” was in full swing, and we’d only be in the way,
but he prevailed upon winemaker Bo Barrett to come out
and take a few minutes to talk with us about some of what was
going on. He told us of how they were gently crushing
whole cluster Chardonnay, the first time they’d ever done this.
He added the maxim, “Every time you manipulate Chardonnay, you
pay in fruit,” which explains why they do as little as
possible with that varietal. (Tasting some of these later would
confirm that these were pure fruit, unadorned with any of the
oak that characterizes so many “cookie cutter” Napa Valley
informed us that their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon had no stem
tannins after 1990, due to the use of a destemmer. This
provided an interesting slant, especially as we tasted through
the vintages later that day. He also made this humorous,
but accurate observation; “Red wine plus sun equals
hammock,” referring no doubt to past Cabernet tastings that
had taken place in the area’s 100 degree summer temperatures.
As we listened
to him, all the while taking in the intoxicating aroma of
“crush,” I also couldn’t help but overhear the whispered
comments of some female members of our group, and felt another
haiku coming on.
His hands full of Zinfandel
Ladies like his legs
returned to his busy schedule, Ralph gave us a bit of the
history of Chateau Montelena, telling us how Alfred Tubbs
had established the first winery there in 1882. Situated
in the northern-most end of valley, temperatures average seven
or eight degrees warmer than at Oakville Cross Road.
Prohibition put a damper on operations, save for sacramental
wines; vineyards were sold after repeal, and the winery’s
production was sporadic at best until the ‘50s. Rebirth
took place in 1972, when Bo’s father Jim Barrett bought
the property, replanting vineyards and establishing the
philosophy and tradition that is stated succinctly thus: “Make
the best. Period.”
We then moved
on to the antique spaced (12’ x 8’) Cabernet Sauvignon
vineyard just beyond the pond, periodically making way for the
trucks bringing in more freshly harvested grapes. Fifteen
different lots go into the Estate Cab; the hillside fruit was coming in on that day. A small amount of Cabernet Franc is
also added, about 3%. The vineyards are farmed
organically, and we were allowed to each take a grape to taste.
There’s nothing like a Cabernet Sauvignon grape at or close to
full maturity right off the vine, with its remarkably sweet
returned to our island retreat, where Ralph took us through a
tasting of Chateau Montelena’s current releases.
Ralph left us to our own devices; we thanked him for his fine
presentation and began to dig into Bree's amazing spread
of food and the assembled wines, to which almost everyone in
attendance contributed a bottle or three. Bree brought no
less than a case from his own cellar. I started with the
There were at
least a few later vintages of these on hand, but I felt it
prudent to move on to the
Zinfandels, due to the mass of
bottles that were on hand. However, the ’95 Potter
Valley Riesling found its way to the Parfit BBQ the following
day, and it too was most impressive.
are all excellent (except for the unfortunate ’91), and have a
certain Italian quality about them; I made a point of tasting
through the entire lineup that was present before moving on to
the “main event,” the Estate Cabernets.
had always known that Chateau Montelena made one of the finest
Cabernet Sauvignons in California, but because I’d only tasted
a few previously, I’d only had an inkling as to how powerful
and long lived they were. I was also mucho impressed with
the Zins and Rieslings for their depth of fruit and age ability.
And while I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay, there can be no
doubt that theirs are among the very best in California as well.
They don’t gussy up their juice with any excessive oak, they
just let the tremendous fruit do all the talking.
I never got a
chance to taste the last of the Cabs, the ’96, because we had
to vacate the premises due to another scheduled event. We
packed up the leftover food and wine that wasn’t taken by
attendees, as Allan was most hospitable with the bottles that he
had uncorked. This was an incredible tasting, which he put
an even more incredible amount of effort into bringing off
without a hitch, and I can’t say enough about his warmth and
It should also
be noted that Robin Gee made a fine contribution with helping to
organize various aspects of this and other weekend events, and
is to be duly commended.
We bid adieu to
our compatriots, knowing we’d see a number of them again the
following day at Matt and Alicia Parfit’s place in Petaluma,
and after giving my newfound friend the goose a farewell crust
of bread, we drove off into the afternoon sunshine, with the
Oldies station blaring Born to Be Wild.
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