CHATEAU MONTELENA "DREAM TASTING" VERTICAL TASTING OF
Notes and Photos by
"Gerald, what are you doing on January 11th of next year?"
we were asked.
"I like to plan ahead, but that's six months from now. I can't
think of what I'm doing then, why?"
"We're having a tasting of our Cabernets. We want you to join
"Okay...I'll put it on my calendar. I'm getting old...don't forget
to remind me!"
Brian Baker, Montelena's "Road Warrior" and Sales & Marketing
And they did.
We have had Montelena's wines since their maiden voyage, the release of a 1972
vintage "Johannisberg Riesling."
Yes...back in those days, Riesling was a normal part of a Napa winery's line-up.
Montelena, with winemaker Mike Grgich, had its first wine ready for the market
and we were amongst the first customers.
We recall Montelena offering a lovely Chardonnay shortly thereafter.
Winemaker Mike Grgich, always sporting a beret and a twinkle in his eye, would
tell people "You may find this Chardonnay to be different and having a
sweet element. But it's not sugar...it's simply a bit higher in alcohol
and this contributes more texture to the wine."
Montelena made some lovely Zinfandels in those days, too. We have fond
memories of their 1973 vintage, a wine which did not undergo a malolactic
fermentation. As a result, perhaps, it retained a purity of fruit which
was quite remarkable.
Yes...they made a bit of Cabernet.
Maybe more than a bit, as they ended up creating a lower-priced secondary label
to attract customers.
This was called "Silverado Cellars."
Montelena planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Calistoga <finally>, though
winemaker and winery CEO Bo Barrett said many people thought Calistoga was too
hot for Cabernet Sauvignon.
"There wasn't much Cabernet in Calistoga when we started. We had
Mondeuse and Carignane. We had Sauvignon Vert and Chasselas. We
planted Cabernet and didn't use the generally recommended AXR-#1 rootstock. Our vineyard guy,
John Rolleri, was a proponent of the St. George rootstock and this turned out to
be a great move."
While many vineyards were planted with AXR #1, it turned out to not be strong
enough to resist the root louse, Phylloxera. As a result, many plantings
from the early 1970s were impacted and Napa Valley growers had to replant
thousands of acres of vineyards.
The Napa Valley Vintners web site, though, notes Calistoga as being hotter than
Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena.
But a US Climate Data web site shows while Calistoga's Average Month High
Temperatures are 1 to 3 degrees higher than, say, St. Helena, for example, the
night-time lows are also a few degrees cooler, giving Calistoga a greater
Barrett spoke about how they are often picking the late-ripening Cabernet
Sauvignon before their friends farther south in the Valley.
(Perhaps low yields contribute to this dynamic?)
Brian Baker welcomed everyone to Montelena.
A couple of Eno-Celebrities were introduced...
LESLIE SBROCCO, hostess of "Check Please Bay Area" and frequent guest on The
ANDREA ROBINSON, Master Sommelier
Weimax, you see, was one of their first customers for Montelena wines.
We had purchased the 1972 Riesling and the famous 1973 Chardonnay.
Then things turned serious and we set about tasting their wines, going from
the oldest vintage to the youngest.
Montelena blends its Cabernet with but a tiny amount of other Bordeaux
Merlot, Barrett explained, "doesn't grow well in the Calistoga area as it
does best in clay soils and we don't have those here."
These days you might find one or two percent of Cabernet Franc in the wine.
Maybe a drop of Petit Verdot now, too.
If you see the photo above, you'll notice Alluvial, Volcanic and Sedimentary
While many winemakers use various grape varieties in an attempt to create a wine
that's viewed as being more complex than something that is made of but one grape
type, Bo explained that with the various soil types in the Montelena vineyards,
they have plenty of varying "components" with which to work.
"We used to conduct a seminar called the Inter-Relationship Between Soil
and Wine Quality. We could show off differences in samples of Cabernet
resulting solely from various soils. Heck, we didn't know back then it was
Bo Barrett and current Montelena winemaker Matt Crafton
The cellar was filled with tables and glasses of Montelena
We would taste wines going back to the 1974 vintage, on forward to 2013.
That's certainly a "Dream Tasting."
The wines, by the way, were all poured from magnums.
Barrett said while these are reputed to age more slowly than regular-sized
bottles, he doesn't find much difference in how Cabernet ages in one or the
"For Chardonnay, yes, a magnum does age more slowly and there are
differences in old vintages from a regular bottle to a magnum."
"This retrospective tasting isn't just about Chateau Montelena,"
Barrett explains. "It's about my generation of winemakers. We
started in the 1970s and have seen all sorts of vintage conditions and used all
sorts of equipment and cooperage. We learned a lot starting out and then
so when the 1990s came along, we were ready to strut our stuff with a string of
remarkably good growing seasons."
