It surprised everyone. The French, the Californians, international wine makers, the wine media, and, not least, Chateau Montelena’s managing partner Jim Barrett, Jim’s son, Bo, and their wine maker, Mike Grgich. “It”, as most everyone knows, was the “Paris Tasting” in 1976 staged by Steven Spurrier’s Academie du Vin, that was featured in Time magazine’s report, “The Judgment of Paris”, and the 2008 move, Bottle Shock. (In photo from the film, right, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) gives the Time reporter his famous quote, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”)
The surprise was not just that two Napa Valley wines, Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, and Stag’s Leap’s 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, bested the best of the French, but that a white wine, not a red, got most of the attention.
Surprising, yes, but it was not accidental. Jim Barrett had it in mind when he bought the century-old winery in Calistoga in 1972, replanted the vineyards, and started making wine. Bo was a cellar rat and field hand at the time, but he recalls the strategy well, for it has not changed in almost 40 years.
“Dad had a market niche in mind. He wanted to make wine exactly like the great white burgundies and first growth Bordeaux for the sophisticated wine drinkers who had come back from the war in Europe where they had developed their taste in wine,”
Jim, left, and Bo today.
The chardonnay, which could go to market first, would generate cash flow. The cabernet sauvignon would come later to generate the winery’s reputation and build the business. The chardonnay would be made to go well with food, without malolactic fermentation, and with higher acidity than typical chardonnay of the time – or today.
“It’s a minimalist type of wine,” Bo says. “And that is hard to do,” He explains. “You have to be good at all three aspects of wine making: artistic, farming, and science, including microbiology. Too artistic and you make flaky wine. Too much science and the wine is boring. Farming is hard work. Only dairy farming is harder. We get to take Christmas off, cows don’t.”
Bo says that to be consistent from year to year requires a lot of discipline and attention to details. He thinks wine is easier to make using malolactic fermentation, which process produces wine that is slightly sweet and buttery. “With malolactic fermentation you can be something of a cowboy,” he says.
Robert Parker, Jr. called the Montelena chardonnay “incredibly consistent” from year to year, scoring it consistently in the 90s.
Some 60% of the vines used to produce today’s Chateau Montelena estate Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1972, at the same time as the Chardonnay vines. But the 1972 Chardonnay vines are long gone. “Chardonnay vines are wimpy,” Bo says. “Cab vines are hardy.” But Bo thinks revering “old vines” is a French myth, He believes cab vines produce good wine “right out of the gate”. Bo uses the newer vines to produce a more a California-style wine.
The Paris Tasting in 1976 was repeated in 2006, as well as several times in between. The later tastings confirmed the initial result. France had been matched, if not bested, in wine making by California, opening wide the world market for wine to vintners all over the world, and stimulating France to change some of its antediluvian wine-making practices and attitudes. “It” literally changed the industry.
Chateau Montelena (above, in 1882, left, and today) offers a library tasting and Bottle Shock tour three times a week by reservation only. Other tours are offered daily.
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Tasting room location: 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515 (Click here for a Google map.)
Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Riesling.
Vineyards: Calistoga, Oak Knoll, Mendocino
List price range: $24 to $125