An American Icon: Chateau Montelena

Kelly J. Hayes

under the influence


“Old world style, new world fruit” is an axiom used to describe Montelena’s Estate cabs as they generally are a little lighter on alcohol than some of their Napa brethren. Though still a child, this 2016 vintage had a less rustic character and softer tannins than might be expected from such a young release. It drank oh so well with the aforementioned steak and proffered a velvety texture on the tongue and sweet flavors of plums and figs with a full rack of space on the finish.

Happy Independence Day!

On the cusp of the Fourth of July, it is fitting to acknowledge a Napa Valley winery that is emblematic of the American Dream — one that maintains independence, crafts wines of quality, has a pedigree for past perfection and which, even in these uncertain times, is looking to the future with unbridled optimism.

Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena wears the above criteria like a red, white and blue badge of honor. A true icon, the winery has weathered recent challenges, including fires and a pandemic, with resiliency. And the Barrett family will soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first harvest at Chateau Montelena in 2022.

“I have to give the Fresno guy a little bit of credit,” Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, laughed when talking about his boss, CEO Bo Barrett, one of six family members who make up the ownership group of one the most coveted wineries in the world. Bo studied winemaking at Fresno State University while Crafton graduated at the top of his class at University of California Davis.

School ties aside, Crafton clearly reveres the role that Bo plays. “He has taken a somewhat Jedi master view of the world and is a mentor,” said the 39-year-old Crafton, who will be making his seventh vintage at Montelena this fall. “For someone so accomplished, someone who has every reason to look back at those accomplishments, he is one of the most forward-looking people I have ever met. He understands the future of this brand.”

I had called Crafton to discuss the current release, the 2016 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a lush, plush Calistoga baby that had paired perfectly with a Colorado grilled bone-in ribeye on a recent Sunday. As the conversation with Matt progressed, it was clear that this wine, as any great wine should, reflects a legacy of people and place.

In 1882, A.L. Tubbs, a San Francisco magnate, made a fortuitous purchase of 254 acres of prime vineyard land in the shadow of Mount St. Helena just north of Calistoga. He built an eponymous stone winery, planted the vineyards to cabernet sauvignon and hired a Frenchman as winemaker. Successful in his endeavors, the winery prospered until prohibition.

Ninety years later, after the winery had since been given its current moniker (a combination of mountain and St. Helena), it was purchased by a Los Angeles attorney, Jim Barrett. He became famous when the 1973 Montelena chardonnay defeated the best of the French white Burgundies in the American bicentennial year of 1976, at what would become known as the “Judgment of Paris.”

The accomplishment, and perhaps most importantly, the relationship between Jim and Bo, “père et fils” if you will, was memorialized in the film “Bottleshock.” While Jim passed in 2013, Bo has been involved at both a macro and micro level in every Montelena vintage since 1972.

Crafton notes that Chateau Montelena, which produces largely cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay (though they also make more limited quantities of zinfandel and riesling, among a few other passion projects) is philosophically a “vintage driven house.” While other Napa wineries may succeed with a consistent style, “we are hyper focused on what’s real and what’s important.”

To that end, Montelena is currently involved in their most elaborate replanting project since Jim Barrett first purchased the property. “We are looking at what farming will be like over the next 50 years here,” Crafton says with excitement. The effort calls for examination of new clones, rootstock, vine spacing, row orientation and a host of other factors. “The first cabernet vines in that project are literally going in as we speak. When all is said and done, we will be replanting about 70% of the cabernet over the next five to six years.”

And an ode to the past is in the works, as well. “To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Barrett’s ownership we will be sourcing fruit this year from the Bacigalupe vineyard (in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley), plus some fruit from our John Muir Hanna Vineyard (in the Oak Knoll appellation of Napa), and I will get to make a commemorative bottling from the vineyards used in the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay,” Crafton said with obvious pride.

“I can tell you that I have never had the 1973 chardonnay. I have had every other wine from every other vintage of ours but that one. But I’m really excited to get to make this bottling.” There are likely less than two cases left of the original ’73, including one that sits in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

As would be expected of an American icon.