(NOTE: This article was originally written for The Hollywood Reporter)
I was invited to participate in a 50-year retrospective tasting of Chateau Montelena’s Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at their historic winery, built in 1888. So, 50 years may not seem impressive. After all, many French Château have been around for hundreds of years. But if you are Château Montelena eclipsing French wines in the famed Judgment of Paris in 1976, you already have a storied provenance, not to mention Hollywood made a movie, Bottle Shock, about you.
Originally the Gothic castle-like winery was called the A.L. Tubbs Winery named for Alfred Tubbs who commissioned it. 129 years later the name Tubbs would take on a new meaning as the Tubbs Fire swept through Napa and Sonoma in October 2017, destroying nearly 38,000 acres and over 5,000 buildings.
Fire and Napa have a long relationship. In 1981 the Atlas Peak fire charred 26,000 acres, the work of an arsonist who was never caught. A year later the Silverado Fire burned 2,000 acres, and even as far back as 1913 the Sage Canyon Fire corrupted valuable agricultural land. But the Tubbs Fire was something more aggressive. “From ground zero (the fire started at Tubbs Lane) we had the vineyard across the street,” says Bo Barrett CEO and former winemaker at Chateau Montelena who hosted the tasting. “We lost an 11-acre field of Cabernet (equaling 2,300 cases) so one of our vineyards took a torpedo and sank.” Grapevines are notoriously resilient plants. They can withstand drought, erratic weather and can grow nearly everywhere. Yet questions arose immediately about smoke taint and how the fires would affect Napa wines. “You cannot make the smoke go away, you can’t just wash it off,” Barrett admits. However all the “big money fields” had already been harvested he says, roughly 80% of the Napa Valley. But misinformation persists about the 2017 vintage. “People need to know their producers - the wineries with integrity that don’t make compromises will only sell you the good stuff,” Barrett says. Further south in Napa, stalwarts like Duckhorn agree. “Because Cabernet is a thick-skinned variety and because the grapes were so fully developed, we do not expect smoke impact in the finished wines. Even so, we rigorously evaluated these grapes and if they do not meet our standards, they will not be used,” Belinda Weber, Director of Digital Trade and Consumer Marketing for Duckhorn Wine Company told me. “Smoke affects plants in general by filtering the light, which in turn can affect photosynthesis depending on the intensity of the smoke,” says winemaker Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr Winery in St. Helena. “Though Cabernet Sauvignon is thicker skinned and can persist through inclimate conditions, a thicker skin is not impervious to smoke affects. Research is incomplete on quantification of the smoke phenols in the wines, so the final decision to blend and bottle post-fire lots will be determined by our sensory powers in the winery.”
So on an overcast January day, I sat down for the Dream Tasting, held at Chateau Montelena. The point of this rare tasting was to showcase the resilience of Cabernet from Château Montelena over five decades in diverse growing conditions. Three wines from each decade, poured from magnums, represented the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, a total of 15 Cabernets. “We didn’t pull out the greatest hits, we were showing how our estate vineyard does well under adversity,” Barrett said as we gathered in the winery’s working barrel room. These are a few selected tasting notes.
1979-This was the second estate bottling and though there was excessive heat for this vintage resulting in a 40% crop loss - this is where you see the identity of Montelena Cabernet beginning to come together. As evidenced from the earlier 1974 and 1975 there is a more comprehensive feel, more seamless integration of the fruit, oak and acidity, finding its stride with better balance. Framed by a brisk acidity and bright, crisp blueberry, blackberry and red fruits, this represents the hallmark they will become known for.
1983-From an El Nino year, heavy rainfall hit all of Napa but the vineyard, a rocky well-drained hillside, was not affected. Though a cooler vintage this retains classic Cabernet character with noticeable black berry, raspberry and blueberry. The tannins are less obvious and there is a slightly shorter finish, but this still is a commanding wine.
1994-Nearly perfect weather lays the foundation for this robust Cab offering a bold acidity and gripping tannins. This is a wine that coalesces beautifully, balanced with fruit, wood, acidity and pH, presenting mature blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry, nonetheless elegant in spite of its vibrant character.
2005-Balancing red raspberry, boysenberry black berry, blueberry and black cherry, there is a uniformity of good acids and firmer tannins. It’s less bright fruit and more darker and concentrated with a noticeable polish to it making it velvety and smooth.
Clearly Cabernet grapes can withstand climate variations even fire and that is something to celebrate. Also celebratory was the 2008 motion picture, Bottle Shock, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and starred Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, loosely chronicling the Judgment of Paris tasting in France where Chateau Montelena beat out their French counterparts in a blind tasting specifically designed to show off French wine. “The movie’s a great ad,” Barrett told me. “It taught Americans about wine and how hard we work to make a integrity product.” But when first approached about the project Barrett’s initial response was doubt. “What’s it going to be, like eight minutes long? Everyone knows how it ends. Who the hell’s gonna pay for that?” And though the film was not a financial success it did leave its mark. “It still brings people to our tasting room,” Barrett admits. “I mean, the film’s a little bit made up, they moved things around.” Barrett sites that since director Randy Miller was formerly with Disney they added some additional elements utilizing a traditional Hollywood formula. “Regardless,” says Barrett, “it’s a love story to California wines and it showed Americans they can be proud of our wine industry.”