He spoke about the "early years before Parker's Wine Advocate" and
how he had participated in road-show tastings with Robert Parker.
It seems that while Parker liked the Montelena wines, wines of higher "octane"
received higher scores.
Barrett says Montelena always kept in mind the "triangle" chart
created by the late French enology professor Emile Peynaud.
Peynaud, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 92, spent his entire life
"Immersed," if you will, in wine,
He routinely advocated wineries only pick good quality grapes.
This seems rather basic, but half a century ago many wineries threw everything
into the fermentation tank.
Today wineries ask harvesters to be selective in their picking, but also have
sorting tables or optical sorting machines.
Peynaud suggested managing tannin extraction in a particular fashion and he
advised winemakers to pick grapes at a somewhat greater level of maturity so
obtain softer tannins.
These days, though, with wine critics equating alcohol, power and intensity with
quality, things have often gone to extremes.
In the 1970s people spoke about the Peynaudization of wines.
A decade, or so later, people spoke of the Parkerization of wines.
As we saw in tasting five decades of Montelena's wines, they have not succumbed
to chasing fashion and changing how they made wine to accommodate the market.
"My father (Jim Barrett) didn't like those big, heavy wines with 15+ percent
alcohol and some residual sugar. He said we should stick to our style as
people will eventually grow weary of those big fat wines and come back to
Peynaud also favored temperature-controlled fermentation, something of a novelty
until the 1970s and into the 1980s. He also encouraged a sufficiently
lengthy maceration period for red wines and Montelena used to leave its wine in
contact with the skins for a month or longer "back in the day."
We began with the 1974 "Sonoma" Cabernet Sauvignon.
1974 CHATEAU MONTELENA "SONOMA" CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Barrett noted the fruit for this wine came mostly from Sonoma's
Alexander Valley, hence the Sonoma appellation.
"We had Mondeuse and Carignane in our own vineyard and I wondered whatever
became of that fruit...then I looked in the register and saw they sort of
The wine had a gorgeous fragrance with some earthy tones and a woodsy
quality. Medium bodied and with a measure of finesse and elegance.
The finish is round and almost creamy.
Bo mentioned they had incorporated a little percentage of stems when fermenting
1975 CHATEAU MONTELENA "NORTH COAST" CABERNET SAUVIGNON
This was made using fruit from both Napa and Sonoma, hence the North
Barrett said they typically harvested when the grapes got to 23 degrees Brix (a
measure of sugar) and this one came in at 22.8, producing a wine of 12.4% alcohol. It has some fruit from Rutherford, as they purchased grapes from
Shown & Sons, whose vineyard was sold to Heitz (who now makes a single
vineyard wine called "Trailside").
Mike Grgich was the winemaker at the start of the 1975, but it was finished by
The color was medium-light ruby and it showed a red fruit fragrance, less woodsy
than the 1974. There's a crisp, edgy feel on the palate...still good and
We recall the 1974 vintage as being more highly praised than the 1975s, but as
these hit the 25 to 30 year mark, many '75s were showing better than the '74s.
1979 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
The 1979 vintage saw a couple of challenges from Mother Nature. As
the vines were flowering, hot winds beset the vines causing "shatter"
(Coulure in French). This means the flowers are not pollinated and grapes
do not form. They calculated a 40% loss in fruit. While this is not
ideal, a small crop hits maturity faster given a normal growing season. As
a result, they picked their Cabernet earlier than normal which was fortuitous as
there was rain in late September.
Barrett spoke about the long macerations they typically employed, but Mr. Luper
preferred a shorter time "on the skins, so this spent maybe 10 days instead
of 40. Clone 6, a shy-bearing Cabernet, produced a wine with remarkable
black fruit notes which are still evident today. I thought this was one of
the best wines of the tasting today. Complete from start to finish.
1980 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET SAUVIGNON
I recall this vintage as quirky...Summer was a bit cool and most of the
ripening, if you want to call it that, came about when hot temperatures arrived
in September. This put sugar levels ahead of actual physiological
maturity. Some Cabernets had green notes to them along with raisiny tones,
the worst of both worlds.
This wine was medium ruby in color and the nose showed some slightly tarry
notes. The fragrances were more complex and the wine was a bit murky on
the palate. The texture was good and the wine is certainly smooth today.
Barrett mentioned they had been using some old cooperage during this time period
and perhaps that accounts for the tarry elements. Still, it's a good wine,
but perhaps overshadowed by others.
