So I FINALLY got out to Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga this week. After seeing the movie "Bottle Shock" last Fall (true story about the Paris Wine Tasting in 1976 that virtually put California wines on the world map), Chateau Montelena has been on my "to do/to see" list. I wanted my visit to be 'educational' as well as fun, so I determined I would try to get an interview with either Jim or Bo Barrett (owners/winemakers) to ask some serious questions for a term paper and/or my blog. Not surprisingly, they don't give interviews to the likes of people like me (!).....I was very fortunate, however, to snag a couple of hours with their Vineyard Manager, Dave Vella (that's us in the photo outside their tasting room) and I am being completely sincere when I say I could not have asked for a better visit, or hoped to spend time with a better representative of the winery. Dave generously gave me an hour in his office, then drove me around the vineyards, and we ended up at their tasting room where I enjoyed a tasting of some of the best wines I've had here. I tasted one Chardonnay, a Zinfandel, and two Cabs. I thought all were excellent......the estate Cabs were really outstanding, in my humble opinion, and it was only because they were a bit out of my price range ($135-40) that I purchased a bottle of their 2008 Estate Zinfandel, which is delightful - spicy, ripe berries, rhubarb flavors - with a gorgeous color and very affordable at $30. Brother Nick will be out from the east coast next week with his friend Pat, and we have a "Bottle Shock & Chardonnay Experience" tour/tasting scheduled - the night before I think we will watch the movie again and enjoy this wonderful Zin!
Dave grew up near Modesto farming grapes, almonds and row crops - his Italian ancestors, grape growers and winemakers, came to California in the late 1800's. Dave attended Fresno State University and graduated with a degree in Viticulture and Enology. While there, he was awarded the American Society of Enologists Scholarship - becoming the first Fresno State student to be awarded the prestigious honor. It was also at Fresno State that Dave met Bo Barrett; the two became good friends and, years later (since 1985 to be exact), Dave now manages all of Chateau Montelena's vineyard operations (that's the very short version of it!).
Suffice it to say, Dave has a priceless wealth of winemaking and vineyard experiences to share - and I was certainly hanging on his every word. One of the topics I wanted to ask him about was terroir - the French term that means "taste of place." It is used to describe the special characteristics of wine that are derived from the soils, topography and climate of the site where the grapes are grown. Also the decisions made by the viticulturist (grower) during the vine's life. This is a concept that has been around for hundreds of years - the French believe it is the dominant influence - but with modern winemaking techniques and the ability of winemakers to "alter" flavors & colors, there is now debate on whether or not terroir still means anything or is simply a "romantic" idea used in marketing to the public. This is going to be the subject of my term paper this semester, so I was very interested to get Dave's take on it. HE certainly believes the special and unique qualities of Chateau Montelena's location give their wines their incredible quality.
Chateau Montelena is blessed to have "great soils" - alluvial, volcanic, and well-drained. Add to this the fact they are situated right at the base of Mount Saint Helena, where the cold air comes down the mountainside and their vineyards enjoy a temperature variability (90 during the day in the summer with 50-degree evenings) in the growing season that maintains the acidity and structure of their wines. Their goal is "to bring the vineyard and the vintage to your table" - in other words, they strive for the flavors of their wines to be representative of the fruit in the vineyards. Unlike huge wineries that "manufacture" and mass-produce popular wines (a heavily-oaked Chardonnay from California can taste just like the same style wine from Australia or Chile, for example), they don't attempt to make "cookie cutter" wines that taste the same every year - they actually let their wines express the differences caused by weather variability from vintage to vintage. To me, this absolutely reinforces that even though a winemaker can influence the taste of wine, the concept of terroir is a valid one, and appears to be alive and well at Chateau Montelena. Dave says that they are growing "better fruit than ever" - which means we can expect even better wines (if that's possible) to be forthcoming!