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Wine press – California’s Chateau Montelena continues to create classic wines

By on March 23, 2021 0

Chateau Montelena in California could easily profit, year after year, from its legendary victory at the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

At this infamous Paris wine tasting, the estate’s 1973 Chardonnay beat some of the best Chardonnays in the famous French region of Burgundy in a blind tasting.

The result made international headlines and sparked a surge of interest in Napa Valley wines in California.

A film (“Bottle Shock”) was even made on the tasting, mainly focusing on Château Montelena.

Actor Bill Pullman played Jim Barrett, the owner of the winery, in the 2008 film.

Chris Pine played Barrett’s son Bo, who also worked in the winery.

In real life, Bo became the chief winemaker in 1982.

The Barrett family still owns and operates Château Montelena.

Then in 2014, Matt Crafton was promoted to Chief Winemaker.

Since then, Crafton has created classic wines that honor the history of Chateau Montelena while helping to bring the winery into the 21st century.

“It’s really fun being a part of Montelena where I think a lot of people think we have a very specific style,” Crafton said in a recent phone interview. “They assume it’s cut from this very specific box. It’s really kind of a philosophical or cultural style if anything else. There is no magic bullet. It’s not that you don’t make a wine less than 14 percent or more than 14 percent. That’s kind of what makes Montelena special and what has helped us stay ahead of the curve.

“Again, this is the philosophical and cultural conviction that Jim started when he founded the winery and Bo continued on,” Crafton said. “It really allows us to explore. We have this incredible freedom and the goal is literally to be as expressive as possible.

In an effort to stay ahead of the curve, Crafton will oversee one of the largest vineyard replantings and redevelopments in the winery’s history next year.

He heads the sustainable development program of Château Montelena and was instrumental in obtaining the winery’s certification as a Bay Area Green Business and Napa Green Winery.

But perhaps more importantly, Crafton hasn’t lost sight of what matters most: making great wines.

“We’re looking to make wines at a very simple level that are delicious – they have to taste good – and they have to age as well,” Crafton said. “Everything in between these two is up to us. So if you look at the wines that have been made over the years, you will see that the wines change.

The Chardonnay Château Montelena Napa Valley 2018 (suggested retail price of $ 60) is a prime example.

Many California Chardonnays found all the wrong notes – too much oak, too much butter, too over the top.

The 2018 Chardonnay from Château Montelena takes a completely different approach. Its flavors are sweet and subtle. Its aroma is both flint and floral. There are light tropical notes, a hint of almonds. And yes, there is a hint of buttery flavor but nothing overwhelming. Everything is well balanced and in harmony with each other. Everything tastes good.

“The 2018 Chardonnay was definitely more of a classic California ripe year and that contrasts sharply with some of the cooler years,” Crafton said. “There’s always that Montelena character weaving in it, which is a function of the site of growth.”

But just because it’s been a good year in the fields doesn’t mean the wines are made on their own in the cellar, Crafton explained.

“It’s a challenge every year (at Chateau Montelena) because there isn’t much to hide behind,” Crafton said. “It is not an oak wine. There isn’t a ton of alcohol. So if you are not able as a winemaker and winemaker to disentangle the nuances of the vineyard and the vintage – which is more difficult than it looks – you end up with a fairly monotonous and boring wine.

As a result, Crafton explained that he doesn’t have a specific style for each year.

“I think it’s easy to try and put yourself in a box,” Crafton said. “I’ve made all kinds of wines – very modern wines, very classic wines and everywhere in between. I think what I’m trying to look for is originality and honesty in what we create.

“The reason I love my job is that these wines don’t come out of the same mold every year,” Crafton said. “So depending on what we’re tasting and the vineyard, you start to piece together that image. The analogy I like to use is that the grape has this DNA, so it’s kind of my job to decode it based on the growing season. So we’re going to vary almost everything we do. We’re going to vary the way we treat – whole bunch, destemmed or mashed. We’ll choose at different times based on the flavor profiles – sour and those things. Things are reinvented every year. The experience helps you a bit to understand the long-term trajectory and potential of some of the decisions you make. But if I were to make the same wine every year, I think I would go crazy.

The 2020 vintage will be much smaller than the other years. That’s because some grapes were damaged by smoke from last summer’s wildfires in California.

“We have lost all of our red grapes this year” due to smoke damage from this year’s wildfires, Crafton said. “So no Cabernet, no Zinfandel.” The smoke and fire also destroyed this year’s Riesling crop, Crafton said.

Fortunately, the winery was able to pick all of their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes before last summer’s wildfires in Napa Valley.

“I’ve thought about it a lot and that’s just one of those things,” Crafton said. “Fortunately, we haven’t lost our vines. It was more a function of the smoke (damage). I think we made the right decision under the circumstances not to go ahead and do nothing. All you can do is make good decisions with the cards you draw.

Crafton added that he continues to learn more about winemaking with each vintage.

“It’s constantly changing,” Crafton said. “I learn something new every year. I think our tastes also change with age. You must have what I call intellectual honesty. You have to take a very careful look at the decisions you make each year and the results that flow from them. This is something that I have really worked on.

He added that this is also true with the rest of the Chateau Montelena winemaking team. “We’re very honest in our comments, what we did right and what we didn’t,” Crafton said. “So for me, it’s easy when you’re young and think more of everything: more maturity, more extract, more tannins, more wood. And I think there are still a lot of people who still think that way. But what you lack is precisely this kind of dynamic cohesion. “

“It’s the difference between a still life and an impressionist painting,” Crafton added. “They’re both beautiful but you look at a great master who can paint a still life, something so simple. Simplicity in a way is incredibly beautiful.

Crafton added, “If we do our best to make a really nice wine, it will taste great too. “


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