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‘Dream Tasting’; the potable story of Chateau Montelena

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Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga.

The premise was simple: a dream, suspended in glass.

The dream was Jim Barrett’s, founder of Chateau Montelena, one of Napa Valley’s most famed properties and the site last month of a retelling in wine.

The story?

How Barrett and his family, taking a winery and vineyard in Calistoga nearly half a century ago, chased that dream and a vision of potable glory; a first growth California Cabernet Sauvignon “that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the great first growths of Bordeaux.”

So reads the introduction of the tasting note pamphlet provided for the ‘Dream Tasting,’ a history told in 15 such wines, each “a year in a glass” spanning the decades since Jim Barrett bought the Montelena property on Tubbs Lane in 1972 and brought his ideals to the world of Napa winemaking. Not long after, the winery produced its 1973 Chardonnay, entered it into a blind tasting in Paris against those first growths of Bordeaux, won and changed the course of wine history.

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Bo Barrett

Chateau Montelena's CEO and master winemaker Bo Barrett.

Yet the telling gets a jolt of levity from Bo Barrett, Jim Barrett’s son and today Montelena’s CEO and master winemaker.

“It’s kind of funny,” said Bo as he led the ‘Dream Tasting’ alongside Montelena’s winemaker Matt Crafton, calling on a personal history with the winery that goes back every vintage. “When I grew up my dad didn’t drink wine.”

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Matt Crafton

Chateau Montelena winemaker Matt Crafton.

But as Jim Barrett’s career as a Southern California attorney grew, clientele dinners cultivated a need to be wine savvy and, as Bo remembers, a night class at UCLA brought his father up to speed on the wines of the world, including those of the Bordeaux chateaux.

“Well he gets out here,” Barrett recalled, “says okay, what we’re going to try to do is we’re going to try to do a Bordeaux chateau here, and make like a ‘Latour California.’ He didn’t even know that he’d bought a great property, he just was counting on basically his Irish luck.”

Marking the start of their tenure at the winery in 1972, the Barretts replanted 100 acres of the Montelena Estate Vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon, at a time when Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook were the varietal’s Napa Valley powerhouses.

“Nobody really knew Calistoga as a Cabernet district at the time,” Barrett said. “So it’s kind of a gutsy move to move into the Cabernet world here,” as the area was thought to be the hottest region in the valley, a view since disproved.

While the vineyard’s potential remained unclear as the land would not yield a wine until 1978, the Barretts made Cabernet Sauvignon from other sources in the meantime, beginning with the Dream Tasting’s first wine dated to 1974.

As his father’s vision called for a wine made in “the European style,” Barrett noted the 1974’s moderated alcohol and lower ripeness, coupled with more acid than has been used in later years at Montelena. The wine’s creator was none other than Mike Grgich, who had trained under winemaking legend Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard, and was also responsible for Montelena’s historic 1973 Chardonnay.

Apart from dialing back the acid in years since, the winery has stuck to the essence of moderate alcohol, Barrett said, even as Cabernet Sauvignons throughout Napa Valley took a turn over the years toward more emphasis on power, ripeness and higher alcohol.

“We always stayed away from that,” Barrett said, moving on in the tasting to Montelena’s 1975 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon. Other than the tasting’s three vintages from the ‘80s, he pointed out, all of the wines throughout the decades remained at 14 percent alcohol.

“It’s a good prototype for us,” Barrett said of the 1975, a wine started by Grgich and finished by Montelena’s next winemaker, Jerry Luper.

But with Luper at the helm, Barrett said, “We definitely decided that we wanted to make wines of a lot more horsepower and depth than we were making in the ‘74 and ‘75.”

As the winemaking approach at Montelena matured, so too did its estate vineyard. On the heels of the 1978, the first vintage from the vineyard, an ambition took shape to showcase changes in the wines from the estate, where the only variable would be the weather throughout each year.

By using “the same fields, the same crew, the same cooperage, the same yeast,” year after year, Barrett said, “…we were really trying to accentuate what this vineyard would tell us.”

The upshot is a consistency in style across the decades, with difficult years for grape growing preserved next to those with better conditions.

The vineyard’s tendency for low yields helps to spotlight the weather’s effects, Crafton said. “It’s such a strange paradigm compared to the rest of the valley. I joke with people, ‘Don’t eat that berry out of the bin. I need it.’”

As such, “…subtle changes in the weather, the heat, the cool, the fog, everything else, it’s almost like it has a magnified effect on what we’re seeing,” Crafton said. “So it really forces us to be much better technical farmers and better winemakers here.”

Included in the tasting was the 1988 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine testifying to a year of extremely severe drought during which only four inches of rain fell.

“I mean the drought we just came out of was bad,” Barrett said, “but the drought in the ‘80s was way worse. There would be panic in the streets if we had a drought like that.”

Parching the valley in the days before drip irrigation, the drought pushed vines that were already stressed from a year of little rainfall in 1987 to the breaking point.

“This wine was extremely stressed out. It was really, really tough going,” Barrett said.

“We poured it today,” he explained, “because it’s a really good view of how things got better […] by the time we circle into later drought vintages, you can see how much more finesse we can impress with the same type of difficult hand of cards, and how you play the cards so much differently when you’re crafting the wine.”

