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Chateau Montelena – Message in a Bottle

July 29, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 3 Comments

The mid morning fog still sat over the tops of the hills as we climbed the concrete steps before us. It has been a strange Summer throughout California and the northern end of the Napa Valley was cold on this mid-morning, despite being late July.

We had passed through the valley of the giants to arrive at our destination. We drove Past Napa and on through Oakville. Past the house that Mondavi built, the seat of an empire that was once glorious. Through St. Helena and past the mighty Beringer and Beaulieu Vineyards on to Calistoga. The vineyards were never ending, the wineries palatial and grand all around us. Napa is a stunning place.

We climbed higher up the forest lined stairway. Finally, over the tops of the stairs the famed giant amongst the tress of Calistoga began to reveal itself. The stone face, embraced with the firm grasp of ivy was one of the most iconic of the entire valley. Before us, in its timeless grandeur and dignity was Chateau Montelena.

How Chateau Monetelena came to be who they are today is relatively well know. The Tubbs, a wealthy family from San Francisco hired a French Architect to design the Chateau in the 1800’s. Later, it was sold to a Chinese family, who added a Chinese themed pond and garden at the foot of the winery. In the early 70’s, the Chateau was purchased by Jim Berrett, and there he planted the estate vineyard. With the help of his son Bo, they produced their first wine in 1972. It was their second vintage, their 1973 Chardonnay that beat out top French producers to win the Judgment of Paris in 1976 (a bottle of the winning 1973 Chardonnay recently went for $14,000 at a charity auction). History was made and an American icon was born. Overnight, Chateau Montelena was thrust into the spotlight. The lights have not yet faded. In 2008, Hollywood made a much dramatized film called “Bottle Shock” that chronicled the story.

That is the story you know.

Behind the hype though, when you look past the extra parking lot they had to build to accommodate the crush of fans the film generated and the movie posters in the lobby, there are real people working to preserve a legacy. At Chateau Montelena, much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders Cameron Parry.

Making good wine is hard. Challenges from weather, finances, and consumer trends test all winemakers. Making good wine at a winery that has received international attention nearly its entire existence on top of all the other challenges, sounds nearly impossible. It is a reality for Chateau Montelena’s young Winemaker Cam Parry. For winemakers, especially young ones, making wine at wineries with long successful histories, each previous vintage adds to the challenge. Can you live up to what came before? Can you please fans that were drinking the wines when you were still watching Transformers on Saturday mornings?

So the question is: is it an inspiration to work at such a famed winery, or an intimidating nightmare? “It definitely has qualities of both,” Cam told me. “I have some big shoes to fill. There are days when I roll up and look at the Chateau and it’s like, ‘wow, I am a part of this!’ I am the fourth Winemaker in the Berrett’s history of Chateau Montelena and it’s a big responsibility. It’s a lot of history, there is a lot of continuity that is essentially mandatory. It’s a storied brand. Is it intimidating? Yeah, absolutely!”

Cam wears the responsibility well. We spoke as we walked the grounds. He showed me the new wine caves being dug. The added cave space will be devoted to Chardonnay, a varietal they have been dedicated to since day one.

Like Merlot, Chardonnay often gets a bad wrap. While I often feel Merlot deserves it (he doesn’t by the way), I think most of the problems with Chardonnay are at the hands of the producers , not the grape. Ask people what Chardonnay taste like and get “oaky buttery crap,” as a pretty common response. Many are in the ABC crowd, Anything But Chardonnay. It is a sentiment Cam does not share.

“As a white grape, I think Chardonnay is an amazing grape. You can talk to a lot of people and they will say that Riesling is the only noble white grape, but I disagree. Chardonnay is definitely in that mix as well. The problem with a lot of Chardonnay is that it is sort of overdone and people don’t know really what it tastes like. They are so used to tasting wood and butter that that’s what they think Chardonnay tastes like. The style that we make here, that we have been making since 1972 is the antithesis of that. We make Chardonnay that tastes like Chardonnay and that’s really important to us. It’s really a core value for all the products; we want to showcase what the fruit tastes like. Whether it is vineyard and vintage expression here in the estate Cabernet vineyards, or from our 50 acres of Chardonnay down in Oak Knoll, we want to show you what that fruit tastes like in that place.”

Unlike some producers who have successfully and unsuccessfully chased trends in wine, Chateau Montelena is running the course Jim and others charted nearly forty years ago. It doesn’t mean complacency, but a dedication to a goal and a piece of property. In wine though, dedication or not, if you are not moving forward you run the risk of being swallowed up.

The more I learn the more winemaking seems crazy to me. It is similar to kayaking a river in Alaska, glutted with melt water, jagged rocks, and wooded missiles. There is a thrill to it, but it is an insane venture. Stay focused, and the rewards can be exhilarating, become complaisant, and the result can be disastrous. Like our kayaker, wineries must constantly stay vigilant if they are to survive the turbulent waters of the market place.

For Chateau Montelena, like many of their neighbors, staying sharp means honing their farming and winemaking skills. They recently underwent an extensive soil mapping program to help them better understand the needs of the vineyards on a meter by meter basis. “I always fall back on how the wines were made in the 70’, 80’s, and into the 90’s and looking at how they are made now,” Cam says about some of their improvements. “I don’t want to say it’s better, but it’s so much more precise. Everything we are doing we’ve got a long track record and we know that it works. As far as the improvements we are making (soil mapping, letting the harvest drive production and not production drive harvest), we know those are going to work too.”

It also means being busy outside the vineyard and looking for new ways to connect in the market place. “We are on Facebook and Twitter and that’s part of a conversation,” Jeff Adams Marketing Director for Chateau Montelena told me. “It’s not a one way street of advertising and public relations, the younger generation expects different…It’s being approachable, it’s being people, it’s speaking a language. It’s not being your grandfather’s wine.” In other words, you have to keep moving forward or you drown.

The questions I ask everyone that I put to Cam:

Do you have a favorite aspect of winemaking?

“The unpredictability, that you get to do so much. I don’t just sit there and drive a spreadsheet all day, I’m not just doing any one thing. I get to be the artist, I get to be the technician, I get to be out walking the vineyards, and I get to drive the computer too. It keeps it interesting. Every day is different.”

Who has inspired you?

“As a winemaker it is all the vintages that have come before. Following that quality and walking in the same footsteps is pretty amazing. I walk up and I see this incredible building and occasionally I have to pinch myself. I draw particular inspiration from the history of this place and all the vintages that came before me.”

Chateau Montelena

1429 Tubbs Lane
Calistoga, CA 94515

phone 707.942.5105
fax 707.942.4221

The pictures for this article were taken by my good friend Amy Fink. It was nice not having to worry about pictures for a change. She has twice won California’s Children’s Photographer of the Year and you can learn more about her here.

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. April Yap says:

    The Chateau Montelena looks and sounds enchanting. The history behind the chateau is charming and inspiring. I would also give my kudos to Cam Parry for keeping up with Chateau Montelena’s great wine history. Such an inspiring person.

  2. Wayne says:

    It definitely is. It was a much more impressive place than I imagined.

  3. April Yap says:

    By the way, i forgot to ask , does the Chateau Montelena hold day tours or wine tasting events? If so, have you visited their events? I hope your can message me or give and post the details because I think this place is charming place to visit and to go to.

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