By European standards, America’s pioneering wineries are still in their infancy. Many of them would have a lengthier history and more prestigious heritage if not for Prohibition, as many American wineries were abandoned during this period of national abstinence. Others turned to ranching or growing other fruit crops to survive.
One such winery was Chateau Montelena, originally owned by Alfred L. Tubbs, a San Francisco businessman who in 1880 bought 275 acres to build a winery.
Designed by a French architect to replicate a French chateau, the structure looks more like an English ruin. Tubbs’ grandson eventually inherited the property. In anticipation of the repeal of Prohibition, he started ripping out fruit trees to once again plant wine grapes.
But Prohibition’s repeal did not bring demand for Montelena’s wines. The winery eventually went bankrupt, although the Tubbs family continued to cultivate grapes and sell them to other wineries.
The property eventually fell into the hands of a Chinese family, which built a lake, a series of teahouses and a bridge at the base of the chateau. Although a bit incongruous, Jade Lake is now a scenic picnic spot in the shadow of the imposing chateau.
The current owner, Jim Barrett, a successful corporate and real estate attorney, acquired the property in 1972. The chateau had been virtually untouched since the 1930s. Untended vines had to be pulled out and replanted.
Barrett and his partners wanted cabernet to be their flagship wine, but it takes four to six years for cabernet vines to produce quality fruit, even on premium land like Montelena.
Barrett hired Mike Grgich, now owner of Grgich Hills, to be his winemaker. To provide a more immediate revenue flow, Grgich purchased chardonnay from other growers to make wine for more immediate release. Chardonnay requires less aging and can be released for sale more quickly than red varietals.
Ironically, it was Grgich’s second vintage for Montelena, the 1973 chardonnay, that would win worldwide fame. It was selected for inclusion in the now-famous 1976 Paris wine tasting.
The movie “Bottle Shock” is a fictionalized version of this tasting, but it is not fiction that Chateau Montelena’s 1973 chardonnay was selected as the best white wine in the competition by a group of French judges, in a blind tasting against some of the best and priciest white wines that France had to offer.
It was an event that put California wine on the map.
I had the pleasure of tasting through the 2003 through 2006 vintages of Montelena cabernet at the chateau a few days ago. It is Montelena’s cabernets that today garner critical acclaim. They consistently receive rankings in the 90s from Robert Parker, the world’s foremost wine critic.
The 2004 Montelena Estate Cabernet was my favorite out of the lineup. Coincidentally, 2004 was the last vintage made under winemaker Bo Barrett, son of founder Jim Barrett, before Bo stepped up to become more involved in the overall management of the property. A young, rebellious Bo — now in his late 50s — was portrayed by actor Chris Pine in “Bottle Shock.”
Though Montelena is now better known for its cabernets, it still makes a delicious chardonnay from purchased fruit.
Montelena is sold locally at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. The 2009 Calistoga Cabernet sells for $45 per bottle, and the Napa 2007 Chardonnay is $46.
Email Pat Kettles at email@example.com