As the years progressed and the winery pressed on, the grim turn of conditions in the late ‘80s opened to a respite. “And something happens in Napa that had never happened in the world of wine anywhere, to our knowledge,” Barrett recalled.

“Here at Montelena we always call it ‘Battleship Row,’” he said, recounting an unprecedented string of back-to-back vintages from 1990 to 1999 “of what is considered excellent weather.”

Intersecting with a generation of winemakers beyond Montelena who by then had the experience needed to best wield them, Barrett said, the conditions ultimately set the stage for Napa Valley to gain its place in the modern world.

“The confidence of American winemakers,” he remembered, “we actually now believe in what we’re doing a lot. And it’s not just here at Chateau Montelena, but you could see there was quite a bit of that we’re standing alone, making really amazing Napa Valley wines and then the weather starts cooperating so it gives us more confidence.”

Adding another dimension to the world of wine at the time was the growing impact of wine critic Robert Parker’s point system for rating wines, although Montelena never tried for “the Parker 100 points” and their potentially “destabilizing” level of praise, Barrett said.

“Because that’s not what our customers wanted,” he said. “We never really tried to go for the big points and over the center field. We wanted to go for batting average every year, not just one shot over the fence.”

As the point system drove wine industry ambitions into the new millennium, and the Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley grew in clout and alcohol, a new leaf meanwhile began to turn over in the estate vineyard.

With the dawn of “precision viticulture” in the early 2000s, the winery began to refine its harvesting methods, changing out its fruit receiving equipment and becoming one of the first adopters of a now standard practice in Napa: the night harvest.

“And that opens a whole new world on the winemaking and on the viticulture side,” Crafton said, “as we start to understand the differences and just how berries change over the course of the day.”

Capable then of delivering grapes to the cellar at 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit, “where the fruit is just absolutely pristine and perfect,” he said, “it goes all right in line with the new handling techniques that we were using to get that real purity of flavor.”

Barrett injected, recalling that the night harvests began with the crews that picked Chardonnay. “The funniest thing was, so we get all prepared for the picking crew to squawk and give us guff […] but the exact opposite happened. The Cabernet crew said, ‘How come we can’t pick at night?’”

The winery obliged, “just because the crews asked us to, because it’s less hot, less buggy, they’re more productive,” he said. “It worked out great.”

While helping to spur innovation in the vineyards, the winery avoided other evolutions in the Napa Valley wine world of the time, including the rise of cult wines such as Screaming Eagle, of which Barrett’s wife, Heidi, was at one time winemaker.

“And Montelena sticks to its guns and keeps making 14 alcohol, pretty high acid Cabernets,” Barrett said, though added that throughout the 2000s the winery began to look for “that fine line between classically styled (wines)” and those “ripe enough to make Americans like them.”

The search went to the turn of the decade, when Barrett remembers his father “was just extremely upset with the 16 percent alcohol Cabernets that were being produced and he was determined he wasn’t going to go down that road.”

Jim Barrett instructed then-winemaker Cameron Perry and Crafton, who by then had joined the winery team, to make the wines “as elegant as possible,” Bo said, and quoted his father: “’When the customers revolt against these high alcohol Cabernets, we’re going to be the wine for them.’”

Though the team followed orders and made the wines anticipating such a revolt, Barrett remarked, “That, frankly, didn’t happen.”

When his father died in 2013, it was clear by then, Barrett said, “that the only people that didn’t like high alcohol Cabernets was us.”

There was no consumer pushback, Barrett said, “and no stampede back to wines of elegance.”

Rounding out the tasting and the progress of Jim Barrett’s dream to date, the winery’s current release, the 2013, was preceded by the 2011 estate Cabernet, bringing the specter of a trying growing season back to the spotlight.

As the winery’s lowest production year ever, the 2011 also offered a glimpse of the team’s one priority above all others: the reputation of Montelena. “Because all this stuff, really about halfway through it just wasn’t ripe enough to make Montelena standards,” Barrett said.

“I remember sending vineyard crews back out again,” Crafton said, “saying ‘drop more fruit, drop more fruit, take another pass, more has to come off.’”

As the 2011 came together, first in the vineyard and then in the tanks, he said, “there was no question, there wasn’t going to be any compromise.”

The team made a similar ruling after the October wildfires of last year, refusing to pick nearly 40 tons of Cabernet on the west side of Calistoga that was affected by smoke taint.

“It comes down to that sense of integrity that we really live by,” Crafton said, “because we know that this whole operation, everything here is bigger than just us.”

Barrett added, “Every single thing you see here from this glass to this napkin to these tanks was paid for by somebody trusting us enough to buy a bottle of wine. There is no money behind Chateau Montelena. This is all we have. There’s no software, there’s no oil, there’s no nothing.”

Today, with its prestige intact, a cellar retrofitted in 2011 and a wealth of sustainability measures in place, including a transition to entirely automated pump-overs last year, the next leg of the Montelena dream approaches.

That sea change will come with a third replanting of the estate vineyard in the coming years, an upheaval Barrett predicts is “really where Montelena should hit its stride.”

“We really have some exciting wines coming up,” he said, pivoting to the stories yet to be made and had, “and I think our next, the last iteration of Montelena looking forward […] we’re still going for the future. It’s a pretty exciting time out here.”

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Wine Reporter / Copy Editor

Henry Lutz covers the local wine industry. He has been a reporter and copy editor for the Register since 2016.