1983 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET SAUVIGNON
A wet winter, heat spikes during the summer and untimely rain during the
normal harvest time period proved challenging for many wineries. Montelena
stared picking fairly early in 1983, though, as vineyard yields were
meager. The harvest took about a month and Montelena began its harvest in
mid-September with warm temperatures occurring into October.
This wine was a most pleasant surprise, though. Good color and still a bit
youthful. Plenty of bright red fruit fragrances and the flavors confirm
the elements promised on the nose. Fine on the palate and complete.
It still has a bit of "grip" and should continue to age handsomely for
a number of years.
1988 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
Barrett credited experience in dealing with the drought years of 1976
and 1977 with producing the 1987 and 1988 vintages which were also fairly dry.
Yields were tiny, weighing in at perhaps half the normal 2.5 tons per acre.
"The 1987 vintage was definitely a 'Parker' vintage as the wines were
concentrated and powerful. By 1988 the vines, though, were quite stressed,
producing tiny berries and brittle stems."
Bo said they had an old crusher/stemmer machine and the wine was quite tannic
early on thanks to these dried stems. In fact, this vintage caused
Barrett's father Jim to give the green light to purchasing a new de-stemmer for
the 1989 harvest.
This wine still has its tannic edge, which may account for its vitality as it
nears age 30.
Continuing his discussion on Cabernet, Barrett lavished a heap of praise to
current UC Davis enology professor Dr.
"Her work regarding pruning, green harvesting and leaf thinning to
discourage the green bean and vegetal notes (methoxyprazines) in Cabernet and to
bring out more red and black fruit character is truly a seminal work." said
1990 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
Barrett mentioned this as being another dry growing season except for
heavy rains around Memorial Day in May when the vines were in bloom. The
untimely rain resulted in a severe crop loss, but a somewhat early start to the
"The 1990s were remarkably good growing seasons and for winemakers of my
generation, people such as David Ramey, Randy Dunn and myself--with our
experience over the previous decade, or so, we knew how to handle these
vintages. By the 1990 vintage we had confidence in our winemaking and we
believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing."
Having that new crush-pad equipment didn't hurt, as this vintage saw no
inclusion of stems during the fermentation.
I found the nose of this wine to be beautifully complex with nice dark
fruits. The wine on the palate, though, did not quite live up to
expectations as this struck me as a bit shallow in the middle. There's
some nice structure, though and it has a mouth-drying finish. When I
returned to this after a bit, it seemed to have improved with aeration and it
was showing better.
1994 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
Montelena now was able to use some hillside vineyards in its Estate
Cabernet. The growing season had been fairly cool in spring and summer,
but a heat spell in August was helpful to growers. They had a fairly good
crop level and began picking Cabernet in mid-September. There's plenty of
ripe, dark fruit aromas here and maybe a hint of a brown spice tone. I
found good fruit all the way along on the palate, too, with good intensity in
the middle. Very fine. Bright fruit on the finish, as well. This is
a beautifully polished wine and it's a profound wine. Classic.
1996 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
Barrett once again credits experiencing dry years in the 1970s and 1980s
with dealing with the 1996 growing season. There was shatter in May and a
smallish crop to deal with. A series of repeated heat spikes in June, July
and August pushed the fruit along in terms of sugar before the grapes had
physiological maturity. September, though, saw cooler temperatures and
this hang-time allowed the grapes to achieve a point of balance.
Montelena's Cabernet harvest began on September 10th and continued for a month.
This was another exceptional wine. Good color, beautiful fragrances of
dark fruits...earthy, berry notes and nice length on the palate.
Bo spoke about the 1990s wines being, currently, in some sort of stationery
orbit. They're nicely developed and complex with no signs of becoming
"I wish we could use no new oak at all." Barrett opined.
"But, remember that when Mouton Rothschild started using all 100% new oak
for its wine, it became elevated to First Growth status. How about no new
oak and let's see who's got a great vineyard?" he asked.
"Oak all tastes the same," he continued. "Raisins all taste
the same, too. But we work in the 'fresh fruit' medium. You won't
find sur maturité in our wines", Barrett said, trotting out his best
"We're kind of outliers in that regard." Bo mused.
2001 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
This was a cold & hot vintage in that there was frost which damaged
the vines early on and then seriously hot temperatures during flowering
resulting in a small crop yield. The main growing season, though, saw
moderate temperatures during the summer and an early start to the harvest.
Medium ruby in color, the nose of this wine was quite pretty with lovely black
cherry fruit in the spotlight. You would not know it was matured in wood,
as there's virtually no oak on display.
Barrett emphasized the lack of stems during the fermentation and their aversion
to seed tannins.
"The 2001 was high in tannin anyway," he told us. "We have
more tannin from the skins."
This was another candidate for "Best wine of the tasting."
