Wine of the week: wines of Chateau Montelena

With the recent launch of the Vine Guy podcast, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to a variety of wine personalities on an extended basis. I caught up with Matt Crafton, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena, located in the Calistoga American Viticultural Area (AVA) of Napa Valley.

Despite its French pedigree name, Chateau Montelena is one of the oldest wine properties located in the Calistoga AVA of Napa Valley.

It began in 1882 when Alfred L. Tubbs, a wealthy entrepreneur from San Francisco, purchased a 254-acre parcel of land located two miles north of Calistoga, at the base of Mount Saint Helena.

He christened the property Chateau Montelena, a contraction of Mount Saint Helena. Thanks to the alluvial soil (stony and well-drained) deposited by ancient rivers, Tubbs was able to transform the rugged land into a fertile vineyard in less than a decade.

Unfortunately, winemaking operations at Montelena ended with the onset of prohibition. The property stayed in the Tubbs family until they finally sold it in 1958.

Fast forward to 1972 when James Barrett, an attorney from Southern California, purchased the rundown Chateau and surrounding vineyards.

During the next several years, James replanted the vineyards and completely overhauled the winery, transforming the property into a world-class operation. The payoff came in 1976 when a group of notable French wine and food personalities convened in Paris for a grand tasting. Four French white Burgundies were tasted against six California chardonnays. Imagine the French judge’s surprise when the dust settled and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 chardonnay was the top scorer.

Not only did this competition prove that Chateau Montelena could produce world-class wines, it was truly a turning point for the California wine industry as a whole.

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In 1982, the wine making operation at the Chateau became the responsibility of Jim’s son, James P. “Bo” Barrett, a newly-minted graduate of Fresno State University, where he majored in viticulture and oenology.

Reluctant Bo accepted the challenge under one condition — that he would be granted the freedom and professional respect Bo’s dad had afforded previous winemakers. James agreed.

Several years ago, Bo stepped aside to run the business end at Chateau Montelena, and in 2008, Matt Crafton joined the team as an assistant winemaker. Crafton was promoted to the head of winemaking operations in 2014. Today, Crafton oversees all production and operations at Chateau Montelena.

Crafton’s path to becoming the head winemaker at one of the most notable wineries in California was circuitous.

He started off his formal education majoring in economics at University of Virginia. But after graduation, he just couldn’t see himself sitting in a cubicle, crunching numbers all day.

In order to satisfy his urge to spend more time outdoors and work with both his hands and his head, Crafton answered an ad for a cellar worker at a local winery in Virginia.

During the interview, the vineyard owner seemed pretty skeptical. Crafton, after all, showed up for the interview in a coat and tie. But the boss gave him a shot, telling Crafton that he was going to throw the worst jobs at him for two weeks. If he survived, he could stay on. Crafton not only survived, he thrived, soaking up everything he could about vineyard management and winemaking.

Crafton went on to further his formal education in winemaking, graduating at the top of his class from University of California-Davis with a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and oenology.

He brings a fresh approach to the team as illustrated through the next wave of improvements in both the vineyard and the cellar. One of his major projects in the upcoming year is spearheading the largest vineyard replant and redesign in the winery’s history, a legacy of land stewardship that will endure for decades to come.

Regarding his winemaking style, Crafton strives to create classically styled wines that are an expression of the unique terroir of each vintage. Throughout the years he has also pioneered modern equipment, innovation and technology to continue to improve and maintain excellence in all aspects of winemaking practices.

The 2017 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley Riesling used to only be available at the tasting room in Calistoga. Fortunately, the vineyard is making a little more of it these days, so you might be lucky enough to find it in your local wine shop. This wine has a lovely floral nose that includes scents of nectarines, tropical fruit and lemon rind. The bracing acidity is perfectly balanced by beautiful flavors of gala apple, ripe pear and guava. Serve it well-chilled and pair with either grilled scallops or spicy Asian fare. $25

A wonderful contrast to the typical Napa Valley chardonnay is the 2016 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Hints of citrus, wet stone and apples intermingle on the bouquet while flavors of green apple, nectarine and white peach dominate the palate. The finish is well-balanced and provides a clean, crisp end note of citrus. I think you could probably cellar this wine for another year or two or enjoy it with roasted halibut. $55

Of course, you can’t talk about Chateau Montelena without trying their cabernet sauvignon. The 2015 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is simply stunning. Rich aromas of cassis and chocolate are captivating. It has an amazing mouthfeel featuring well-structured tannins that allow the blackberry jam and dark plum flavors to shine through beautifully. Hints of licorice and baking spices sneak in on the perfectly balanced and elegant finish. Grab a steak (and maybe a home-equity loan). $165

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