This wine, by the way, had received a notoriously bad review from The Wine
Spectator's critic, James Laube.
Well, the wine did not display the dill notes found by Mr. Laube and its cedary
oak must have totally integrated with the fruit. We found a very polished,
balanced, elegant wine.
Mr. Laube did not note any elements of mustiness in his initial, 69 Point
review. Yet he wrote a piece saying he noted this flaw when conducting
blind tastings and admits that he is quite sensitive to this mustiness called
TCA (the chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole).
There must have been 35+ "experts" participating in this lovely event
and not one person said anything about their sample of the 2001 being
"corked" or musty.
2005 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
An early bud break combined with a cool and moist spring gave way to a
fairly mild June with a bit of precipitation followed by warm temps in July and
August. September was fairly cool, allowing for good hang-time. It
got hot, though, in late September and the Cabernet hit somewhat high levels of
Barrett noted "the weather could not have worked out better if we had
custom ordered it."
I detected some slightly herbal notes on the nose here and then a hint of a
jammy quality. The fruit is reminiscent of strawberries and plums.
It's a medium-bodied Cabernet and while enjoyable, I didn't find it to be quite
as profound as many of the other wines.
2007 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Barrett described this vintage as a "Goldilocks" growing
season. "Everything was 'just right'" he explained.
It showed fairly deep ruby color and had lovely red and black fruit notes, if a
tad riper than some others. This ripeness corresponded to it being a shade
lower in acidity. Red fruits on the palate...very fine and complete with
nice balance for immediate enjoyment. It's elegant and supple in
2010 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
The 2010 growing season in early summer was one of the coolest in
memory, with people wondering "Will we ever have warm weather?"
A cool start to the year and wet weather in spring caused late flowering.
Cool temperatures into July saw slow progress in the vineyards and then a sudden
burst of heat caused some issues with sun burnt grapes.
This blast of warm weather took care of crop-thinning. Fairly heavy rains
in October and some frigid temperatures in mid-to-late November caused headaches
for many growers.
Despite this, Montelena, with winemaker Cameron Parry at the helm, made a good
Medium ruby in color and with a hint of cocoa on the nose, there's a ripe tone
to the fruit here. Perhaps it lacks a layer of complexity and there's a
softness to this gentle Cabernet that makes it appealing at this early stage.
2011 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
The 2011 vintage was another headache, if perhaps bigger than 2010, for
growers. The season started late and it was cool virtually all the way
along. This really slowed down ripening and Barrett credits decades
of experience with their making a good wine. "We dropped a lot
of fruit," Bo explained. "We don't have a mandate to pick
Cabernet really ripe. It was, though, a tough vintage. We picked
late despite the fact that we have an early site."
The nose of this wine is very charming showing sweet, high-toned fruit.
There's an almost floral quality to the fragrance here. Hints of cinnamon
are present with nice, mild tannins and a very long finish. They didn't
make much, we were told, but this was a delightful surprise and a good reason to
burn a vintage chart.
2013 CHATEAU MONTELENA "ESTATE" CABERNET
Winemakers had plenty of good luck with the 2013 vintage as the normally
late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon was ready to pick while tanks were still full
of fermenting Chardonnay and other fruit. Winemakers were thoroughly
delighted by the quality of grapes this year.
Montelena's 2013 is rather dark in color, a hallmark of this vintage. Ripe
fruit. Medium full on the palate with dark fruit notes on the nose,
too. It's young, reasonably firm and lengthy. After tasting so many
nicely evolved wines, this one shows terrific potential but it's a bit shy and
quiet at this early point in its development. We'd be confident in saying
this will blossom quite handsomely for those who are patient.
Barrett tipped his cap to Montelena's customers.
"You know, we don't have software, high-tech or oil money here. This
place is paid for by our customers; people who enjoy our wines. We
want to continue to make people happy by making good wine."
The tasting then concluded, but there were two more wines we could try before
The 2011 Montelena Chardonnay was another pleasant surprise.
Remember many people will tell you 2011 is a poor vintage and it should be
Taste this wine and you'll see otherwise.
Mildly toasty fragrances waft from the glass with a hint of ripe peach and
melon...very charming and showy Chardonnay!
Montelena's 2015 Estate Cabernet was also quite charming. It showed lots
of bright red fruit aromas and nice balance on the palate...it's a bit
precocious presently. Who knows if it will close up at some point?
And another "Thanks" to Brian Baker and Katie Ballou-Calhoun
for the invitation to this memorable tasting.
MONTELENA "NOSTALGIA" WEB PAGE
MONTELENA 2010 VERTICAL TASTING
BACK TO THE
WEIMAX HOME PAGE